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Why the Indian contemporary art market is in the doldrums

Indian art infrastructure is pathetic. China has 4,000 museums, we probably have 40. China considers art a “pillar industry”, it hardly ever finds mention in the annals of our policy landscape. Our art schools are crumbling.

opinion Updated: Mar 03, 2018 18:25 IST
India Art Fair,Kala Bhavan,Kochi Muziris
A girl takes a selfie with an artwork of Debanjan Roy and Akar Prakar, India Art Fair, New Delhi, February 9, 2018(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

The Indian art market collapsed in 2008, in the wake of the great financial crisis. A decade later, it has still not recovered. The size of the market in 2008 was around Rs 1,500 crore; in 2017, it was Rs 1,460 crore, down 6% over the previous year, according to a recent report by KPMG-FICCI. The report blames demonetisation for last year’s sluggishness; however, in the same period the Indian stock market rose 30%. To put things in perspective, India is 0.5% of the global art market; China is nearly 40 times our size. The internals of our art market are even more disturbing.

Almost 90% of the Indian market is accounted for by the ‘modern’ segment. This is, in large part, a band of 10 artists – Husain, Raza, Mehta, Souza, Gaitonde, Padamsee, Sabavala, Ram Kumar, Khakhar and Swaminathan. Take them out, and there is no Indian art market, as would be evident on a casual reading of any auction catalogue of Indian art. The extreme narrowness of the market has resulted in spiralling of prices of the few good available works by these artists and fatigue among buyers. A narrow market is never a healthy market.

Artists of this generation, largely between the ages of 25 and 55, are what makes up our contemporary art scene. This comprises a measly 5% of our overall market – roughly Rs 70 crore. This is laughable – for a country of 130 crore people to have a contemporary art market of just $10 million.

The first reason, which most art market insiders will be loath to admit, is the abysmal quality of our contemporary art. Barring a few notable exceptions like the couple duo of Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher, Indian contemporary art is rank pedestrian. Derivative, unoriginal, contrived and often technically weak. Other emerging markets such as Africa, several Arab nations in strife and even neighbouring Pakistan are producing work of a quality that should put us to shame. It is no surprise that barring a handful of artists, we fail to generate any great interest or excitement among global collectors and buyers.

Closer home, matters are not helped by the fact that Indians are not enthusiastic art buyers. Less than 0.02% of our population has ever bought a piece of art. Yes, we do have more than a hundred billionaires, but for most of them, an art purchase is like a trophy, therefore limited to the same 10 golden oldies. There is another reason – mistrust. In the heydays of 2007, artists, gallerists, auctioneers and art investors had come together to inflate prices of relatively new artists to such absurd levels that many lost 70-80% of their value in the subsequent crash. Buyers remember this and are inherently suspicious of the prices of contemporary works. There is far greater comfort with the price discovery of modern masters.

Indian art infrastructure is pathetic. China has 4,000 museums, we probably have 40. China considers art a “pillar industry”; it hardly ever finds mention in the annals of our policy landscape. Our art schools are crumbling. There was a time when titans of our art scene adorned the faculties of schools such as Kala Bhavan (Santiniketan), Sir JJ School (Mumbai) and MS University (Baroda) and inspired the next generation. Those days are gone. Relatively recent initiatives like the India Art Fair and the Kochi Muziris biennale are welcome but ironically may serve to highlight the huge quality gap between Indian and global contemporary artists. The Indian government is simply not interested. Our minister of culture and arts has no time. There are some private initiatives like the Kiran Nadar Museum, but it’s a drop in the ocean.

The message that art is important, that its legacy endures and shapes our place in the world, that it will inform generations to come what India was as a civilisation, is lost in the din of generating GDP growth. If China is too big to emulate, we could at least take a leaf out of Africa’s book. If we don’t, we risk being remembered by history as a generation of a billion philistines.

Udayan Mukherjee is consulting editor, CNBC TV18

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Mar 03, 2018 18:25 IST