The United Art Fair was logistically praiseworthy but artistically questionable, says RANA SIDDIQUI ZAMAN.

If I were to describe three major recent art fairs in one word each, it would go like this — Dubai Art Fair: Niche, India Art Fair: Monopolistic, and United Art Fair: Democratic.

United Art Fair (UAF), a four-day ticketed (Rs.100) affair, concluded recently at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. Like any other big art event in the Capital, this one too had its fair share of publicity in almost all major media houses. The reasons were two very attractive firsts to its credit — free-of-cost space to the artists, and invitation to individual artists. So far, the practice was that artists’ participation was possible only through art galleries. This had led several gifted artists unattached with galleries to lose out. Instead, galleries’ favourite artists would make an effortless entry, often irrespective of the quality of their works.

But even with these positives, UAF had many loose ends, not without some underlying reasons that the organiser, 36-year-old shipping expert Annurag Sharma, and chief curator Johny M.L. tried to cover up.

It was revealed that the organisers initially intended to charge a fee of Rs.35,000 from each artist to book space and asked them also to “gift” one painting. The result — no one turned up. So, as a last option, they made it free.

Recalls Johny, “As soon as we made it free, applications started pouring in. I thought, for poor artists in remote areas, the sum was too big to afford.” Sharma admits, “We did ask for a ‘gift’. We want to make our own assets, but we didn’t pressurise anyone.” So, while some gave gifts, some refused.

Noted artist Vijender Sharma says, “If they had asked for a gift from me, I wouldn’t have participated!”

Giving free space increased the participants but had an adverse effect on participation by mid-rank saleable artists like Jatin Das, Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kalat, Seema Kohli, Paresh Maity, Ravi Gossain, etc., who didn’t want to share space with needy first-timers. Johny calls it the “urban arrogance” of people who need to learn from their small-town counterparts, who came to Delhi from as many as 15 States, “adjusted themselves anywhere and stayed in through the fair to describe their works, all smiles.”

No names, no price tags

Most established artists like M.F. Husain, Akbar Padamsee, F.N. Souza, Gade, S.H. Raza, Ram Kumar, J. Swaminathan, Anjolie Ela Menon, Krishen Khanna etc. were largely picked up from those who wanted to re-sell their works.

A few lack-lustre curators. Around 600 artists. 2,700 works, including paintings, sculptures, installations, printmaking works, photography and video art, displayed liberally in two halls measuring approximately 80,000 sq.ft. Seminars, book launches and auctions. And yet, certain calculations went miserably wrong. Did it happen because of inexperience, lack of coordination or just a clash of egos?

The inauguration evening was “a flop affair” as British artist Alec Cumming puts it. “I walked inside the hall and was suddenly greeted by a big car (Manish Sharma’s installation) first. Art works had no references, no names, no price tags, no medium and no background.”

Echoed the collector Sanjay Malhotra, “As a buyer I needed all information prior to the show or at least while watching the pieces. Else how do I decide what to buy?”

“Cluttered with immature works” is how Malhotra dismisses the show. Johny says, “Some immature works had to be accommodated, commands from higher up, you know.” Sharma covers it up. “It was to encourage young blood.”

On-the-spot auction

Topping it all was an on-the-spot auction. Manish Sharma’s spectacular “Fibre car” was put under hammer for merely Rs.13.5 lakh by one and the only bidder. An old man of humble bearing whispered, “If I had such a lot of money, I would rather buy a Sakoda (Skoda)!” Someone in the crowd jokingly quoted Rs.7 lakh for Avijit Roy’s fascinating bronze “Flying Man” and ran away.

The next item was multimedia artist Anil Goswami’s mammoth, innovative denim-blended fibre skull. No one bid for it. “It was insulting, humiliating,” says the hurt 35-year-old artist, adding that this auction was not planned. “Auctions are not done like that. It is a properly planned event in front of well-informed audiences, not before walk-in visitors.” Agreed Malhotra, “I had filled an auction form but withdrew. It didn’t have any details. It’s not like buying items at the neighbourhood Diwali mela. Collector ke paas paisa faaltoo nahi hota.”

Seemingly oblivious of the same, Sharma — whose personal life is an inspiring story of a man who has come through the ranks, from a courier boy to a shipping giant — declares, “Next year it will be a 50-50 affair of Indian and international works, more challenging, grander and bigger.”

Cut to eminent sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan, who displayed his famous bronze woman and paid tribute to Ram Kinkar Baij and Prabuddha Dasgupta. “There should be control on speed… 2,700 works are too much for the eyes. It can’t continue like that. It’s like a stage production. It has to evolve. For that, one has to take some painful decisions.”

Sharma needs to introspect. His sentiments were perfect. But isn’t he confusing quantity with quality?