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Parmesh Shahani bought his first piece of art in 1997, when he was 21 years old. “I distinctly remember the day," says the head of Godrej Culture Lab, a cross-disciplinary platform for exploring cultural ideas. “I had just got my first pay cheque and walked into Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai." As he looked around, his eye fell on a small portrait by Nauzer Daruwalla, a Bangalore-based artist, who had a show on at the time. “It was a simple face of a boy done in blue and it really captivated me," Shahani recalls. “I decided I had to buy it, and even though I was a few hundred rupees short, the gallery was gracious enough to let me have it."

It must have been unusual for a young man to walk into a mainstream gallery 15 years ago, with the sole intention of buying a work of art. But such a scenario may not be all that difficult to imagine in contemporary India.

Collecting art once used to be the pursuit of a few because the bulk of it was beyond the reach of the salaried middle classes. But over the last few years there has been a deluge of affordably priced art in the market. You can walk into one of the many galleries that have mushroomed all over the country, visit any of the art fairs held each year, or even bid online and get something halfway decent for anything between a few thousand rupees and a couple of lakhs. And business does seem brisk at the moment.

Parmesh Shahani, who heads the Godrej Culture Lab, has been an avid collector of affordable art since 1997. Photo: Abhihjit Bhatlekar/Mint
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Parmesh Shahani, who heads the Godrej Culture Lab, has been an avid collector of affordable art since 1997. Photo: Abhihjit Bhatlekar/Mint

Pratiti Basu Sarkar, managing director of the Centre of International and Modern Art (Cima) gallery in Kolkata, remembers a lady waiting outside her gallery from 5am to enter its annual affordable art fair. Held over the last weekend of November every year and selling artworks priced, incredibly, at 500-25,000, Cima’s Art Mela has been a fixture in Kolkata’s cultural calendar since 2008. With fire in your belly and some “disposable income", you can be all set to own a Jogen Chowdhury drawing or a small painting by Lalu Prasad Shaw, even a Ganesh Pyne print, if you get lucky.

But money alone, without the advantage of a discerning eye, is of little value. You may be loaded but still end up with a piece of junk on your hands. Or you may be the kind of buyer who has to count every penny and yet manage to go home with a thing of beauty at the end of the day. “When we speak of affordable art, it is well worth considering its benchmarks," says Kishore Singh of the Delhi Art Gallery. Cheap and cheerful may not necessarily assure quality. “At the height of the art boom a few years ago, galleries were commissioning artists to churn out works by the dozen," says Sharma. As a result, there was an explosion of mediocre art in the market, apart from fakes and forgeries.

In short, while you should buy what your heart tells you to, it’s best not to lose your head.

Odd as it may sound, being tied down to a budget may not be a bad thing after all. On the contrary, it can inspire new ways of looking at, collecting, and understanding the value of, art.

“Since I can’t afford high prices, I take it as a challenge to build up a collection with art that is almost always priced within 50,000," says Shahani, who has often invested in mutual funds to save up in order to buy some work that has caught his fancy. There is little of the modern masters available for less than a couple of lakh, except perhaps for some drawings, editions of their work, and prints (if you are willing to up your budget by a lakh, there are some gorgeous etchings by Anish Kapoor—each a hypnotic explosion of smoky colours—sold by Volte Gallery in Mumbai for 3 lakh each). But otherwise, it’s largely uncharted terrain, full of surprises, and curiously liberating for that reason.

If you already know that the canonical names are beyond your reach, you can simply relax, let your eye rove freely, savouring the nuances of the contemporary, and open yourself up to the delights of serendipity. Anmol Nayyar, a finance entrepreneur who started buying art around the same time as Shahani, chanced upon an exquisite work by Rajasthan-born artist Rohini Singh some years ago. Not much bigger than a miniature painting, it shows a solitary figure, face obscured, flanked by a man and a woman in silhouette, like a pair of ghostly alter egos. “I was instantly struck by it," says Nayyar, pointing to the little gem that now hangs in his bedroom in Delhi’s Nizamuddin East. “The thought didn’t cross my mind that I should find out how important the artist is."

Photographs are a good buy within this range, though collectors should be aware of different types of prints, their provenance, longevity, framing and mounting, says Devika Daulet-Singh, director of Photoink, Delhi. Nayyar, for instance, recently bought prints of Raghu Rai’s work from the 1970s, especially his haunting photographs of Old Delhi, priced in this bracket. “They fill me with nostalgia for a time that has irrevocably passed," he says, looking at a pristine image of Humayun’s Tomb, which lies at a stone’s throw from his house.

Anmol Nayyar at home with his art. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Anmol Nayyar at home with his art. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Another Experimenter artist in the affordable range is Rathin Barman, who has pushed conceptual art into the realm of the bizarre, making entire rooms out of cardboard boxes and papering the walls of the gallery with the image of a mouldy brick wall, thereby creating spectacular optical illusions.

This sort of site-specific work is difficult to own, for it must first fully inhabit the imagination of the owners before it is installed in their home. So following, and learning to trust, your instinct is crucial. “I don’t go by other people’s recommendations, but buy whatever appeals to me," says advertising expert Swapan Seth. “That could even include a work by a 11-year-old." There is, however, a thin line between impulsive buying and going by your gut feeling, and the distinction between the two becomes clearer only with years of immersion in the art ecosystem—as you get familiar with names, styles, pricing, critical receptions, even gossip, until you intuitively know what works for you and why.

