All through 2007, Subodh Gupta’s magnum opus ‘A Very Hungry God,’ a gigantic 1000-kg skull made from aluminum pots and pans, sat flanking Venice’s prestigious Palazzo Grassi as part of French billionaire and art collector Francois Pinault’s first exhibition after he took control of the historic palace and gallery. It literally floated on the most coveted spot for public art in the world: the eponymous Grand Canal. Millions witnessed one of India’s leading contemporary artists at his best, as they glided past in gondolas and vaporettos. A star was made, of Indian blood, but foreign patronage.
Contemporary art from India has reached great heights of success in the last few years, ironically at a time when it has been largely ignored by the public-at-large in this country. It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of the international museum exhibitions, biennials, triennials and private foundation shows that local artists are invited to every year. From blockbuster shows at the Serpentine Gallery in London to the lofty Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, the global bases are being covered thick and fast by Indian artists.
It leads me to the question: are we blind to the talent in our own backyards? Have we not yet learned to recognize it? Or do we still need to be handheld by Western aficionados to lead us to what makes great art in our own country? If Pinault can place a Gupta sculpture in a prime location in one of the most populous tourist destinations in the world, then why can’t we have Gupta sculptures in our public gardens, corporate campuses or – outside the Bombay Stock Exchange? Imagine the symbol of our financial markets being a towering, one-tonne human skull made out of metallic bartans instead of a clichéd bronze bull that is a copy of the one outside the New York Stock Exchange!
If we need a model to follow, we needn’t look any further than Beijing. While censorship controls aspect of Chinese life, the government has allowed art to flourish relatively unrestricted since the late nineties. Beijing’s 798 Art District aspires to be New York City’s Chelsea with a burgeoning number of galleries, publishing firms and design companies cropping up alongside bars, restaurants, coffee shops and clubs. The Chinese government clearly recognizes, a) the economic benefits related to art tourism, and b) the politically advantageous nuances where national identity is concerned of endorsing a cultural megalopolis inside the capital city. Shanghai has followed suit with its own 50 Moganshan Road (or M50 as its commonly known). So when will Mumbai or New Delhi get its own 798 or M50?
I often hear art industry insiders blame government institutions, bureaucratic systems and regressive policies. But that’s the short answer to a practical and moral dilemma with no clear roadmap for resolution. China for example has a 34% luxury tax on art compared to India’s 12.5% value added tax, which should make the dissemination of art even more challenging in China. That hasn’t stopped legions of art fairs, auction houses, galleries, collectors, art magazines and museums from cropping up all over the country over the past few years. China has an art market. India can only aspire for one. Unfortunately, a sprinkling of art galleries and a few loyalist art collectors don’t make a market.
That’s why the India Art Summit 2009, the second edition of the only modern and contemporary art fair to be held in the country, which opens in Delhi later this month, is so important. The Indian art world is insignificantly small when one considers the sheer breadth of audience that should be available in India to consume information, ideas and images emerging from contemporary art. But where is Contemporary Indian art – let alone, world art – available for viewership in India? We don’t have dedicated spaces, either public or private. It’s a Catch-22. Consequently, the only reference point nowadays for contemporary visual culture is the internet, TV and pop-culture media. But we’re missing out on a whole history of visual culture in the vein of studio practices, which has been largely ignored.
Art is not elitist by nature; we marginalize it to serve esoteric self-interests about position and status. When Bodhi Art toured “Expanding Horizons,” an extensive exhibition of Modern and Contemporary Indian art, through the eight cities of Maharashtra late last year, thousands of people, including so-called ‘common folk’ and local art students, thronged the exhibitions and attended screenings, lectures and workshops in each city. For me it proved that there is a hungry audience in the smaller towns that is just as capable of grasping the high and mighty ideas expounded by the best artists of our times. Somewhere out there, there may also be an M.F. Husain or a Subodh Gupta in the making. It’s easy to forget that both these artists, despite being a generation apart, came from humble beginnings; Husain from Pandharpur in Maharashtra and Indore in MP, and Gupta from a Khagaul in Bihar.
Art is more than a market. It is the generation of new ideas that have the power to change the world. We’ve been so conditioned by art’s soaring auction prices stealing headlines that we seem to only pay attention to art when there’s a number attached to it – the bigger the better. It’s a collective flaw and that’s a tragedy. At its best, art is a philosophy and at its most basic, a commodity. Nonetheless, ideas and commerce are necessary, if sometimes uneasy, bedfellows.
The privately owned India Art Summit 2009 will attempt to deliver a concoction of commerce, erudition and social integration (read: networking). But they do have an up-hill battle to fight. “At a juncture where the Indian art industry is estimated to be worth around $400 million, growing at over 30% each year, the time is just right for an industry platform to be introduced,” says Sunil Gautam, group managing director of Hanmer MS&L and founder, owner of the India Art Summit. Of course to create a platform for trading is the easy part; to create an environment for art to prosper takes much more imagination and courage.
So far, Gautam and his team seem to have done everything right. Alongside the art fair which will showcase the best of Indian and international galleries, there’s an International Speakers’ Forum and collateral events like exhibition openings and private viewings. It’s about the closest India’s ever gotten to an integrated art effort and it’s already been successful in galvanizing mainstream media. Let’s hope it infiltrates the public domain too.
Sharmistha Ray is an artist and Director of Bodhi Art, a gallery for Contemporary Indian Art that will be showcasing at the India Art Summit 2009. (The India Art Summit 2009 will be held 19-22 August at Pragati Maidan, in New Delhi).