The problem

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THERE are more art openings and art happenings in metropolitan India today than events connected with any of the other visual or performing arts. There are certainly more art galleries than cinema screens in the big cities. In Delhi alone the number is estimated at 120. Coverage of art and artists in the media is unprecedented, even though the quality and depth of art criticism is questionable and, like most cultural reporting, reduced to hurried hype. Still, hardly a day passes without the media headlining record-breaking prices fetched by Indian masters at auction, the lucrative trade in on-line art sales, investment opportunities in art funds and fake art frauds, tax raids on art galleries and other headline-grabbing controversies include: attacks by extremists on students’ artworks at the arts college in Baroda or the continuing exile in Dubai of India’s most famous modern artist, M.F. Husain.

Some Indian artists have become enormously rich; many have a profile more prominent than political or business leaders. Hundreds of others, in the age group of 30 to 50, are more visible today than their predecessors could have ever dreamt of in their struggling, impoverished heyday.

Art as social talk, art as the new cash cow, as raging campus battle, political flashpoint or international trade, engages not merely the top thin layer of the intellectual elite but includes large swathes of the new financially buoyant and socially aspiring urban classes, non-resident Indians in particular. When the British art auctioneer Patrick Bowring moved to India in the 1990s, he predicted that the most sought after art work of the new Indian economy would be the middle-sized canvas: ‘Nothing too large but nothing miniature-sized. First time art purchasers compare the size of their wallets with the size of their wall space. Indian artists will be expected to fill up the new apartment blocks of Gurgaon and Lokhandwala.’

Nothing has changed as dramatically in the last 20 years in Indian cultural currents as the scene in contemporary art. Until as recently as the early 1980s, the execution, display and appreciation of contemporary Indian art was a fairly circumscribed and low-key affair. Let me draw two scenes, one from the time when I first met (and befriended) some remarkable artists and one from recent days. It may give readers of this special issue of Seminar an idea of what the scene was like then, and what it is like now.

In the 1970s and 1980s the atmosphere was politically charged. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime had polarized opinion starkly. Husain controversially painted her as a goddess but with most of the political opposition in jail, intellectual opinion powerfully ranged against the Congress Party. The short-lived governments before Mrs Gandhi’s return to power in 1981 were lost years. Artists conformed to the stereotype of the left wing intellectual: jholawalla-types in kurtas, often bearded, barefoot or chappal-shod, argumentative or morosely silent, sipping endless cups of tea at the Samovar Café in Bombay or the Triveni Tea Terrace in Delhi. Often on the bread line, they struggled in garages and barsatis. Art openings at stalwart galleries such at Art Heritage (run by the valiant Ebrahim and the late Roshen Alkazi in Delhi) or at Chemould (by the equally resilient Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy) and a few reputable establishments were, invariably, modest affairs. One met more or less the same set of angry people: artists, writers, journalists and critics (interspersed with the occasional but conveniently acquiescent buyer).

Afterwards, one repaired to a cosy celebration at the artist’s home or some other venue; sometimes a musician friend was commandeered to perform. With affection I retain a few snapshots of those days: delicious home-cooked dinners at J. Swaminathan’s, clouded by bidi smoke and rum; impromptu music baithaks at Paramjit and Arpita Singh’s; evenings with Manjit Bawa at the Press Club on Raisina Road; cantankerous Francis Newton Souza provoking acrimonious quarrels; and Anjolie Ela Menon, between her painting and being a naval officer’s wife with two growing boys, buffeted from one posting to another, wistfully remarking: ‘I wish I could get on to a bus and go to Rajasthan, with a lota and kambal, and work and work and work…’

Ram Kumar, when he came, was a glacially cerebral presence: unruffled, contemplative. Husain then, as now, was a star: peripatetic, unpredictable, talkative or uncommunicative as the mood took him. When the three eminences – Husain, Krishen Khanna and Ram Kumar – got together (S.H.Raza had long moved to Paris) it was a throwback to the halcyon days of the founding of the Progressive Artists Group in Bombay from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, so well described in Yashodhara Dalmia’s The Making of Modern Indian Art (OUP, 2001). There were so many tales that the artists told, and so many I could recount, that it would fill a sea of stories. Just one for now: when Salman Rushdie was researching his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, he tracked down Krishen Khanna who had painted a portrait of Rushdie’s mother in the Bombay phase (the portrait plays a key role in the book.) For some reason she never collected it and, according to Krishen, at about the same time he happened to loan his studio to Husain who badly needed a place to work. Krishen says that Husain, who was short of canvas in an intense moment of painting, probably painted over the portrait.

Until the 1980s, being a peripheral part of the art world was still like being a member of a secret society – stimulating, energetic, diverting and polemical, but rarefied and circumscribed. Artists are often famously inarticulate or obscure about explaining why, or even how, an artwork comes into being. For the viewer it can be as personal or profound an experience of why a particular artwork ‘speaks’ to them: a subliminal reflection, at that moment in time, of an exterior world or inner reality. Sometimes that connection can prove mind-blowing.

