Art collector Kunal Bijlani, 36, bought his first piece of photo art this month - a lens-based work by Tunisian artist Zied Ben Romdhane, showing an old Bangladeshi migrant standing lost and stranded at the Tunisian border.
The country head of a UK-based real-estate consultancy, Bijlani has been collecting art for four years and owns a total of 120 paintings, prints and etchings, mainly by young and emergent artists.
"Lately, I have found myself drawn to photo art," he says. "It appeals to me because it captures the emotions and textures of real life, of a specific moment, and freezes it forever."
The fact that this kind of art is more relatable, comes at relatively modest prices and has universal appeal - it can serve as a convenient conversation starter or ice-breaker in any group - is also piquing interest in the genre.
Amid a growing number of exhibitions of photo art - such as the one at the Clark House Initiative gallery in Colaba, where Bijlani bought his piece - Mumbai is now set to host a first-of-its-kind photography festival titled Focus from March 13 to 27, indicating how rising interest and increased exposure are driving each other in this emergent space.
Focus will feature free exhibitions, walks and seminars across 22 venues, including art galleries, performance clubs, lifestyle stores, restaurants and public spaces. (See focusfestivalmumbai.com for details)
More than 600 lens-based art works by 400 Indian and international artists will be on display, including works by senior artists such as Baiju Parthan, Gigi Scaria, Sooni Taraporevala and Prajakta Potnis.
Senior artists, including the likes of Atul Dodiya, Sudarshan Shetty and Riyas Komu, are also increasingly dabbling in this genre.
"Even the iconic Rashid Rana makes collages of photographs, including pixellated images, to make social comments," says independent curator Kanchi Mehta.
Galleries are increasingly opening their doors to such works too.
At the recently concluded India Art Fair, nearly 50% of the 47 exhibiting art galleries showed photo works.
The last three editions of the India Art Fair, in fact, have seen a growing number of galleries display photo art. "This time, the medium's presence stood out prominently," says Neha Kripal, co-founder and director of the fair. "I would attribute the trend to a rising young buyer base that is drawn to contemporary art, especially art that makes use of contemporary digital technology."
Familiarity with the medium is another reason for its growing popularity, says Matthieu Foss, art consultant and co-organiser of the Focus festival. "We all take pictures. Hence, the medium is more appealing."
Import business partners, friends and art collectors Aakash Belsare, 31, and Vishal Vora, 29, would agree. They have been collecting photo art since 2010 and now have 12 such works in their collection, including pieces by Sudarshan Shetty, Riyas Komu, Shilpa Gupta and Prajakta Potnis.
"I like buying works that make a strong statement, force people to think," says Belsare. "Plus, everybody enjoys a good photograph; even my cook does."
Their interest in the genre was first sparked when Belsare saw a photo work by artist Pushpamala N on a gallerist's desk. The staged photo showed the artist in a pre-Independence rural setting, riding a cycle in a nine-yard sari.
"It reminded me of my grandmother," says Belsare. "I also found the work provocative, making the woman seem independent and strong-willed despite her traditional setting."
Provocative and relatable art is also what interior designer and collector Jai Danani, 28, looks for.
Over five years, he has added 15 photo art works to his collection, including pieces by well-known artists in the genre, such as Vivek Vilasini and Nandini Valli Muthiah.
Danani's favourite photo art work is a posed picture of Kathakali dancers in costume, seated so as to recreate Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper.
"I found the dichotomy very interesting," he says. "In general, lens-based art has a more real-world, contemporary feel to it and that appeals to me."