Indian art finds a market

Business Standard

Among the treasures that were moved secretly from Europe to the United States and helped finance Jewish entry into America's financial world, were paintings by the great masters. Held mostly in private collections, their sale never in the public realm consists of one of the Western world's untold stories. Stories of great wealth changing hands, real or apocryphal, are legendary. Art in India, on the other hand, had little recognition beyond the remarkable miniatures from the Mughal and Rajput courts that were mostly in museum collections in Britain, or held as registered treasures with collectors in India. Most miniatures and other objects of art that were regularly sold at auctions in the West were rarely of equal quality, and were mostly the spoils of conquest taken off to ol' Blighty by opportunists.

The phenomenon of modern art is a little over a hundred years old in the country. Raja Ravi Varma of the Western painting style that was greatly favoured at the time by Parsis, businessmen and royal families, earned him and his studio, with acolytes filling in for him a large number of commissions. European painting traditions began to be taught at art schools all over the country, but artists continued to seek an identity that was Indian rather than Continental. The traumas of Partition and the lack of patronage meant that painters took a back seat for a few decades, despite the (mostly failed) attempts to form collectives that sought to achieve an intellectual renaissance.

The recent rise and rise of prices for Indian art in the domestic and international arenas is a correction, in part, of that anomaly. Domestic buying of modern art began when the ranks of the wealthy swelled in the wake of rapid economic growth. An NRI market developed soon as Indians overseas came into their own. But prices have continued to rocket, and Indian art has found new western buyers, at a time when the global economy is consumed by problems. In the developed world, art has always been a hedge against inflation, the rarity of buying power often in inverse proportion to escalating costs. No one has been quite able to explain with any degree of authority this relationship between financial markets and art prices, so it must be presumed that when times are bad, good art brings a little cheer to one's mental make-up.

Whatever the reason(s), over the last decade the spiralling interest in Indian art among collectors in India, NRIs and, recently, international buyers too has created an industry around it that, despite the global economic slowdown, continues to remain buoyant. Galleries in India are booming, collectors are bidding at auctions to bring back to India treasures such as Raja Ravi Varma's works, and Indian artists such as F N Souza and S H Raza are not only sustaining major sales for auction houses Christie's, Sotheby's and Bonham's, but commanding prices that are at par with the likes of Damien Hirst. Nor is interest limited to the moderns; it is also spread among the contemporaries, younger artists who have barely two decades of work to show but who are already prized at international biennales and fairs. That they are being swept up by international collectors has gained them a new recognition for their avant-garde art. And the experts say there is no fear any time soon that the prices of Indian art are likely to stagnate.

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