The ABC of art


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What is Art? It is the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Real.

– Rabindranath Tagore

FROM ancient to contemporary times Indian art has occupied a special place in terms of richness and diversity. With saundarya shastra or aesthetics being such a key component of our understanding of the area, art has always been seen as a state of heightened awareness that goes beyond pleasure and calls for oneness with the spirit rather than the corporeal self. Each work of art draws the receiver into a relationship with both the artist as well as other fellow spectators who share in partaking of the visual experience.

Art has always been a way of life in India. While the Hindu temples, Jaina bhandaras, Buddhist sanghas, and Sikh gurdwaras were huge repositories of art, post-independent India saw the emergence of a new national identity in the practice of fine art in the country. The shift was complete. The sacred and the profane, the courtly and the popular, all began playing together in a single geography. A special hallmark of Indian art, in fact, is a complete blurring of boundaries between text and the visual, where in traditional Indian art the painter was also a poet, the poet was also a dancer and the sculptor was also an architect, a phenomenon exemplified to perfection in the case of Ellora.

Patronage of the arts was never a problem in India. From the magnificent rulers of ancient India where the Ashokan edicts and rock-cut inscriptions bear testimony to the usage of an art practice by an imperial king, to the two huge ‘yakshas’ by the early Bengal modernist Ram Kinkar Baij standing outside the Reserve Bank building, art has always been an important tool of both social and cultural change. But contemporary Indian art has leaped into the domain of commerce with a force which is difficult to keep pace with. In the last two years in particular, art has grown in value by more than 400 per cent per annum as far as the ‘blue-chip’ artists are concerned.

While this gigantic leap forward is symptomatic of the buoyant market, it is also a bit dangerous. In addition, it reflects an immaturity of the art market. With the recent income tax raids on art galleries and dealers, a certain connection has started to appear and the beginning of a new maturity in art trends is discernable. What is apparent is that the market today is moving from being a completely seller’s market to a buyer’s one. No longer is the hysteria of art holding the market captive. People themselves are looking to buy art which they can enjoy and are no longer buying or collecting simply to invest. In the contemporary context, a judicious mix of art and aesthetics has become the key.

‘Since almost all Asian countries are still excluded from the international network of exhibitions and information (in "advanced" countries), most of the artists in Asia have to rely more on the geographical situation of Asia than on mobility and an exchange of information.’ (Raiji Kuroda)


The actual commodification of art began during the mid-twentieth century largely due to a growing emphasis on urbanism. From this time onwards, a number of commercial art galleries were established, especially in Delhi and Mumbai. Amongst the first of these was the Dhoomimal founded around 1945, followed by the Pundole Art Gallery and the Chemould, both founded in 1963, the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai and Kumar Art Galleries in Delhi.

While there has been a global market for traditional Indian arts and crafts like miniature paintings, sculptures and folk art, it was only recently that interest in the country’s representations of modern art became evident. However, with the economic boom, rising consumerism and a new breed of young Indians becoming the new reality of 21st century existence, the art scene has undergone a phenomenal change. With modern Indian art finally coming into its own, it is now looked at in terms of investment, returns and monetary appreciation and potential value rather than on solely aesthetic grounds. The field witnesses increasing levels of awareness, investment and interest. The Economic Times, for example, keeping in step with the times, publishes an ‘art index’, aggregating prices for works by 51 top artists.

The growing global acceptance of Indian art is evidenced by the large number of international buyers it attracts from places as diverse as Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and the Middle East. An idea of the strength of the market can be had by taking a look at some of the sales that occurred. For instance, Tyeb Mehta recently created art history when his painting ‘Mahishasura’ was bought by a private collector for $1.584 million at a Christie’s auction in New York. M.F. Husain became a billionaire when he was paid Rs 100 crore for a set of paintings that he is to paint over the next few years. Reserve prices for works of artist like Husain, Souza and Mehta can begin anywhere from $100,000 to $700,000.


With such attention adding to the flourish of the arts in India, buying art has become a huge challenge. While earlier most buyers used to be non-resident Indians, recently the scope has expanded to include resident Indians as well. According to Dadiba Pundole, a gallery owner whose father launched Husain and other top-tier artists in the 1960s and ’70s, almost 85 per cent of buyers for Indian art today are local. ‘With the Indian economy growing, there is a rapidly expanding middle class which now aspires to attain cultural and social status, part of which can be achieved by purchasing modern and contemporary art,’ she says. Nevertheless, experts warn that despite these encouraging trends, investors should not underestimate the importance of liquidity since the number of art investors and buyers is still relatively small.

Before buying art, it is of crucial importance to be in sync with the basics of the field. In this context it is important to keep in mind that the highest prices or bids are no guarantee for the best works, and there is no one single way of deciding upon what is the best deal. In this, as is obvious, it is the priority of the buyer, be it financial or aesthetic, for commercial or personal use, that will tip the scales one way or the other.


