Life | Fairs To Remember

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Fairs To Remember
Text by Madhu Jain and Illustration by Farzana Cooper
Published: Volume 22, Issue 3, March, 2014

While an ineffable air of excitement infused the Jaipur Literature Festival, a degree of misplaced optimism pervaded the air at the India Art Fair in New Delhi. Yet their democratic nature made them both appealing and memorable, says Madhu Jain

A rather shifty-looking gentleman with a Central European accent, hair lightly gelled, dark and wavy, slunk up to me at the recent sixth India Art Fair and whispered: “Are you interested in antique books, 19th century art, maps….” Here I was in the middle of a rather large and, evidently, happening booth trying to figure out an honest response to the much-touted, cutting edge and in-your-face art that dominated the fair this year. Others who were probably as confused as me had managed to put on knowing faces – we were among the fortunate to have been invited to a VIP preview. Looking bewildered and not au courant was not quite kosher for the occasion. You had to fake it.

I suppose it was my fake jewellery and the old Kanjeevaram sari I had pulled out that must have given the gentleman the impression that I was a collector with, well, significant means and loads of gullibility. My look of utter miscomprehension must have frightened him away and he disappeared into the crowd as fast as he had appeared. Perhaps, he had ventured out of his booth looking for customers because they were not coming to him. Perhaps, he was a shady dealer who had Trojan-horsed his way into the Fair to sell his antique ‘goods’. Who knows? Undoubtedly, he was one of the many international dealers or gallerists who had been drawn here by the buzz about a vibrant art market burgeoning with an expanding band of collectors.

THE DRAW OF BIG NAMES
No doubt some of this rather misplaced optimism must have stemmed from the record-breaking sale of Rs 23.7 crore for an early V.S. Gaitonde at the first India auction of Christie’s in Mumbai in December. Not letting the grass grow under its feet Sotheby’s – on the eve of the opening of the India Art Fair – showcased a few of the paintings in the elegant ballroom of the Imperial Hotel, works which are going to be auctioned in London and New York. Expectedly, there was an early Gaitonde (similar stratospheric price range as the Christie’s Gaitonde), the inevitable horse painting by M.F. Husain (Indian collectors love his horses), canvases of a few other big-ticket Indian artists and international artists, including a tiny Andy Warhol painting of a dollar sign dedicated to Jade Jagger, the now much-in-demand Gerard Richter’s painting and print, and a charmingly revealing early David Hockney self-portrait.

Interestingly the ‘viewing’, audience largely comprised collectors or potential buyers, and was preceded by a lecture for beginners on the art market – one which also explained the basics of art auctions and gave lessons on how to negotiate art auctions and become savvy buyers.

Meanwhile, back at the fair, a few of the international gallerists participating for the first time could not hide their disappointment.

In the impressive booth of Frankfurt’s Die Gallery the two gallerists sitting there, reading, looked a trifle crestfallen. They didn’t even look up as people walked in and out of the booth. Impressed by the quality of the work, I asked them about the exhibits. They could not believe that there weren’t any takers for Picasso’s lithographs (Rs 10 lakh each) and an original Marc Chagall for less that Rs 50 lakh. A fairly large oil painting by the French artist Andre Derain, the co-founder of the Fauvism movement in art with Henri Matisse, hung there like a wallflower: hardly anybody gave it a second glance.

Major galleries like London’s Lisson Gallery (Anish Kapoor is one of their artists) and Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, did a no-show this year. Some international galleries were despondent about the lack of sales. However, big smiles were visible at London’s Grosvenor Gallery which almost sold out its limited editions of British artist Olivia Fraser’s contemporary miniature paintings. Fraser, who is married to author William Dalrymple, lives in India for part of the year. She has her own delightful and deliciously whimsical take on it – using for this show stone pigment, gold and Arabic gum on hand-made Sanganer paper.

Possibly, the Indian buyers were drawn to the Indian subject of her work. Be Indian, Buy Indian could well be the motto for a large number of buyers this year. However, the focus of the organisers, including the dynamic Neha Kirpal, was decidedly contemporary, with many young artists participating this year. Individual projects attracted the crowds, including a quirky, thought-provoking STD booth by Israeli artist Achia Anzi – supported by Gallery Threshold. There was a carnivalesque air about the Fair – a mela you could say. The hordes came, and many of them were school kids or college students; a significant number who would hesitate venturing into a gallery.

A SYMBIOTIC LINK
It reminded me of the Jaipur Literature Festival that ended just a few days before this one began: both were besieged by uniformed school children and an army of young men who were obviously unemployed – and strangers to bookshops. It wasn’t just the democratic nature of the Art Fair and the Literature festival that was appealing. There was an ineffable air of excitement in the air in both places. Surprisingly, there was a link between the two, even though one was concerned with images and the other with words.

During a session on art and commerce moderated by Homi K Bhabha, Professor of English and American literature at Harvard University and head of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, artists Subodh Gupta, K.S. Radhakrishnan and photographer Dayanita Singh lamented, amongst much else, the sorry state of the colleges of art in India. Gupta said that there was a library in the Patna College of Art where he studied, but it was always locked. There was a course in the history of art, but the teacher never turned up. Singh stressed the need for mentors, a rewind to the guru-shishya tradition.

Well, at the India Art Fair a few days later a Mentor and Protégé initiative was launched, with Dayanita Singh and artist Jitish Kallat as mentors to begin with. So, it was a Fair to remember – actually, make that fairs to remember.


Madhu Jain is an author and a journalist. She writes for several publications and is currently working on her next book. She also curates art shows.

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