The first week of February is an important one for art and art lovers in South Asia, particularly India and Bangladesh, as the two countries throw their doors open for the India Art Fair and the Dhaka Art Summit, respectively.

The India Art Fair, in its sixth edition this year, will take place at the NSIC Exhibition Grounds in New Delhi from 30 January to 2 February, gathering together more than 90 exhibitors and 1,000 artists from around the world. Last year, the fair hosted some 100 galleries from around the world and attracted close to 90,000 visitors over its four-day duration.

“The India Art Fair is the single most significant annual event for the Indian art fraternity and a platform where everyone comes together," says Prateek Raja, director of Kolkata-based Experimenter, an art gallery. “It has consistently been a successful fair for us and we look forward to a similar run like the previous years."

This year’s fair is focused more on community outreach initiatives and artistic support. Says Neha Kirpal, founder director of the India Art Fair, “With the India Art Fair now firmly established as one of the key dates on the international cultural calendar, there is a chance this year to focus more on the community outreach initiatives and artistic support."

“The extensive series of artistic projects both within the fair and across Delhi and with new initiatives such as the mentor and protégé programme, the fair has a lot on offer in this respect," Kirpal says.

Noted names that are expected to participate in this year’s fair are Dayanita Singh, Subodh Gupta, L.N.Tallur, Anindita Dutta and Rajorshi Gosh, among others. The surprise package this year is jeweller Nirav Modi, who will be presenting a collection of custom-made designs inspired by motifs from the Mughal miniature school of art.

In neighbouring Bangladesh, the second edition of the Dhaka Art Summit will run from 7 February through 9 February at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy in the capital. Still in its nascent stages, the summit will feature five exhibitions curated by local and international curators, 14 solo art projects, a city-wide public art project by Raqs Media Collective, and presentations by 33 local and international galleries, including more than 250 artists.

The event’s first edition was held in April 2012 and it featured 249 artists from Bangladesh along with 19 galleries and art institutions. It drew more than 50,000 visitors in four days.

“The experience of the first edition was amazing and it was a breakthrough for Bangladeshi contemporary art," says Nadia Samdani from Dhaka. Samdani, 31, with her husband Rajeeb, 39, runs a not-for-profit foundation called Samdani Art Foundation that organizes the Dhaka Art Summit.

“This unique non-commercial event was the first of its kind in Bangladesh that bought the entire country’s contemporary art scene under a single roof," Samdani says.

“The summit is a remarkably swift and impressive development in Dhaka," Jessica Morgan, a curator of international art at the Tate Modern in London, told The New York Times in an email, “providing a platform for key voices and creative minds in the region."

Art in South Asia

It is an important time for art in South Asia. And even better time for art collectors from across the world to look long and hard at the region, Yamini Mehta, Sotheby’s head for South Asian art, told Mint Indulge last year. Despite the Indian dominance in the region’s market, Mehta had said, “We need to start looking at what is happening in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh" more closely.

Mehta’s sentiments are reflected in the recent events in the art market in India.

Auction house Christie’s India debut in December, at which Vasudeo S. Gaitonde’s unnamed painting from 1979 fetched 23.7 crore (a record for an Indian artist at an auction), indicating renewed optimism in the Indian art market, generated sales in the range of 96 crore, almost double the pre-auction estimate.

That auction came just in time to allay fears of a decline in confidence in the Indian art market. The Indian art market has been sluggish in the aftermath of the 2008-09 financial crisis after growing rapidly between 2000 and 2008. While 2013 began on a good note for the Indian art industry with the Indian Art Fair registering 25-30% growth in sales compared with 2012, a sharp depreciation of the rupee hit sentiment hard towards the middle of the year.

Citing this decline, Andersen Petterson-run ArtTactic, a company that specializes in art market research and analysis, said in a November report that confidence level in the Indian art market fell by 13.6% in the six months till November.

The rupee started 2013 at 54.90 per dollar but plunged around 20% to an all-time low of 68.85 on 28 August. It has since gained some ground against the greenback and is currently trading in the range of 62-63 per dollar.

But the December auction results have helped boost sentiment, says Kirpal. And she would be the first person to hope that sentiment continues.

“We all know it has been a difficult market over the last year, and it is fantastic to see positive signs of recovery. I think, however, it is important to keep expectations at a realistic level," says Kirpal. “However, we do have a lot of dynamic new galleries and a superb range of artistic projects lined up for the 6th edition. So I’m very optimistic that the level of quality that India Art Fair presents will be as good as ever."

For the Dhaka Art Summit, though, it is not yet about thinking of sale figures or profit margins. As Samdani explains, it is not a fair but a summit, meaning that the Dhaka Art Summit is a non-commercial art festival.

“It has no fund generation source and is completely funded by Samdani Art Foundation," Samdani says, adding, “unlike the fairs, where there is a constant pressure for sales and galleries are confined to their limited space, DAS is a more research based event where a group of seven curators have worked for the past year to bring together the best of South Asian art under one roof."

Either way, and discounting how much money such events make, one thing’s for sure: these events are training grounds for budding artists.

Artists’ paradise

“I am constructing a fileroom book museum for the India Art Fair," says artist Dayanita Singh, who last year became the first Indian to have a solo show at London’s Hayward Gallery.

“It is remarkable that a commercial art fair would support an artist’s vision with no commercial gain. This makes the India Art Fair a much needed platform for the arts," she adds.

Philip Dodd, a British broadcaster, writer and editor and the chairman of the creative industries company Made in China, concurs. “The India Art Fair is for the first time attracting major Chinese collectors, gallerists and private museums. It is a testament to the fair’s importance across Asia; equally it is a sign of how it might become the meeting place of the art world, bringing together the best of east and south Asia."

And while the Dhaka Art Summit is trying to find its way into the world art scene and people are slowly warming up to the concept, its Indian counterpart is already making headway in the global art calendar.

Shireen Gandhy, director of the famed art gallery Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, says the India Art Fair sets the tone for the rest of the year.

“I had a fantastic fair in 2013. We made our first sale at the start of the fair of one of our most important artists. We sold Atul Dodiya to the Tate Modern. The fair has become an important ‘hunting ground’ for curators, museum directors and collectors with a special interest in India," Gandhy says.

Suffice to say that the fair has evolved a lot from its humble beginnings in 2008, when Kirpal, still in her 20s, had to convince banks to lend her around 60 lakh for the inaugural edition.

The most interesting highlight of this year’s fair is the debut of billionaire jeweller Nirav Modi.

“Events like the India Art Fair allow us to connect with an audience that is passionate and knowledgeable about art, design and fine products," Modi says. “Here are opportunities to reach out to the sophisticated and discerning woman who may truly appreciate creations such as ours."

Modi himself is no stranger to art events and auctions. He was the first Indian artist to feature on the cover of Christie’s auction catalogue when he shook the auction world with a stunning debut in 2010. His exquisitely designed diamond necklace with a pear-shaped Golconda diamond of 12.29 carats fetched $3.56 million at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong that year and Modi hasn’t looked back since. In October 2012, his Riviere Diamond Necklace was sold for $5.1 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong to an Asian buyer.

“I have been appreciative of the development of art in India particularly its interaction and synergy with other disciplines," says Modi. “Therefore, I perceived the India Art Fair to be the right environment to bring together the disciplines of art, design and jewellery. Given our imminent Delhi store launch, scheduled for March 2014, the timing for a collaboration was apt."

It can safely be said that the first couple of weeks of February are going to be pretty exciting for art in the Indian subcontinent. And if previous records are anything to go by, these two weeks may well provide headlines about something else besides the political and economic turmoil characteristic of the region.

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