It helps to have a certain human curiosity about the creator of the work you want to buy. “I don’t think I have ever bought a work by an artist I haven’t met," says Shahani. Family and friends can also be big motivators of interest. Both Shahani and Nayyar were introduced to the difficult pleasures of art appreciation by their grandfathers. For Sonal Sood, co-owner and director of the jewellery line en Inde, it was her aunt Pooja Sood—a founding member and director of the alternative art collective Khoj—who acted as a catalyst. “I was able to buy works of artists like Waseem Ahmed and Nusra Latif Qureshi for 20,000 each when Khoj organized an exhibition of contemporary miniature paintings from Pakistan in 2001," she says.

But for those just stepping on to the scene, the rules are simple enough. “The only way to tell good art from bad art is by looking at more and more art," says Bish Agrawal, a Kolkata-based business consultant who has been an art collector for over four decades. “By the time you’ve visited a dozen galleries, you will have formed your own private aesthetics."

It’s like developing a special sixth sense, one that might bring along the occasional high. A couple of years ago, when Agrawal was staying at a hotel in Delhi and had gone down to the basement for a haircut, he happened to stop by at the Saffronart store next to the barber shop. A smallish painting, of frenzied black and white swirls, caught his attention. It turned out to be a rare work by S.H. Raza (dated 1971), which Agrawal picked up for the incredible price of 80,000. Sood also recollects buying an M.F. Husain at a distress sale for a meagre amount and a Jitish Kallat from a Bowrings auction over the phone for the princely sum of 40,000 (if you are vigilant enough, you might still get a work by a contemporary artist, like Anita Dube or Thota Vaikuntam, for less than its estimated price at Saffronart’s Absolute Auctions, where there is no base price, unlike a regular auction).

Impressive as these acquisitions might sound, neither price nor name alone should be the motivator behind the purchase of art. For those who want to buy with the sole purpose of investment, it is chastening to remember that people who bought Husain’s early work many years ago did not have any inkling that his paintings would become iconic and eventually fetch astronomical prices. Equally, there is no guarantee that an artist who is on the rise will be held in equal esteem a few years down the line. Ultimately, you buy what you decide to make a part of your life, something that you want to let into your home. “I only acquire art I would want to look at every day," Nayyar says.

Curating a personal collection is like learning to confront the various aspects of your own personality. At various stages of your encounter with art, you glimpse your inner sensualist, minimalist, hedonist or anarchist. Over the years, Shahani, for instance, has been struck by the erotic charge of T. Venkanna’s paintings, the biting satire of Shreyas Karle, Aradhana Seth’s cryptic imagery, and the severe minimalism of Sheetal Gattani, whose style reminds him of V.S. Gaitonde’s sublime abstractions.

But the one artist whose work has stayed with him all along is Aditi Singh. “I have been a huge admirer of her work and we have become friends over the years," says Shahani. “I buy her art when I can afford it, but I continue to follow her career anyway with a lot of interest." Whether he owns it or not, Singh’s art has become a part of Shahani’s life. “I know I can’t live without it," he says simply.

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Here’s what to keep in mind if you are starting out small as a collector.

The buying game

Aqdas Tatli, founder of Indian Art Consultants (IAC) and member of the 2010 Škoda Prize advisory board, offers a few useful tips to those setting out to build a collection:

uBe focused: “Our primary advice to clients is to buy what they like," says Tatli. “Once we get a sense of their budget, we help them with details of artworks they can get in that range." The IAC gives customers a sense of the career of the artist they wish to acquire and helps them with insuring the work after purchase.

u Be vigilant: Beware of fakes and forgeries. "It’s easy to check the authenticity of contemporary art because most of the artists are alive," says Tatli. “But we consult professional authenticators while dealing in modern art, when the artist is no longer there to ascertain the provenance of a work." Any reputed gallery will provide buyers with an authentication certificate on the credibility of the artwork.

u Be pragmatic: If you are buying with the thought of a particular space, it is best to factor in its physical dimensions and conditions. Consider how the work looks in natural and in artificial light, during the day and in the evening. Think of the kind of framing it needs, if at all, at what height it looks best. “Some galleries lend works to serious collectors for them to check if it fits into the space they want to buy it for," says Tatli. The IAC also helps curate personal collections.

u Beware of wear and tear: A work of art is perishable. The medium in which it is made may need a temperature-controlled environment. In tropical countries like India, dust and moisture can damage artworks. If possible, speak to the artist to get a sense of the best way to preserve the work you are buying. “One has to be especially careful with a delicate medium like watercolour," says Tatli.

uEducate yourself: There is no better guide than knowledge. The Internet is a great resource to keep yourself educated on trends and practices in the world of art. “Keep track of writing on art in the mainstream media, as also in magazines like ‘Art India’ and ‘Take on Art’, which are exclusively devoted to Indian art," says Tatli. Some institutions, like the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum of Mumbai, offer diploma and short-term art appreciation courses. “But the best way to get familiar with art is by visiting as many galleries and museums as possible," says Tatli.

As told to Somak Ghoshal

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