Meet the gallerists, curators and entrepreneurs fuelling the contemporary Indian art market
Curators, gallerists, auctioneers and collectors are the tastemakers of a country’s art scene. They pick the works we see in exhibitions, support artists by funding their ideas, and point out to us the important art themes and experiments of our times.
In India, people in the contemporary arts have been waging a battle to emerge from the shadows of their rich cousin: modern art. Globally, a retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi is opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in March. In money terms, the biggest haul is still for works by artists like M.F. Husain and V.S. Gaitonde.
But this is changing. “Although contemporary Indian art features as a smaller percentage of sales at auction, we see confidence in the Indian contemporary art market increasing since autumn 2014," says Anders Petterson, founder and managing director of London-based art market research and advisory firm ArtTactic Ltd. “Total auction sales for 2015 of modern and contemporary Indian art were $95.4 million (around ₹ 653 crore today)."
We met 14 people who are shaping the contemporary art space in India, spotting talent and taking it places.
Real estate developer, Maker Maxity, Mumbai
Sudarshan Shetty’s Flying Bus is one of six permanent installations at Maker Maxity in the Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai. Commissioned by real estate developer Manish Maker, aged 41, the double-decker bus with 34ft cantilevered wings is a sort of window into what it is about contemporary art that interests Maker.
“We had always allocated spaces for art at Maker Maxity," Maker says. “In the master plan, certain spaces were planned, conceptually and structurally, to be load-bearing, to be able to house art that could be as high as the buildings themselves. So they could take the Flying Bus, which weighs 10 tonnes, including 1 tonne of structural steel.... One really enjoys being able to do things that push the envelope a little also in terms of engineering and production and installation."
Maker is interested in seeing how art and architecture can play off each other. He is interested in the collaboration between an artist and someone like himself, with access to the engineering, technology and resources to realize large works. But he is also interested in broadening the scope of art. “There is a misconception that art is something you hang on your wall," he says.
Before starting the Maker Maxity project, he worked with artists to produce a massive 24-hour show in 2010 on the same land where Maker Maxity was to come up—in a 2,050-seater, 100,000 sq. ft drive-in theatre auditorium building.
The one-night-only show included works by Shetty, Bharti Kher, Dayanita Singh, Krishnaraj Chonat, Sakshi Gupta, Abhishek Hazra, Sreshta Premnath, Anup Mathew Thomas, Navin Thomas, Avinash Veeraraghavan and Srinivasa Prasad. “We had art projected on mounds of earth that were being moved by excavators, and some of our construction equipment. Srinivasa Prasad made works that he did not want to survive beyond that night. We actually had works that he burnt at the end of the evening as part of his public show. The next morning we took everything out and commenced the demolition of the theatre."
Once the land had been excavated and levelled, Maker again collaborated with contemporary artists for a transient project, called the Rangoli Project, in 2014. “When we had dug and finished, we invited artists to come and do text-based artwork. Jitish Kallat, Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Sheela Gowda, Atul Dodiya, Sudarshan Shetty had a 6-acre canvas. The text-based rangoli works were made by hand with rice powder as a kind of auspicious beginning to a new project. That project was literally a 24-hour project. We documented it, it was beautiful and the next morning, we started pouring concrete over it," says Maker.
As public art projects go, Maker’s interventions at Maxity are quite well thought out. To increase the engagement with the arts, he plans surprises such as Eva Schlegel’s In Between, where she installed around 200 huge (some as big as 12ft in diameter) weather balloons in the office lobby of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). “It’s a very unexpected thing to walk into a bank’s corporate office lobby and see 200 massive weather balloons. Those reactions, that engagement that people have with the arts," says Maker, explaining why he planned the project in the first place.
In accordance with Shetty’s vision, the Flying Bus is used on an ongoing basis to showcase art. Already, the interiors of the bus have been used to display work by film-maker and video artist Amar Kanwar.