Nevertheless, whatever the specifics it would be best to educate oneself in the area before venturing to buy art. This done, one must decide on what one best connects or identifies with in terms of different genres, movements, time span and artists. Professional feedback such as critical reviews, past record of sales, and exhibitions also work as indictors. However, in this context one should also realise that at times new and not-so-famous artists can be extremely worthwhile buys.

At the basic level there are some key points that one must keep in mind before confirming the actual sale. Confirm the reputation of the place or person you are buying from, see the piece in person before making the deal, and make sure that all arrangements have been confirmed in writing. If there is any uncertainty, get a second opinion from an expert or professional you trust. Apart from personal preference in terms of artist, genre and aesthetic appeal, the final decision to buy must factor in variables like condition, quality, appreciation, potential and the realities of an evolving market.

Until the latter half of the 20th century, the main collectors of Indian art were either old Indian business families like the Birlas, Tatas and Goenkas, or occasional collectors abroad like Chester and David Herwitz in the US, and Masanori Fukuoka, who is believed to own over 4,000 artworks. However, the number of collectors now is much larger, with domestic sales being driven by younger members of business families at the top end, followed by young company executives working for multinational corporations who spend up to £24,000 on a single picture, and others in India’s booming software industry.


From the back pages of newspapers and literally stamp-sized mentions, contemporary Indian art is at an all time high. In the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ edit story in The Times of India dated 1 July 2007, India and China are in a race with each other. In the global world, Asian art, literally read as Indian and Chinese, is finding a resonance with what happened in the West in the 1980s. The year 2006-7 witnessed huge sales in Indian art both in London and New York. At auctions in September 2006, Sotheby’s sold Indian art worth $16.6 million, more than double the 2004 and 2005 collections of $3.1 million and $8.2 million respectively. Indian artists like Tyeb Mehta, V.S. Gaitonde, and S.H. Raza have crossed the million dollar mark. Indian buyers too have now become bullish about their buys.

As one makes the transition from being a once-in-a-blue-moon buyer to a more seasoned collector, the focus needs to become all the more concentrated. Everything from the value of an art piece to its mounting, display, lighting and maintenance has to be kept in mind.

In collecting art, like in buying it, there is need to exercise a fair deal of know-how. To begin with, it is important to know what one is getting into. One must do some homework, check out the Internet, go through auction catalogues, talk to those who are knowledgeable in the field and only then make a decision. Never compromise on the quality of the work. One of the best things a collector can do is to frequent art schools and colleges. These are great places to spot talent and to make a buy before the artist becomes well-known and correspondingly more expensive. Go through the price history of whichever artist you want to buy, for this gives an insight into the degree of value appreciation. There should be no hesitation to ask as many questions as needed until you are satisfied.

A collector is usually the product of years of interest in art followed by the honing of skills and expertise in the area. Most collectors are therefore on the constant lookout for anything that appeals to them, and based on their experience and eye for detail, they generally manage to make the right decision when acquiring a work for their collection. In the taking of such decisions, other aspects like the tone, mood, style, flow, craftsmanship and compositional elements of a work (points often ignored by the novices) are also given due attention and consideration.


One of the most famous art collectors today is Jehangir Nicholson, who started out in this area without any particular direction or agenda. However, as he gained expertise and developed an interest in art, his non-specific buys began taking on a definite pattern. Owner of one of the most comprehensive collections today, Nicholson says that he bought art ‘because it did something for my soul. I never thought of it in terms of value appreciation.’

Another person who has earned himself a place on this elite list is Kavas Bharucha, who entered this area with the purchase of two works by Ara at the incredible price of Rs 200! For him, buying art is like ‘pursuing an attractive woman with the chase as enjoyable as the prize!’ Another formidable name in this arena is that of Anupam Poddar – 60 works from his private collection were recently on display at the Daimler Chrysler Contemporary in Berlin.


Among the most coveted of names in today’s art scene are masters like M.F. Husain, Manjit Bawa, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Arpita Singh and Anjolie Ela Menon. In addition there are also younger artists like Atul Dodiya, Nataraja Sharma, Shibu Natesan, Baiju Parthan, A. Balasubramaniam, Bose Krishnamachari, Sheba Chhachhi and Anita Dube who are equally popular in art circles.

The experience of art and the perception of its nuances is the greatest play on one’s imagination; it is a journey made of blurring boundaries and multiple interactions of reality, representation, illusion and imagination. From the real to the fantastic, the concrete or the abstract, the excessive or the minimalist, the traditional to the modern, art exists in a myriad forms and its appreciation runs in as many diverse streams and parallel lines of perception and response.

As Indian art finally comes into its own, and markets both in India as well as abroad wake up to its potential, the contemporary art scene is becoming witness to a new energy, a new vibrancy that is infecting artists, buyers, sellers, and collectors alike. As a new dimension in the dynamics of the business of art unfolds, one can’t help but watch and wonder at the new vocabulary that is transforming and redefining the language of modern Indian art appreciation.