Hasan Suroor

Indian art goes global

Peter Sumner in front of Enemies' Enemy II (2008) by T.V. Santhosh. - Photo: Jorge Herrera © Courtesy of Phillips de Pury & Company  

On April 23, new works of Indian contemporary art will be auctioned at London's prestigious Saatchi Gallery with those from other BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia and China — in what has been billed as a “celebration” of a renewed phase of creativity in these countries in the wake of their economic success. The event, it is claimed, confirms the increasing globalisation of Indian art which is seeing a surge in sales in the international market. While critics say it is a marketing-driven bubble prompted by the hype over India's new global status, Peter Sumner , Indian art specialist at Phillips de Pury, the auction house behind the sales, insists that the interest is “real” and here to stay.

He talks to Hasan Suroor about the event and where Indian art is headed globally.

Western auction houses and art galleries appear to have become suddenly interested in contemporary Indian art in the past few years. How much of this interest is real and how much does it have to do with aggressive marketing that has followed the opening of Indian markets and the hype over the country's new economic status?

The interest from collectors, galleries and institutions is very real. With the increasing globalisation of contemporary art market, collectors, curators and auction houses have over the last few years turned their attentions to art from ‘emerging economies.' It is undoubtedly true that creative output goes hand in hand with a strong economic upturn in a region. Lately, there have been major Indian shows in London and their success indicates that this interest is here to stay.

How big is the international market for Indian art today, especially in Europe? How much has it expanded over the past ten years and who are the main buyers? Is it confined mostly to rich Indian expatriates?

The buyers for Indian contemporary art are becoming increasingly global. Without question, there is always a strong trend among collectors to buy art from their own country as this art is often most relevant to their background, society and context. However, top Indian contemporary artists such as T.V Santhosh, Atil Dodiya, Thukral and Thagra and Jitish Kallat employ techniques and explore themes that appeal to the global western audience, whilst maintaining an inherent Indian quality. In the past ten years, contemporary Indian art market has changed beyond recognition. International galleries are now operating out of Mumbai, Delhi, Berlin, London and New York while auction houses regularly offer Indian art within the context of western contemporary art sales. This has undoubtedly helped to internationalise the collector- base.

There is a view that Indian art is riding a market-driven bubble and would not long last. This happened with Indian writing in English which became hugely popular in the west in the late 1980s and mid-1990s but the honeymoon is now over.

The Indian contemporary art market experienced remarkable growth in 2007 and 2008. Indian art became available on the international stage and was offered in auctions in London and New York. Buyers were a mix of collectors — those looking for the latest in Indian art, and speculators buying it as investment. With the global recession also affecting the art market in 2009 there were substantial downward price corrections. Some could argue that the price bubble did burst in 2009. However, these price corrections helped to stabilise the market and have now allowed investors and collectors alike to re-enter the market at affordable and sustainable levels. At Phillips de Pury we have continued to experience strong demand for the most interesting fresh and exciting new art from young and established Indian artists alike.

Where does the Indian art sell more?

Indian art is collected mainly locally and by western art collectors and institutions.

Is there a certain kind of Indian art that sells more? Who are the biggest selling Indian artists today?

There is a stable of young contemporary artists who have truly established themselves as a force to reckon with on the international art scene. The appeal of these artists comes in my experience from their ability to accurately document the massive, social and economic changes associated with the modern ‘globalised' India. In Kallat's ‘Untitled Eclipse' (a part of our BRIC sales), the artist creates a billboard sized canvas reminiscent of the many advertising billboards that have sprung up in the major Indian cities. The orange sunrays provide the backdrop to four smiling children, pointing the way to a bright new Indian future for India's youngest generation. Although malnourished and dressed in rags, their smiles betray an altogether darker, more unsettling existence, a reality in which these dispossessed youths are unlikely to benefit from the widening social and economic gap between the rich and poor. Similarly, Subodh Gupta, in ‘Idol Thief,' is able to transform everyday objects, pots, pans, milk buckets into recognisable trademarks that reflect the great changes that are happening in India today. It is this social commentary that collectors and buyers relate to and recognise.

How much has the global market for Indian art grown since economic liberalisation? Has it lived up to expectations?

In 2008, auction sales of Indian art raised nearly $24 million globally with Subodh Gupta breaking the $1 million barrier for the first time. This was the culmination of rapid growth of the global market for Indian art market following economic liberalisation in India. After large adjustments in the market place during 2009 India is once again becoming a focus point for the international art market — and is continuing to live up to the expectations. Confidence in long-term sustained growth is the dominant sentiment in the contemporary Indian art market. Buying is from India, U.K,, Europe and the U.S. with corporate institutions also playing their part within the context of contemporary Indian art sales.

What does the future look like for Indian art globally?

With prices returned to attractive levels and with the Indian economy predicted to grow at a faster rate than the more established western economies, now is an ideal time to buy Indian contemporary art. Despite the recession, contemporary Indian art has continued to capture the imagination of the International collecting audience. Major exhibitions in London and the inclusion of some of the leading Indian contemporary artists in western gallery shows prove that Indian art is now able to stand shoulder to shoulder with its more established western counterparts on the global stage. Indian contemporary art market should see sensible sustainable growth in the years to come.

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