PRIYANKA AND PRATEEK RAJA
Co-founders, Experimenter, Kolkata
Every year, the Curators’ Hub at the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata invites 10 curators to talk about how they design exhibitions—how they finalize themes, and select artists and works. For the general public, the three-day event is a way of getting into the head of the curator. In its fifth year, in 2015, Jitish Kallat, Aleksandra Kedziorek, associate curator and project coordinator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Poland, and Hoor Al-Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, were among the participants.
Priyanka and Prateek Raja gave up their corporate careers to found Experimenter in 2009, focusing on art from the subcontinent. Over the years, the gallery has hosted works by contemporary artists such as Bani Abidi, Shilpa Gupta, Prabhakar Pachpute and Ayesha Sultana.
For a recent exhibition of works by Abidi, the gallery filled up ahead of time for the show opening. Priyanka says: “It’s the city. Even on weekdays, people come when they hear there’s a new show on."
Gallerist, Project 88, Mumbai
Sree Goswami started Project 88 as a viewing room for Galerie 88, a Kolkata-based gallery run by her mother Supriya Banerjee. The viewing room was located in Mumbai’s tony Apollo Bunder area from 2003-05. That is how, says Goswami, she got the confidence to run a gallery, although she had grown up immersed in Kolkata’s art world. Galerie 88 began in 1988, at a time when Indian contemporary art was gaining prominence in both price, and renown. It showcased artists such as Bikash Bhattacharjee, F.N Souza, Ganesh Pyne and Amina Ahmed Kar.
In 2000, fresh from a course on contemporary art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London, Goswami moved to Mumbai. She saw exhibitions of Jitish Kallat and Atul Dodiya. “I was quite taken by the contemporary art scene. It was very exciting." Project 88 began in 2006—Goswami bought a 4,000 sq. ft space, which architect Rahul Mehrotra designed in such a way that it retained its original character of a metal printing press, with high ceilings and columns. In a sense, the space lent itself to the highly experimental works that it would house.
It opened with Bharti Kher’s mouthful of a show, titled Don’t Meddle In The Affairs Of Dragons Because You Are Crunchy And Taste Good With Ketchup, a set of installations that referenced widely, from Greek mythology to the Indian bindi. Kher was already an internationally renowned artist by then. Don’t Meddle was her first solo in the city in five years, and she went on to participate in the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia, in 2006. Since then, the gallery has held the debut solos of graphic artist Sarnath Banerjee, and multimedia artists Rohini Devasher and Neha Choksi. It has also shown The Otolith Group, which comprises the duo of Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, who focus on the form of the essay film. Project 88 has shown concept-driven works in different media by New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective and financially supported a theatrical installation by Rehaan Engineer in its early years.
The experimental artists that Project 88 supported around the time of the boom remain on the gallery’s roster, although one would assume that galleries burnt by the crash would play safe. “We had to tighten the belt. We stopped participating in fairs, besides Frieze (held in New York and London). We also stopped spending a lot on massive installations. That caution has stayed," says Goswami. Galerie 88, whose sales of local Bengali and modern artists had till then supported Project 88, became a separate business in 2009.
“I was not wildly commercial to begin with, but after the crash, I had to find a way to be financially viable."
The artists whom Project 88 supports have gone on to receive international renown: Sarnath Banerjee’s series of billboards made for the Frieze Foundation were put up in London at the time of the Olympics in 2012. Last year, Choksi, who is one of the gallery’s top-selling video and performance artists, had her first solo show in the UK, at the Hayward Gallery Project Space. Tejal Shah has shown at the prestigious dOCUMENTA (13), held once in five years in Germany. Shreyas Karle participated at the New Museum Triennial in New York last year, and his works were sold for ₹ 12-14 lakh to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. A video work by The Otolith Group was bought by the New York-based Guggenheim museum for more than ₹ 20 lakh.
“The crash made it very clear in my head that we had to go out there, find good artists, stick with them and help them grow. I remember something my mother told me, ‘Art isn’t going to die,’" says Goswami.
