By M Saad
Indian contemporary art is on a new high. Just a few days after SH Raza’s 1989 painting, Gestation, sold for a record-breaking Rs 51.75 crore ($6.27 million) at a Pundole’s auction in Mumbai, Amrita Sher-Gil’s 1937 canvas, The Story Teller, fetched a whopping Rs 61.8 crore ($7.44 million) on September 16, setting a record for the highest price achieved by an Indian artist.
The iconic work led Saffronart’s ‘Evening Sale: Modern Art’, which featured over 70 artworks from several artists, including modern masters VS Gaitonde and Raza, and early works by Tyeb Mehta, M F Husain, F N Souza and Akbar Padamsee. The SaffronArt auction at The Oberoi hotel, New Delhi, where the artwork was sold, generated over Rs 181 crore in all.
Meanwhile, Raza’s Gestation, which previously held the record of the most expensive Indian artwork sold at an auction, got more than double the upper estimate of `25 crore made by Mumbai-based art auction house Pundole’s. In fact, Gestation also broke the record created by VS Gaitonde’s untitled 1969 painting that sold for Rs 42 crore at Pundole’s last year.
The sale of Sher-Gil’s The Story Teller and Raza’s Gestation points to a new high for the Indian art market that has seen remarkable growth in the past few years. According to a report published by Grant Thornton Bharat and India Art Investor, the Indian art market maintained its position of strength in FY23, clocking in a mammoth turnover of $144.3 million through the sale of 3,833 works. There is a 9% rise in turnover and a 6% rise in the number of works sold from the previous year, making FY23 the most successful year for Indian art at auction, adds the ‘State of the Indian Art Market Report FY23’.
The market has burgeoned multiple times since the late 1980s when exclusive auctions by international auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s on Indian art were held.
Today, art is also seen as a lucrative investment. In 2013, a 1974 untitled painting of Tyeb Mehta that had been acquired for Rs 57 lakh was sold for Rs 8.2 crore after a holding period of over 17 years.
Over the years
Three decades ago, the art market in India was still at a nascent stage, despite several Indian artists getting recognition globally. As early as in 1956, pioneers like M F Husain managed to take Indian art to the prestigious Venice Biennale. In the 1960s, F N Souza’s works, whose Hunger recently fetched `30 crore at an auction, were being auctioned by the leading auction houses of the world.
Souza’s Mansion (1962) was the first artwork by an Indian artist to be sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1965. In the later decades, works of V S Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta and others would follow suit. The increasing number of galleries in the country, which rose from 10 in 1990 to 200 in 2000, also gave impetus to the art scene. However, art in India continued to lag behind in terms of market value as opposed to the west, where the culture of art patronage was not disrupted by the onslaughts of colonisation.
“Post-Independence, India grappled with issues of development in which art played little or no part. And though the government started putting in place infrastructure such as the National Gallery of Modern Art and Lalit Kala Akademi from the mid-1950s, it wasn’t till economic liberalisation in 1991 that platforms for the art fraternity came to be,” says Kishore Singh, senior vice president at Delhi Art Gallery. The Indian government under the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi was the first to give state patronage to Indian artists. Her government also made it a mandate for state-run hotels like Taj Palace and others to acquire Indian art so that it could be promoted.
“The west has a tradition of art patronage that goes back a few hundred years and collectors are respected. Museums are a part of their institutional set-up where millions queue up to look at art every year,” says Singh, who is confident that Indian art can garner the same reception domestically if “more collectors in the private sector” can share art from their collections with the public like they do in the west. This, he believes, will ensure “greater recognition” to the talent of Indian artists and will also eventually impact the value of Indian art in a positive manner.
“Our market is very young compared to the western art market which has had the time to mature over centuries. The culture of living with the original works of art is still quite new in our region but is catching up very rapidly. With demand for artworks, the market is bound to change and we are experiencing this rapid change with every auction,” says Deepanjana Klein, director of acquisitions and development at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA).
Indian art, however, for long has had a distinct identity of its own preserved through centuries with adherence to customs and old practices such as the use of natural colours, distinct detailing, exquisite borders and pictorial narratives from royal courts. The dearth of an organised art market in the country for almost a century and the loss of patronage during the British-era resulted in stagnation of Indian art, where the tradition of collecting art always existed and ateliers played an important role at courts of Indian rulers.
By the look of things, art value in the country has witnessed a phenomenal jump, if turnovers at auctions are considered. The art market at auction has grown from Rs 7 crore in FY02 to Rs 1,025 crore in FY22, as per the Grant Thornton Bharat-Indian Art Investor report. The market has clocked a 281% jump in the last 10 years itself, it adds.
Many art transactions occur privately away from the public scrutiny but auctions, especially during the first half of the last two years, have gained momentum with modernists and pre-modernists dominating. “It was gratifying to see just a few days ago a painting by Sayed Haider Raza sell for $5.5 million at the Pundole’s auction,” says Klein about the sale of Indian modernist’s Gestation in Mumbai on August 31.
A turnover of Rs 1,025 crore ($137 million) at various auctions was recorded in FY22, which can be attributed to well-established art infrastructure, and the impetus given by private sector institutions, galleries and art events. Several artists’ works are now selling for record-breaking prices. For instance, Paresh Maity’s Blooming Summer (2008) was sold for `58.7 crore at an auction this year. However, these sales form only a minuscule fragment of global art sales estimated to have clocked $67.8 billion last year.
In terms of art value, Indian artists such as Gaitonde, Sher-Gil, Husain and others were not able to achieve what their American and European counterparts could, despite their talent. Klein admits that the overall value of Indian art is lagging behind its western contemporaries. “Several of our modernists still have not received the recognition they deserve and, therefore, the values of their works are still lagging behind. However, the market is changing fast and these artists and their prices are catching up. For example, it was only late in her life that (Indian-American artist) Zarina received the recognition for her works that she deserved. Today, her works demand great prices. A similar example is of Ganesh Pyne, whose works command huge prices in today’s market, a recent phenomenon,” Klein adds. Last year, Pyne’s 30 works garnered over `10 crore in total at an auction.
New crop of artists
The new crop of Indian artists has largely succeeded in carrying forward the legacy of Indian masters in the global art scene. “Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Ranjani Shettar, Atul
Last year, Bharti Kher’s Ancestor—an 18-foot bronze sculpture—was placed at the entrance of Central Park in New York for a year through an initiative of Public Art Fund. Like her, several Indian artists are taking their works to the world stage. “Currently, Ranjani Shettar is on view at the Barbican in London; Mithu Sen just closed her mid-career retrospective at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne. And these are only a few examples of the numerous exhibitions being held around the globe of our contemporary artists,” Klein adds.
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