The Indian art world is dead. Long live the new Indian art world
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The Indian art world is dead. Long live the new Indian art world

There is no burgeoning of young collectors eager to support artists of their generation, and the tiny number of established buyers circle just a handful of dealers of repute, who themselves keep doubling down on the admittedly great artists who kickstarted Indian modernism in the middle decades of the 20th century. There are very few exceptions.

analysis Updated: Dec 29, 2018 11:12 IST
An art exhibition in Punjab Kala Bhawan, Sector 16, Chandigarh(Karun Sharma/Hindustan Times)

Five 25-somethings walk into a gallery full of masterpieces and immediately pull out their smartphones. There’s no punchline. This isn’t a joke, or a lament. Instead, our young subjects were using state-of-the-art augmented reality to get more out of their museum experience than previous generations could have ever imagined. According to surveys conducted by Cuseum, an American start-up providing IT solutions for cultural institutions, 91% of museum-goers say “mobile technology made it dramatically easier to access information about artists” and 87% agreed it “enhanced their overall experience”. That data hints at just how much the art world has changed, and how it will be compelled to transform in the future, as cultural influence and power shifts dramatically to a generation that has grown up immersed in the internet and digital technology.

We call them millennials, which is loosely defined as everyone born between the early 1980s and the dawn of the 21st century. The tipping of the scales is already evident in India, where roughly 450 million of them comprise the largest generation ever produced by any country in the history of the world. They are also the chief wage earners, at nearly 50% of the working population. An astonishing moment of convergence will happen in 2020, when India’s population will officially become the youngest in the world (with an average age of 29) and smartphone penetration will effectively reach 100% of these young consumers, according to projections by the TRAI.

Everything we know about human nature reiterates that young people are highly changeable. So it’s hazardous to predict how they will behave in the future. Nonetheless, some broad global trends are visible, as millennial economic impact becomes increasingly decisive. They shop online, so brick-and-mortar retail is having to adapt. They stream movies and music online, so cinema halls and record shops are seeing sales affected. This youthful cohort is accused of striking the death knell for industries as varied as diamonds, motorcycles, breakfast cereals, golf, and paper napkins.

But while many of these generational preferences are exerted worldwide and across borders, the millennial relationship to India’s fragmentary, fakes-riddled art world is unique due to our singular circumstances. Here, prices have fallen precipitously at least twice over the past 20 years. Together, a prolonged economic downturn and government monetary policies like the Goods and Services Tax have seen the entire arts marketplace stagnate. Meanwhile, uninformed buyers are routinely ripped-off by unscrupulous dealers. Recently, fugitive jeweller Nirav Modi was widely pictured in the media, grinning ear-to-ear, next to his ‘prized collection’ of obviously fake Souzas.

Large-scale events like the Kochi biennale, Delhi art fair and Serendipity arts festival (where I am co-curator of this year’s Panjim 175 group exhibition) project the simulacrum of a functioning Indian arts ecosystem. But the reality does not live up to any of the hype.

There is no burgeoning of young collectors eager to support artists of their generation, and the tiny number of established buyers circle just a handful of dealers of repute, who themselves keep doubling down on the admittedly great artists who kickstarted Indian modernism in the middle decades of the 20th century. There are very few exceptions.

“One of the worst things that could have happened to the Indian art world is the creation of a cult around the Progressive Artists Group and their younger contemporaries and colleagues, and the celebration of a handful of artists as representative of some of the most lively and active decades in postcolonial Indian art,” Ranjit Hoskote says. “The result is an excessive desire for the work of a few artists. Since most of them are, rather disobligingly, no longer with us, the demand for their art is met by other means. This explains the alarming increase in fakes attributed to Souza and some of his peers.”

Fraudulence, empty baubles, relentless hype… the cultural landscape inherited by Indian millennials is strewn with pitfalls. They are taking charge of something akin to a grand mansion fallen on hard times, with toxic waste pooled in the corners. But here is where this famously idealistic generation’s community spirit, and collectively irrepressible search for meaning, might wind up actually providing necessary antidotes.

At the Serendipity Arts Festival on the Panaji waterfront, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how tirelessly committed the youth brigade is to what they believe in. I’ve also been impressed by their casual collective retreat from white-cube gallery hierarchical snootiness, in favour of hands-on engagement with conceptual and performative arts.

At our own Panjim 175 venue (co-curated with Swati Salgaocar), we have been struck by how powerfully they connected to works with historical depth and relevance to their own senses of identity and belonging. They loved everything with an environmental bent.

We laid out the rooms for readymade selfies and Instagrammable moments, and did create an app for the project. But we’ve been surprised and very pleased to also see them huddle to talk in whispers, then emerge to ask prices. The Indian art world is dead. Long live the new Indian art world.

Vivek Menezes is a curator, photographer, writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 29, 2018 11:12 IST