Private collector, New Delhi
Collector Radhika Chopra’s central Delhi home is like a miniature gallery of contemporary art. Zarina Hashmi’s Homes I Made/A Life In Nine Lives takes up most of the wall in one sitting room. The set of architectural drawings represents Hashmi’s homes in different cities: New York, Bangkok, Paris... “The work speaks to me, perhaps because I have also moved cities so many times," says Chopra.
In another room, a recently delivered box contains a Rana Begum work. It’s a three-dimensional work in metal that is made to look like paper origami, titled No.569. Her people will come and install the work, but in the meantime the box serves as a makeshift coffee table. Hashmi’s Mapping The Dislocations keeps watch over the box from the wall.
Astha Butail’s Ever Lasting Day takes up an entire wall in the drawing room. Anita Dube’s River/Disease, with its ceramic eyes, climbs another wall, like a skeletal hand. “Astha was pregnant when she came to install the work. We kept joking with her not to go into labour. Of course, she delivered later that evening. The installation was half-complete until her studio could come back to finish it," says Chopra. “For me, this work will be connected with that (personal) story forever."
In many ways, Chopra is the ideal private collector. She dove headlong into the scene in 1996, after seeing a work by Arpita Singh. She gave up her job at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, to work at the city’s Bose Pacia gallery so she could really understand art before she started buying. When she returned to India in 2007, the local art market was going through a period of remarkable growth. Chopra loved the excitement, but took her time understanding the contemporary art scene here. “It’s your money. You don’t want to waste it. Just like you would do research before buying anything (big or important), I did my research into the artists. Sometimes I went back to a gallery after a year and bought a work of art that I had previously seen."
Every year for the last 16 years, she and her husband Rajan Anandan, vice-president and managing director of Google, South East Asia & India, have bought an artwork on their anniversary. Chopra and Anandan also fund art projects. In 2005, they supported a project called iCon: India Contemporary that went to the Venice Biennale. In 2015, they again contributed money to take My East Is Your West, a joint exhibition by Shilpa Gupta and Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, to Venice. Chopra is also a patron of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, supporting the Student’s Biennale. She has also supported artists such as Pors & Rao in the 2014 edition of the Kochi biennale. “They work with technology and that little extra financial help allowed them to complete their project," she says.
That Chopra is interested in the contemporary art scene can also be gauged by her engagement with the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (Fica). She was the first director of the non-profit set up by the Vadehra Art Gallery in 2006 to promote contemporary art and support artists and researchers, and now sits on Fica’s board.
Shireen Gandhy, daughter of Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, joined her parents’ art gallery in the late 1980s, a decade when the Indian art scene was undergoing tremendous churn. It was a time when contemporary artists were experimenting with new material and form. Vivan Sundaram, for instance, was combining photography, sculpture and drawing into large-scale installations. In 1987, a group of artists, predominantly from Kerala, came out with a radical manifesto which declared that art must resist commodification and elitism; two years later, at a Sotheby’s auction of Indian modern and contemporary works in Mumbai, a work by modern Progressive artist M.F. Husain reached, for the first time, the million mark. This was a time when the political climate of the country was affected by growing middle-class support for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Artists, says Gandhy, 52, responded to all this. “I just happened to be there at that cusp of change."
The Indian contemporary art market is an imperfect system: Not every artist showcased in a gallery finds a collector; some may not be able to sustain a gallerist’s interest; the number of collectors who understand and buy contemporary art is a handful. Thus, a lot of contemporary art that has gained prominence in the subcontinent and in the international market depends on what gallerists have chosen to exhibit. A gallerist’s subjective preference—honed, in Gandhy’s case, by growing up surrounded by artists, conversations about art, and gallerist-parents who were also avid collectors—is, therefore, significant. And Gandhy is usually spot on.
Her first solo show was with Atul Dodiya in 1989; he is now one of the country’s most significant contemporary artists. She also exhibited works by Subodh Gupta and L.N. Tallur when they were relatively unknown. Today, Chemould has a roster of 29 artists, including Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta and Anju Dodiya, all of whom have had important international shows and are acquired by institutions such as the Guggenheim museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The gallery’s highest selling works have been in the range of ₹ 60-80 lakh, with the top-selling artists being Kallat, Gupta and Atul Dodiya.
