The Good Life

It's reigning art

Ongoing art fairs in South Asia are a lot more than just a tourist attraction

In Dhaka, where this column is being written, the country’s contemporary stars — its Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher equivalents, however odious the comparison — Mahbubur Rahman and Tayeba Begum Lipi are basking in the limelight of their work. Her razor blade and his surgical scissors mounted installations are drawing crowds; Shazia Sikandar’s Parallax, a three-screen animation, is riveting, and Rashid Rana’s work is a provocative take on the way we look at and consume art. Jitish Kallat, Gigi Scaria, Riyas Komu, Reena Saini Kallat and Mithu Sen are at large in the corridors of the Dhaka Art Summit, where galleries from the subcontinent and further are showing works, heralding the spring of the art fair in its second edition.

A week earlier, the action was all in New Delhi, where the India Art Fair in its sixth edition took a more confident step forward. Collectors and first-time buyers brought sharp bargaining skills and bursting purses. The safer art aesthetic saw brisker sales than in previous years. It was the Big Brother of art events in the region and it delivered on that promise. Parallel events included retrospectives on the modernist master (and “national treasure”) Amrita Sher-Gil as well as contemporary Subodh Gupta, among others.

Jitish Kallat was formally introduced in New Delhi as the curator of the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which will kick off in December and have, like its debut edition, a three-month run. But typical of the capital’s looking-over-its-shoulder culture, the talk was all about other venues, chiefly Dhaka but also Colombo, where a biennale underway was drawing mixed reactions, and when is the Karachi Biennale anyway, guys?  

Not to be outdone, Art Chennai made its presence felt. It might not yet attract the big artists, the bigger collectors, but it’s done its bit to pull in the cognoscenti of the south at least. It also raised a pertinent question — do we need art fests in the manner of lit fests to popularise art, or must it remain an elite pursuit?

Whatever the outcome of that debate, this much at least is certain that art is again evoking interest, not least because of Christie’s debut auction in India, where record prices were set for a number of artists, and a painting by VS Gaitonde sold for an astounding ₹23.7 crore. Not everyone is looking at spending that kind of money, but there’s a change with regard to even emerging artists. In both Delhi and Dhaka, the art may not have been what curators like to describe as “cutting-edge”, but it appealed to young sensibilities and was sensibly priced. For a few lakh, interesting artists can be picked up for the cocktail conversations they will light up and the resonance they bring to the “collector”. Framed matchboxes all in a row? Now why didn’t I think of that?

Art has the ability to create distinctions beyond mere luxury brands. Anybody can buy a Boss suit, a pair of Loboutin heels, a Gucci dress, a Vuitton bag — but a particular Husain, an exceptional Souza, a provocative Surendran Nair? It is the competitive streak of finding the “better” work that makes art viewing and collecting so pleasurable. And it is this challenge that has got South Asia buzzing. The race is on.

The author is a Delhi-based writer and curator