Let me describe one personal experience, one that is within the realm of all those who are inexplicably attracted to art (forget wallets or wall spaces). In the winter of 1996, my wife and I visited our good friend, the artist Arpita Singh, in her airy, light-filled studio. On the phone, in her enigmatic laughing way, she said she wanted us ‘to see some things’. When we got there she drew our attention to a small work on a perspex sheet, reverse-painted in the complex technique of 19th century glass paintings, as intricately worked as kantha embroideries, its subject layered in a complex narrative against a vivid red background. With its garbled numerals and alphabets, a bespectacled man looking at a newspaper under a ceiling fan, a girl child, painted cloud-blue and springing angel-like, with golden wings from a woman’s lap, and childhood allusions to lotus ponds and ducks, we were both drawn, perplexed, but unable to decipher the artwork’s many meanings.

Arpita wanted us to have it. When she mentioned the price, we froze. It was a figure so small, almost a tiny fraction of the picture’s real value. She said the price was not negotiable. Naturally, we thanked her and paid for it on the spot. But whose story was Arpita Singh telling? It did not help that the painting was titled ‘Red Newspaper’. Never before, or since, have I felt like the observer observed, a fly pinned to the board. You are watching the art – but, could it be, the artist is also watching your life? That is the implosive effect of an artwork. One of our most treasured possession’s, Arpita Singh’s painting continues to open forgotten doors and hint at future openings in our lives.

For me, as a journalist, art is always indivisible from the lives of the artists and my own life. I never bought (nor could I afford to) art as investment. Prices were negotiable because you bought directly from friends, or from gallery owners who were friends, often on reasonable monthly instalments. When Arun Vadehra, whose galleries have now expanded to include Grosvenor Vadehra in London, fell into the business by accident, he used to make furniture and purchased a few pictures for his showroom to make it look inviting. For all the care and attention he gave to artists, sales picked up only very gradually. Till about 15 years ago he was able to arrange instalments for enthusiastic buyers with meagre resources – an unthinkable proposition in today’s competitive, cut-throat art world.

By contrast, that art world today is sometimes indistinguishable from the art whirl. In July I attended an art opening in Delhi at one of the capital’s most frequented and conveniently located art spaces. There are, on average, dozens of such events in season but I went to this one for three reasons: one, a major international bank was sponsoring the show and I was curious to know why. Two, the barrage of PR-induced emails and text messages spoke of young ‘art curators’ and ‘art entrepreneurs’ – who were the people breaking into and entering the new ‘art game’? And three, I wanted to see what art was on display.

The space didn’t look so much like an art gallery as a trade fair or shopping mall. Small, prominent, brightly-lit kiosks were occupied by girls in smart bankers uniforms like perky flight attendants, distributing leaflets, price lists and mints in glass bowls. There were dozens of suited young men, proffering visiting cards and a choice of malt whiskeys and good wine. There were waiters tripping over TV camera cables. And there was an audience of milling hordes, hundreds of unrecognizable faces, either gazing blankly at the artworks or enjoying the mad cocktail of good booze, big bucks and the happily weird feeling of being at the right place at the right time – a microcosm of the new-rich suburban India in search of badges of honour, symbols of identification for their living rooms. Bottom line acquisition of art at any time in history has always been a combo of wall decoration and status symbol.

The art itself – about 50 works in all – was a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the indifferent. It was mostly conventional stuff: oil on canvas and drawings, and relatively unknown artists were decorously placed alongside a few established names. There was some attempt at a regional selection. Clearly, demand far exceeded supply the red dots were up on most. The prices were silly. I ran into one person I knew, a book publisher, who with self-effacing modesty said he had ‘picked up’ a couple of works and was diminished by about 1.5 million rupees in the course of the evening.

Small change, when a canvas by the artist V.S. Gaitonde, who died in 2001, a recluse and in straitened circumstances, had sold a few weeks later at auction in the same city for more than 50 million rupees. I had paused before the work of Gai’s, in mysterious layers of luminous oranges shading to yellows, underlaid with hints of black, and thought back to his small compact figure and square-jawed face furrowed in concentrated silence on Triveni’s Tea Terrace in the 1980s. Go talk to Gai, ran the refrain, cheer him up. But was there any reason to penetrate Gai’s growing Zen-like detachment? Not long afterwards, he entombed himself deeper into walls of silence, moved to Ghaziabad, and quietly died.

Now, at the bank-sponsored art show, I sought out the youthful art curator and the art organizer who had successfully sold the concept to the international bank – an idea so cool that the bank was willing to fund a series of shows in other cities as also take it abroad. They were in their late twenties, gung-ho collegiate types. I asked if they had artist friends and hung out with them. ‘Yes,’ said the organizer, a computer nerd who runs a graphic design firm, ‘but it’s so hard to get any work, even one work, out of artists these days. They are such difficult people.’

‘Difficult’ is the operative word: artists in history were, are, and meant to be difficult. It’s their job. They challenge the assumptions of our world, intensify our reality, transport us to sublime flights of fancy and haunt us with their myths, histories, dreams and fantasies. That is what art is – a bridge that puts us in touch with ourselves. The controversies and scandals, the price fixes and frauds, above all the visionary works and lives of the creators are a mirror of what modern India imagines its life since 1947.

A last word about art prices which so grip the Indian imagination today: the current evaluation of market in contemporary Indian art is $350 million whereas the art market worldwide is estimated at $25 billion. The world trade in contemporary Indian art is infinitesimal compared to contemporary art from Latin America, Southeast Asia, China and Japan.

This introduction is an art lover and reporter’s impressionist collage of the changing art scene in India. It is the result of an ongoing exchange between Seminar’s editors and contributors over many months to catch the pulse.