“A gallerist cannot ensure that a work sells. It is the biggest gamble, as it always has been, especially in this country. There was a so-called stability for three years, when there was a boom in the market, but that was the worst thing that could have happened. It gave people a false notion that anything could be sold," says Gandhy.
She is referring to the period generally called the “art boom"—the mid-2000s—when, due to the creation of art funds, the prices of contemporary art, and the number of people who bought it, rose. “There was an economic prosperity matched with hype, and a huge greed to consume whatever was there without questioning, without being educated on art. But exactly a year later, when Lehman Brothers fell, the crash was immediately felt in the art market. We had to correct prices."
Kiran Nadar began buying art as a private collector in 1989. “The first painting I bought was a (M.F.) Husain. My private collection is largely made up of moderns," Nadar says over the phone. In January 2010, she founded the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in the Capital with a mandate to make modern and contemporary Indian art accessible to the general public on the one hand and support contemporary art projects on the other.
Among other things, the museum motivated Nadar to add a large number of contemporary artists to her buying list. “My motivation to buy art is now museum-oriented, to expose the public to all kinds of art," Nadar says. “My collection is 3,700 works. I have almost all the important contemporary artists (in the museum collection)." The private museum has works by Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Atul and Anju Dodiya, L.N. Tallur, and Nataraj Sharma, among others. “Now I buy art to plug gaps in my collection at the museum," says Nadar.
Assistant curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Just two months into his new role as assistant curator of South Asian art in the department of modern and contemporary art, Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York, Shanay Jhaveri says it’s too soon to talk about the contemporary artists whose works he wants to show at the Met.
In a Skype interview, Jhaveri says his focus will be on further developing the engagement between the West and Indian art. “My own research plays into that. In my book Western Artists And India: Creative Inspirations In Art And Design, I have traced a trajectory of how America and South Asia, particularly India, built engagements. It goes from larger macro histories, like major museums sending exhibitions here or, say, Charles and Ray Eames being invited by (Jawaharlal) Nehru to be part of the foundation of the National Institute of Design, to more specific individual artists who have had engagements with India. I am very interested in mining that history and also looking at cross-cultural encounters," says Jhaveri. “The two areas I will be active in is exhibition making and acquisitions.... I would like to create discursive platforms, communal spaces (at the Met), where people can come to learn about South Asian art," he adds.
TASNEEM ZAKARIA MEHTA
Managing trustee and honorary director, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum
Last year, artists Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra created their own take on the Dr Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Mumbai City Museum’s collection of traditional games like Ganjifa cards for a show at the BDL. Led by the museum’s managing trustee and honorary director, Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, the initiative is one of several to make the museum collection interesting, even relatable, to the general public.
Mehta says: “Out of 1,000 people who come to the museum every day, and the 3,000-4,000 who come every day on the weekends, maybe 20-30 are from an elite background. All our programming is geared towards curatorial walk-throughs in Hindi and Marathi, lectures in Marathi and Hindi; and we also have all the text in Marathi and Hindi."
Since she took charge of the BDL in the early 2000s, Mehta has revamped the physical space as well as the management of the museum. She was instrumental in striking a deal with the municipal corporation of the Greater Mumbai region, the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) in February 2003 to restore the 19th century building and some 5,000 artefacts—the museum reopened to the public in January 2008. “The paradigm that I have advocated is the paradigm that exists in both Europe and America, where there are trustees sitting on a board, and the government also has a say," Mehta says.
Mehta is now working on a 120,000 sq. ft extension to the BDL, for which the museum organized an architectural competition. The winning design was submitted by New York’s Steven Holl Architects.
Mehta is vice-chairperson of Intach and member of the advisory board of the National Gallery of Modern Art, the museum experts committee of the Union culture ministry and the governing council of the National Institute of Design. She is also a trustee of the Kochi Biennale Foundation.
