Painting the global Canvas

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April 17 – A robust economy, a new moneyed class, and the energetic participation of young expatriate Indians is giving India new clout in the world of art Long renowned for its beautiful paintings, sculptures and miniatures on temple walls of yore, the new booming, bustling, Indian businessman is investing in Indian art. Indians both at home and abroad believe investing in art can be as prestigious as a good address and as profitable as the stock market — or more so. And why not? While the Indian stock market has nose dived in the recent past, prices for art have tripled across the board, renewing not only interest in art pieces but also in art funds.

At home and internationally the Indian art market has more than changed. It has exploded. Prices have increased tenfold since 2002. In the last two years alone, they have nearly doubled. It is estimated that the Indian art market was worth more than US$400 million in 2007, up from US$200 million in 2005, reflecting one percent of the world art market and a huge latent market.

At 92, M F Husain, India’s patriarch of the palette, sold his “Battle of Ganga and Jamuna” for US$ 1.6million, at the recently-held Christies auction setting a world record at the South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale. Incidentally too, dominating the Sotheby's New York spring sales of Indian art, M F Husain's untitled work went for a hammer price of US$409,000. Prior to that, Saffronart's (a Mumbai based art gallery) first contemporary art sale this year closed at a total sale value of over US$7.15 million, which was well above its total higher estimate of US$5.1 million.

Until a few years ago, the main buyers of Indian contemporary art were Indians living outside India. But there has been a substantial shift since then, now it is estimated that about 85 percent of the buyers of Indian art are based in India. With the Indian economy growing, there is a rapidly expanding middle class which aspires to attain cultural and social status, part of which can be achieved by purchasing modern and contemporary art.

The Indian art scene is not only dominated by domestic buyers, Indian art is being bought in shows across London, Paris, Singapore, Dubai and more recently Hong Kong. Directors of international art fairs, museums and curators are also showing a visible keenness to source works created by the younger lot of Indian artists. These artists are viewed by the global audience to be dealing with issues which various nationalities can identify with.

As a result of the Midas touch Indian art has received of late, Christie's held five auctions of Indian contemporary art last year, up from three annually in recent years and has also displayed Indian art at auctions in Dubai and Hong Kong. New Delhi's Bodhi Art which already has a branch in Singapore opened in New York last September — adding to the city's six galleries already specializing in contemporary Indian work. And Indian expat buyers are becoming gallery owners: last April, collector and tech entrepreneur Kent Charugundla opened TamarindArt in Manhattan with a sellout solo exhibit by abstract expressionist Bal Chhabda.

Of late, the Delhi-based Art Konsult and Kolkata’s Mon Art Gallerie collaborated to put together a young artists’ show in Hong Kong. On display and offer were 70 works priced in the range of HK$10,000-100,000. Some names were Arunangshu Chowdhury, Sonia Mehra, Benoy Verghese, Surekha, Arun Bain and Pooja Iranna. The show achieved 70 percent sales and was bought into by Chinese, U.S., European and Korean clientele.

The current craze has prompted the introduction of more than half a dozen funds investing solely in the Indian art market. Upwardly mobile Indians, art collectors, high-net-worth individuals and ultra-high-net-worth individuals, as well as young entrepreneurs and non-resident Indians living abroad, are increasingly betting on next-generation artists, allowing fund managers to do the work for investors who want to get in on returns that have driven the Indian art market up 485 percent in the last decade and turned it into the fourth-most-buoyant art market in the world.

The funds identify up-and-coming artists and their undervalued art, and sell their work at gallery shows, exhibitions and auctions in India, Europe and the United States. Spurred by his initial success where the Arts India Fund I grew from US$4 million to US$9.5 million, Prajit Dutta, owner of the largest Indian arts gallery in the United States, opened the Arts India Fund II in April last year, requiring a five-year, minimum investment of US$200,000. The fund owns 250 pieces of contemporary Indian art, including an impressive lineup of younger artists such as Riyas Komu, Shibu Natesan, G.R. Iranna and Yogesh Rawal. They will be up for sale in Dutta's gallery, two years before the end of the fund's term in 2011.