British designer Alice Cicolini was looking up at the ceiling of Hampton Court Palace in Surrey, England, one day when she realized how similar it was to that of a palace she had seen in Agra. Next week, Cicolini will display jewellery inspired by the Silk Route in a fitting tribute to inherited traditions. Her work will be part of Inspired By India (8-15 May), an exhibition in London that will be hosted by auction house Sotheby’s.

Moving between an old haveli in Jaipur, where she works with Kamal Meenakar—one of India’s 15 master enamellers—and the hushed luxury outlets of Matches, London, Cicolini epitomizes the craftsman’s accretive impulse to borrow as she travels. She is one of a growing tribe of artisan artists who comfortably borrow from everywhere and find acclaim and profit in work created out of their time in India—whether or not it is their country of origin. “These nationalized boundaries are not as hermetically sealed as museology would have you believe," says the designer, who also curates exhibitions. “There is a shared global design language."

Artists, like gypsies, have historically appropriated as they move: Inspired By India exemplifies the magpie eye of today’s global designer. Featuring contemporary design from, or evoked by, India, the show’s 11 participants will include established work such as the elegant khadi tones of US design house Dosa and the sumptuous fabrics of Kolkata’s Sabyasachi Mukherjee, as well as promising new designs like the Mughal-inspired thrones of Delhi-based Gunjan Gupta, jewel-toned stacking vessels of German-born Pia Wüstenberg and striking tables of Dutch-born Els Woldhek, who combines desi basket-weaving and European thatching.

“I have mixed designers based in India with others who are truly ‘inspired’," says the show’s curator Janice Blackburn, who took designers like Barber Osgerby (who designed the Olympic Torch) to Sotheby’s while they were still young talents. “I do it in a way that doesn’t look ethnically Indian; it’s global." A visitor to India for over 25 years, she believes Indian design needs to help preserve local craft through international collaborations. “Sabyasachi, for example, embraces craftspeople with an unapologetic Indianness—unlike some Indian designers, who are a little bit of Versace," she explains. “The designers I have selected use the best of fine, original design without compromising the rich tradition of India’s hand-making processes."

“I regret being unable to take larger, heavier work like that of metal worker Vikram Goyal and sculptures by Anand Sarabhai made from abandoned inner rubber tubes," says Blackburn, who was unable to get sponsors to cover transportation costs.

Indian design is the current focus of many art institutions. Coming two months after the inaugural India Design Forum in New Delhi in March, Inspired By India precedes India Design Now, a major exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which is currently being scheduled and will feature only Indian designers.

The total revenue from Indian art sales at Sotheby’s in London and New York for 2011 was $2.6 million (around 13.9 crore) and $6.3 million, respectively. “Between 2000 and 2010, the total auction market for Indian art shot up from around $5 million to an estimated $85 million," says a spokesperson for the auctioneer. “Buying and selling activity from India as well has doubled across all Sotheby’s selling categories."

At the Inspired By India sale, buyers in London will pay anywhere from £130 (around 11,000) for 3-inch-high red porcelain works by potter Rahul Kumar to £10,000 for one of Sabyasachi’s legendary wedding saris. Cicolini’s work begins at £675 and Pia Wüstenberg’s recycled paper furniture and stacking vessels begin at £640.

“Western collectors have been actively seeking out contemporary Indian art operating in the same art world as Western work for a while," says art historian Laura Williams, whose gallery, Art 18/21, in Norwich, England, sells work from—and to—both England and India, the latter through a partnership with the Indian Contemporary Art Gallery, Jaipur. She disagrees with the positive consensus, saying, “Since the overinflated prices of four-five years ago, the contemporary Indian art market has suffered considerably."

However, she adds, while the general feeling from the India Art Fair 2012 is that the domestic market is reluctant to collect non-South Asian art, her gallery has found collectors receptive to these artists.

Will both non-Indian art and Indian art’s modern aesthetic soon be embraced on a levelplaying field at home?

“India still has some way to go with design, it needs to find its own voice," says Blackburn, who appreciates Gupta’s work, which marries Indian heritage with something modern, for this reason. “A lot of Indian clients would rather go to Milan—they don’t encourage Indian designers enough."

Ultimately, there is a fear that craft-related traditions will fade out, just as there is a fear that “modern Indian" as a design aesthetic may not take off at home. Meenakar’s ancestors walked from Jaipur to Persia and returned to create traditional meenakari work, unique in how it is engraved on gold, Cicolini explains. “But with each generation, some of the skill degrades," she says. Rural youngsters are unlikely to dedicate themselves to a proper apprenticeship which can take 15 years, let alone harken to its origins in a museum they would not feel permitted to visit.

But Meenakar’s Jaipuri palette has broadened to include the shade of lighter, more Western pink, which marks the new pieces created with Cicolini—perhaps it is in this unlikely partner that he has found his successor.

For while we may or may not get the Koh-i-Noor back, our new gems belong to the world.

This story was first published on 5 May 2012. It has been republished due to a technical error.

Close
×
My Reads Logout