Founder, GallerySKE, Bengaluru and New Delhi
January was an incredibly busy month for Sunitha Kumar Emmart, founder of GallerySKE in Bengaluru and New Delhi. She opened Sudarshan Shetty’s solo show Shoonya Gharat the National Gallery of Modern Art in the Capital on 15 January. A week later, on 21 January, GallerySKE in Connaught Place began displaying a solo show of works by Sheela Gowda, Battarahalli Corner And Left.
“I wanted to work with Sheela Gowda and Sudarshan Shetty even before I had my own gallery," says Emmart, who set up GallerySKE in Bengaluru in 2003, and in Delhi in 2013. The gallery represents 15 artists now, including Bharti Kher, Abhishek Hazra and Krishnaraj Chonat.
Emmart says she sees herself as an “artist-gallerist" as opposed to a gallerist who is a great business partner for its artists. “I just don’t have that skill set, though it might be a good skill to have," she says. What this means, she says, is that as a gallerist, she is interested in visiting artists in their studios, working with them to edit the shows and giving them whatever support they need to make their art. “As a gallerist, you’re not looking at final objects only. You are also looking at the artist’s intention…. I am not going in as a collector, where something has to just appeal to me aesthetically or I am buying something to decorate my house. For me to take on an artist is a long-term relationship," she adds. “As a gallerist, you stick your neck out (for the artists). You take risks. Sometimes, they are financial risks and there’s a chance you might lose your house. But you have to believe in your artists."
Emmart says she’s not in the business of reselling art, where investors make money by selling an artwork within an year or two of acquiring it. Even buyers of art from GallerySKE are made to sign a contract of sale that stipulates they can’t resell work by young artists for eight years. “That much time is required for the artist to mature," she says. “If the buyers feel they really need to sell the work, we ask them to give us the first option to buy it back."
Interested in building the dialogue around contemporary art, Emmart collaborated with artist Tara Kelton to start a residency for artists, writers and technologists in 2013. She sees it as part of her job to make art accessible to the general public. “I have sold art on instalments of ₹ 3,000 a month because someone really loved a work and couldn’t afford the ₹ 60,000 or so price tag," Emmart says. “For our first India Art Fair (in New Delhi in 2009), I set up StoreSKE (a store for selling art). A young girl wanted to buy an Abhishek Hazra T-shirt from the stall that was for ₹ 15,000. I told her she could have it at any monthly instalment she wanted if she wore it around the fair. She did."
Emmart agrees that art as a subject, and galleries as spaces, can seem aloof, even intimidating, to people who are not part of the art scene. She says she’s happy to talk to anyone who is genuinely interested in talking about art, what is on show, and who the artists are. “Just write to me, or come to the gallery," she says.
Director, Khoj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi
When we started in 1997, we felt our third-world status," says Pooja Sood, director, Khoj International Artists’ Association in Khirki Extension, New Delhi. “There was painting, sculpture, and maybe graphics (on the art scene)," she explains. Khoj was started as an art incubator by artists Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Anita Dube, Prithpal Singh Ladi, Manisha Parekh, Ajay Desai and curator Pooja Sood, as a space where contemporary artists would be given “a budget to test their ideas".
In the 19 years since, Khoj has organized residencies and exhibitions around performance art, sound art, game art, food, ecology, public art projects and experiments around art and science. It has been funding site-specific projects for five years and encourages works that respond to the world around us. “Art is not just about objects. It is a way to look at the world differently. You may agree or disagree (with the perspective that art provides)," Sood says.
Khoj does at least three residencies, one or two projects and one big exhibition annually. Sood says it’s not enough to do the one-off residency to explore a new medium or idea. Each residency sees at least three annual iterations. “We exist to grow the art scene in India, not to do wacko things, so we are known internationally," says Sood.
In 2013, Khoj became the first Indian art institution to be invited by Tate Modern, London, for its curatorial exchange programme. Khoj resident curator Andi-Asmita Rangari and Loren Hansi Momodu, assistant curator, Tate Modern, jointly curated an exhibition, Word. Sound. Power., which was shown in both the UK and India.
