Positive strokes


The Indian art market which crashed following a global recession in 2008, is showing signs of revival with support from art connoisseurs. Prakash Bal Joshi surveys the art scene today.

TThe bubble around the Indian art market burst way back in 2008 along with the crash of the world economy. It was really a big blow to the Indian art market, which was witnessing a rise in valuation year after year since the time the Indian economy began liberalising.

The boom before the bust
Experts are now wondering whether the boom in the Indian art market was good and did it do any service to the art scene, or did it just upset and fail to evolve a more enlightened and stable art market? How much did it help artists who were exposed to trends in international art scenes due to the availability of new technology? The kind of valuation their works got during this boom time was never expected. The trend certainly helped a few artists to reap a rich harvest, but in the larger terms, such a trend did not help the art scene. During the boom time, several new galleries mushroomed in art hubs in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Ahmedabad adding few more emerging markets like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kochi, Jaipur and Chennai.

A painting by the iconic Amrita Sher-Gil

A painting by the iconic Amrita Sher-Gil

Apart from a few influential high end buyers of art in India, new entities from the corporate world as well as government establishments also entered the art scene supporting contemporary art. A few auction houses also opened up and a few mutual funds dedicated to art were also floated. Some of them unfortunately fared badly due to fluctuations in the art market and lack of continued support from the corporate world. What damaged the stability of the art market in India was the skewed way in which valuation of a few contemporary art got from the over enthusiastic buyers. Art works by a few which were priced moderately at Rs. 2-3 lakhs up to 2002, suddenly got a spurt, and by the time the bubble peaked around 2008, the price tags these works carried was to the tune of Rs.20 to Rs. 25 lakhs. The trend also attracted people who were not serious about their art, but wanted to take advantage of the rising trend, open new galleries, promote select artists and expose them to the international market. Once the bubble burst by the end of 2008, there was lack of support for new initiatives for a further push, not only in terms of price, but even opportunities for exhibiting new works.

Initially, the trend was very decisive, it hampered the growth of the art market in India, pulled down the prices, drained the market of art buyers, some of the galleries vanished from the scene, all those who were there for taking benefit of the growth were driven out, those who were not serious and committed to their creative works also walked out. Those who were there even before the boom period, continued to do their work silently, waiting for better days to arrive.

Lack of public art galleries in cities
The shock received in 2008 was not an isolated incident, but it also affected the art world all over and brought down valuation, as well as size and hype of international art biennials, which were also reduced considerably. The situation has improved since then. The China art market share has increased tremendously as compared to USA and European art markets. But somehow, the Indian market is taking its own time to improve. Except for a few established artists, middle level as well as emerging artists find it very difficult to expand their reach and exposure in art hubs. Unfortunately, despite six decades of freedom, we do not have a stable museum system. The number of public galleries in the country is not at all adequate to take care of the growing fraternity of artists in the country. There are so many art schools in the country producing artists year after year, but not many public spaces where they can exhibit their creations. The Mumbai-based Jehangir Art Gallery offers affordable space for artists of all categories, but one has to wait for five to six years for their turn to exhibit art works. So many smart cities are coming up, so many cities are undergoing urbanisation for upgradation of civic infrastructure, but unfortunately, there is no thought for public spaces for art. Just putting some art works at the airports is not enough, art has to become part of urban life.

The Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, offers affordable space for artists to exhibit, but has a long waiting period

The Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, offers affordable space for artists to exhibit, but has a long waiting period

Rajendra, editor of “Indian Contemporary Art Journal” and organiser of India Art Festival in Mumbai feels that it may take some time to reach the levels of art pricing in 2008. But that does not mean that there is no upward growth in India art market. There may not be any frenzy in art buying, but considered art buying with due diligence is happening. This is a healthy sign and will help the art market in the long run.

There is selective buying happening silently, supporting contemporary Indian art where established as well as emerging artists are being considered by individuals as well as the corporate world. The number of auctions has also been increasing. Pundole Art Gallery, one of Mumbai’s prominent art galleries has been conducting auctions along with Saffron’s occasional auctions.

International auction houses like Christie’s also conduct high-profile auctions in Mumbai. There is no paucity of high spending buyers in India, but there is lack of art infrastructure to take the Indian art market to the next level.

Good response abroad
The kind of response Indian masters are getting in international auctions is also quite encouraging. Indian artists have also started participating in a big way in art events in emerging art hubs in gulf countries, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Three works by Amrita Sher-Gil, considered to be a pioneer of modern Indian art have been sold in international auctions for $2.5m.

V. S. Gaitonde, whose abstracts have attracted international auction houses, is also doing wonders at such art events. Recently, one of his works was sold for ` 45 crores. Amrita’s work has been declared as national treasure and cannot be taken out of India. Since there is not much art work available outside India, whatever is available is fetching high value.

The universal language of abstraction is also not new to India. Using traditional abstract forms of expression on canvas, Indian art has acquired international recognition. As a result, Indian masters are being appreciated by major art auction houses, curators and art lovers all over the world. Other prominent Indian artists like Jogen Chowdhry, Bhupen Khakhar, F.N. Souza, are dominating art auctions world over. It is not only multi-million tag which is being talked about in Indian art abroad, but consistency with which Indian art is dominating discussions and debates about art in any forum. The total auction market size of Indian art has jumped from $5 million in 2003 to nearly $ 200 million in the art market.

The support base of Indian art has been growing in the last decade. Apart from some business houses, government agencies, and rich royal families, discerning Indian middle class which also benefited from the economic growth in the last decade, has been supporting Indian art in a big way. The Indian art market is slowly looking up with a new set of emerging artists and art collectors.


Prakash Bal Joshi

The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist and artist.