(Courtesy India Art Fair)
(Courtesy India Art Fair)

For the India Art Fair, a fresh palette with new director Jaya Asokan

Asokan steps into a vastly altered world. How will she navigate the pandemic, shrinking markets, digital art and a community with a greater need than ever to connect?
UPDATED ON APR 11, 2021 06:19 AM IST

If you’re not prepared, the India Art Fair can be chaos. The country’s premier gathering of artists, gallerists, curators, auctioneers, art charities, cultural institutions, dealers and collectors, isn’t a place to amble. Visitors stride decisively from booth to booth, hoping to turn a competitor into a potential collaborator. Art collections are sized up, databases merge, new buyers are tapped, old quirks tolerated. There’s a lot of catching up, chatting up, congratulating and cultivating of contacts. Last year’s edition had more than 75 exhibitors from 20 Indian and international cities.

Last week, Jaya Asokan, the fair’s former head of exhibitor relations, took over as director of the IAF. Her aim, she has said, is to “drive business and define the purpose of the future editions”. There is to be a new website and new partnerships. And education initiatives, artist commissions and pop-up programmes designed to turn the 13-year-old trade event into a year-round effort to increase audiences for Indian art.

Some of this was already a work in progress. Asokan’s predecessor Jagdip Jagpal played a consolidating role in her three years on the job. Under Jagpal, at least 70% of exhibitor space was reserved for Indian galleries. Art spaces from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka gave it broader sub-continental identity. There was greater focus on performance art and there was an art bookshop.

“Jagpal infused the fair with a renewed sense of purpose,” says Ranjit Hoskote, art critic, cultural theorist and poet. Mortimer Chatterjee, who runs Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal gallery with wife Tara Lal, agrees. “In many ways, the IAF has come to resemble something approaching an all-India gallery week,” he says. “It is an opportunity for collectors and art lovers to understand what positions galleries are taking, and for galleries to check in with their peers and discuss issues of mutual concern. IAF fosters a feeling of collegiality amongst the arts ecosystem, which is critical to the development of the local arts scene.”

News of new leadership, then, is aptly timed. This February, the IAF (like events around the world) took a pandemic break. “But it’s been a better time for the fair than last year,” says Hoskote. He says the Covid-19 crisis got everyone from museums and galleries to folks stuck at home to turn to art and be reminded of its value to humanity. It makes the fair a useful and necessary platform for the art world to converge on. “At its best, the IAF can act like a beacon, creating a group-portrait of India’s galleries.”

And Asokan is well-suited to the task. A graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, she has more than 20 years of experience in sectors that span the arts, culture, design, fashion and luxury.

Minal Vazirani, co-founder of the online art and antiquities auction house Saffronart, recalls when Asokan started out in India’s art world, managing client relations for Saffronart in 2006. “She is adept at navigating diverse categories while managing people, and most importantly, maintaining a sense of calm through virtually any storm,” Vazirani says. “I imagine that is an essential skill for anyone leading the India Art Fair into its next phase of growth in our new normal.”

Read more on how the art world is changing

Also importantly, Asokan is universally liked, Chatterjee says. This will help as she navigates a different world than the IAF has known so far. Vazirani remembers the fair’s first edition, in 2008 — a single hall, a few booths, but a much-needed common ground for galleries across India. “We have had different organisations including auction houses, galleries and dealers, wear different hats in order to support the ecosystem at large,” Vazirani says. For an industry historically buoyed by the private sector more than government grants, museum exhibitions or educational development, there are rough waters ahead.

Chatterjee says architects now play an increasingly important role, as their clients are open to investing in art for the homes they’ve commissioned. Nationally, as budgets shrink in the pandemic, resulting in fewer large-scale art exhibitions, “it is likely that collectors themselves will play a pivotal role in defining gallery programmes” the way they did after the economic downturn of 2008, Chatterjee adds.

Already, 2021 has seen art storm the headlines. In March, a non-fungible token (NFT) or digital-only blockchain art work by the artist Beeple fetched $69 million at a Christie’s auction. Closer home, an untitled 1961 abstract work by VS Gaitonde fetched almost 40 crore or $5.5 million at Saffronart’s Spring Live sale, a global record for an Indian artist at auction. Even the Louvre in Paris, the last major museum holding out on digitising its collection, finally put all its 480,000 objects online for free viewing.

Asokan’s plans for the 13th edition of the India Art Fair — which will be held at Delhi’s NSIC Exhibition Grounds from February 3 to 6, 2022 — will doubtless acknowledge this changed world. But Hoskote says it’s also time for the IAF to dream bigger. “We’ve long had a good national market, but the fair must now plug cohesively into the international scene,” he says. “Not to seek legitimacy but to take our place in the world.” No time to amble, then.

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