Khoj sees South Asian art as its focus area and has worked to develop non-profit art labs like itself in Pakistan (Vasl Artists’ Collective), Sri Lanka (Theertha International Artists’ Collective), Bangladesh (Britto Arts Trust) and Nepal (Sutra). “One of them, Theertha, came to the India Art Fair this year," says Sood.
The space has also become important for the sheer talent that flows through it. “We joke that we are really a match-making centre," says Sood. “Bani (Abidi) and Sarnath (Banerjee) first met here at a residency in 2001. Bani made (the video) Mangoes here. Masooma (Syed) and Sumedh (Rajendran) met here."
The art institution does several fund-raisers to fuel grants and shows. In 2015, it started the “Khoj to the power 50" programme, inviting 50 patrons to donate ₹ 1 lakh each to keep the artist grants and residencies going. Sood says they have met half their target.
DINESH AND MINAL VAZIRANI
Dinesh Vazirani and spouse Minal started Saffronart as an online auction house in 2000. Today, the auction house holds both online and live sales of modern and contemporary Indian art, jewellery, rare books and antiquities; it has also played a role in keeping the fund-strapped Kochi-Muziris Biennale afloat as a patron of the artist-led contemporary art event that began in 2012.
The company engaged with contemporary Indian art from Day 1. In 2000 itself, it conducted an auction of Indian art that comprised both modern and contemporary works. The works of artists such as Nalini Malani, Arpana Caur and Arpita Singh went under the hammer alongside those of F.N. Souza and Akbar Padamsee. Six years later, Saffronart organized its first stand-alone contemporary art sale. The works fetched a total of ₹ 17.6 crore, with the creations of Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya and Subodh Gupta getting top amounts.
Two years later, a work by Gupta fetched the highest sum for any contemporary work sold by SaffronArt—the untitled 2006 oil on canvas sold for ₹ 5.7crore. If hammer bids are anything to go buy, Saffronart’s sales indicated a robust appetite for Indian art, where works by contemporary artists routinely soared above the upper limit set by the auction house. “Between 2006 and 2007, almost 40% of the total auction market was contemporary art," says Dinesh. Not many believed this to be a good thing—the high prices fetched by contemporary artists in auctions certainly drove up their value in the primary art market, but it didn’t allow for time to build their worth.
“When the market collapsed (in 2008), the contemporary market was hit the hardest. There was no underpinning of support, or strong collectors here of Indian contemporary art," adds Dinesh.
Though prices are taking time to recover, Dinesh isn’t perturbed. “The viability and sustainability of the Indian art market has to be pinned on contemporary art. As an auction house, one can’t keep selling (the same set) of modernists all the time."
“What is exciting for buyers at this stage is that they can actually still get top-end works from contemporary artists at very affordable prices," adds Minal. “So a superb work of a Bharti Kher, or Subodh Gupta, or L.N. Tallur, Anju Dodiya, may be available for less than a quarter of a million dollars, whereas the best of the contemporary art from China is available for $5 million (around ₹ 34 crore)."
The Vaziranis say the momentum for contemporary art has picked up again, especially because the buyer-base is shifting fast from non-resident to resident Indians. “This will sustain the market," they say.
Curator, Nature Morte gallery, New Delhi
The parameters of the Indian art market are different from a London or a New York," says Peter Nagy of Nature Morte gallery. Nagy says it’s unlikely that someone as radical as Damien Hirst could emerge from New Delhi. But once you accept that, there’s enough and more to do here as a gallerist. “I am an editor, an art director—I work with the artist to package the exhibition," Nagy says. “When I first came here, I went to Lalit Kala (Akademi) twice a week. I went to artists’ studios, group shows, residencies at Khoj (to find talent to show)," he adds.
When Nagy started Nature Morte in 1997, he had 15 years’ experience in running a gallery and four years of training at an art school in New York. “I happened to be at the right place at the right time," says Nagy. “I understood what the (contemporary) artists were doing, and I was able to talk to them about it."
Jitish Kallat and Subodh Gupta were among the artists who worked with him in the early years. Nature Morte has since shown works by Rashid Rana, Anita Dube, Manisha Parekh and Reena Saini Kallat, among others.
