Prices soar as boom times put subcontinent's artists on the map

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2007, 12:00am

In a sleek, wooden-floored art gallery in New Delhi's trendy Sunder Nagar market, a young Indian couple wandered from canvas to canvas. 'I kind of like this one,' said the man, peering at the vague outline of a woman scratched onto a background of brown oil. His wife stared at a composition of indigo blue stripes with a line of small holes punched through the centre. Scrutinising the couple from a respectful distance was a besuited gallery salesman, a munificent beam on his face.


The breadth of his smile may have had something to do with the paintings' price tags.


The cheapest work in the gallery costs 400,000 rupees (HK$71,557), even though the artist is not especially well known. Four of five years ago, this price would have been unimaginable in a Delhi gallery - even for the work of a more famous painter - but today, in the capital and all over the world, Indian art is booming.


Take the work of India's best-selling artist, Tyeb Mehta. A decade ago, his paintings rarely fetched much above US$10,000. In 2002, a room-sized triptych, appropriately entitled Celebration, sold for more than US$300,000, a record-breaking sum for an Indian painting. Then in 2005, Mehta's Mahisasura, a painting of a buffalo-demon from Hindu mythology, went for a cool US$1.6 million.


Since then, the market has been bubbling hot.


This month, there's a global gush of enthusiasm for art produced on the subcontinent - and the big bucks it attracts.


There are sales of modern and contemporary Indian art at both Christie's and Sotheby's in New York, while a new gallery dedicated to Indian art opened in London this month. Aicon (Art Indian Contemporary) follows hot on the heels of London's Grosvenor Vadhera gallery, a collaboration between London and Delhi galleries.


The Tate Modern, meanwhile, is holding its largest exhibition of an Indian artist, with the beautiful 1930s paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil.


But the biggest change for gallery operator Atul Marwah is the cash. 'Prices have risen by 50 per cent to 300 per cent in the past four years alone,' he said.


There have been other changes in the nation's attitudes to art, with parents of artistically inclined children now more likely to encourage them to go to art school.


Only a decade ago, no one in the art world was too interested in paintings produced by Indian artists. Although their works were available at auctions outside India, they only ever fetched modest prices. What has changed?


The buyer of Mehta's Mahisasura holds a clue to part of the answer. The painting, which is the most expensive Indian artwork sold, was bought by Rajiv Chaudri, the founder and president of a technology hedge fund called Digital Century Capital. New York-based Chaudri, who grew up in Delhi, said he likes the idea of supporting his heritage.


Many of the big buyers are newly affluent non-resident Indians who see these purchases as a way of reconnecting with their roots. That may be why paintings that feature traditional Indian figures, symbols or motifs are especially in demand.


One of India's most popular artists, M. F. Husain, for example, is fond of painting Indian goddesses such as Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga. Unfortunately, his fondness for painting these deities naked has incurred the wrath of violent Hindu fundamentalists, who chased him from the country last year.


Artists who reflect India's struggles for an identity are also in demand. This explains the popularity of two schools: the Bengal School of artists who were fighting for Indian aesthetic freedom when India was moving towards independence; and the Bombay Progressive Group, second generation post-independence artists such as Husain and Mehta.


But it is not only the diaspora Indians who are buying Indian art. India's booming economy has created a new wealthy class whose members are looking for ways to invest their cash and signal to the world that they have arrived. In 2005, the number of India-based millionaires - estimated to be worth a combined US$290 billion - rose 19 per cent to 83,000, the second fastest millionaire growth rate in the world after South Korea.


'As we have seen in other countries, when the economy grows, the art market grows,' said Ganieve Grewal, Christie's representative in Mumbai. 'Indians in India are buying lots of modern and contemporary art.'


And, increasingly, so are non-Indians. Subodh Gupta's sculptures of everyday Indian materials - from cooking pots to cow dung - have a wide appeal. Last year, Across Seven Seas, a massive conveyor belt cast in aluminium and covered with metal suitcases and bundles, fetched GBP550,000 (HK$8.4 million) from a German collector at the Basel art fair.


The internet has played a major role in the development of India's art market, as well. Buyers have become especially adept at spotting paintings on the web and tracking prices at hundreds of art gallery and auction sites around the world. Saffronart.com is the biggest player: in December 2005, it sold a painting by contemporary artist Francis Newton Souza for US$1.5 million.


India has long had galleries, art schools and a tradition of nurturing talent. This makes it a more mature market than China - that other great discovery in the art world - and an easy place for collectors to do business. Although Chinese art has been in demand around the world for longer, India is catching up fast.


The number of galleries that have sprung up in Delhi reflects this. When Atul Marwah opened the MEC Art Gallery in Delhi's Khan market in 1991, it was one of only six in the city.


'Everyone laughed at me,' he said. 'They asked, 'Why would you want to do that?''


Today, Delhi has more than 200 galleries and hordes of artists wanting to exhibit in them.