“We now represent mid-career artists… the artworks are typically in the range of ₹ 5-30 lakh, going up to a few crores for a large sculpture by Subodh," says Nagy.
Founder, India Art Fair, New Delhi
Sometimes the best ideas seem like the most obvious ones in retrospect. Till Neha Kirpal, now 35, started the India Art Fair in 2008, there was only a low-key art triennale in the Capital—the Lalit Kala Akademi has been organizing the Triennale India fair of international art since 1968; the event has all but faded from view. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale and Dhaka Art Summit only began in 2012.
The idea for the India Art Fair (IAF) came to Kirpal when she spent four years living in London and soaking in the vibrant art scene. But she had an uphill battle organizing it in India. Here’s an anecdote she shared at an event for start-ups called The Coalition in 2013: The first year, the event was to be held at Pragati Maidan. When the team vetted the venue, they found the ceiling wasn’t waterproof. Kirpal had to explain to the building management that they needed the waterproofing to bring in artworks, including from international galleries, for which the insurance alone ran into crores of rupees. Kirpal oversaw the work with days to go for the fair.
In its eighth edition from 29-31 January, the art fair brought in an international director, Zain Masud, and sharpened its focus on South Asian art. For this, it started a Platform programme representing emerging artists and key art spaces in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Kirpal says her team makes year-round gallery visits, talking to museums and private collectors. This is partly to gauge their interest in South Asian art and partly to form collaborations with art institutions abroad. “I have foreign collectors coming to me and saying we made it possible for them to come to India, because some of them have never been here before. We manage their travel, stay and introduce them to galleries and artists here," she explains.
In terms of figures, Kirpal says it’s hard for her to say exactly how much worth of art is sold at the IAF since that is the prerogative of the individual galleries. “But broadly, about ₹ 200 crore" of business gets done, with “four or five top people spending ₹ 8-10 crore each", she says.
RIYAS KOMU & BOSE KRISHNAMACHARI
Co-founders, Kochi-Muziris Biennale
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), whose third edition will be held in December, showcases contemporary art from across the globe, including works by Indian artists. The biennale, spread over four months, is held in Kochi, Kerala, and expects the participating artists to respond to the site—the history of this port city is a microcosm of world history, replete with journeys, trade and, significantly, an interchange of ideas, knowledge and love.
The idea was first floated over dinner at a restaurant in suburban Mumbai in 2010. Kerala’s former education and culture minister M.A. Baby was visiting, and met artist and former gallerist Krishnamachari, now 53. Artists Jyothi Basu and Riyas Komu, who lived nearby, joined them. When Komu, now 44, brought it up, the minister came on board immediately. Six years later, the two artists are on the magazine ArtReview’s power list of the top 100 people in the art world, globally.
The first edition of the biennale took place in 2012—89 artists from 23 countries took part, among them international heavyweights such as Ai Weiwei and Ernesto Neto, and renowned Indian contemporary artists such as Atul Dodiya, Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, Subodh Gupta and Amar Kanwar.
The following edition drew Venice Biennale curator Okwui Enwezor to the city. He extended an invitation to K.M. Madhusudhanan to participate in their prestigious 121-year-old art event. Young artists such as C. Unnikrishnan, who was hand-picked to exhibit at the Kochi biennale after the curators and founders saw his work at the “degree show"—an annual exhibition for final-year students of fine arts—and liked it, were invited to participate in the Sharjah Biennial last year. Over 500,000 people visited the biennale’s previous edition, which showcased over 90 artists, including Anish Kapoor and Francesco Clemente.
The third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, with multiple side projects like the Student’s Biennale and artists’ residency, will need ₹ 27 crore, says Krishnamachari. Government funds pledged for the last edition still haven’t reached them. The mainstay for the biennale, then, is the art community itself—collectors, foundations, even corporate houses.
“The big thing about KMB is seeing people’s participation. They were hungry for good art, and this provides them a platform. Now we’ve reached the stage where the KMB needs to become self-sustainable," says Komu.