Chit Chaat

New Delhi

Left: Lisson Gallery director Michelle D'Souza. Right: Art India editor Abhay Sardesai with artist Subodh Gupta. (All photos: Aqdas Tatli)

AS I SPED into the dusty Delhi precincts of the Pragati Maidan for last Wednesday’s VIP preview of the India Art Summit, I realized that the four-day event was going to be, quite literally, a big deal. The Sculpture Park surrounding the spacious building in which “India’s only art fair” was gleefully kicking off was littered with massive installations. A giant metal Dalmatian puppy (courtesy of sculptor Ved Gupta) stood beaming at the gate, while one of Ravinder Reddy’s ubiquitous gilded Heads—this time his black-haired damsel had ruddy cheeks instead of a gold face—welcomed us at the front door.

Now in its second year, the annual Art Summit was certainly bigger and—I’d have to admit—better than the 2008 edition. To eradicate past impressions, the organizers of the fair, members of the PR company Hanmer MS&L, pulled out all the stops. Stepping into the foyer, I encountered the good and the great of the Indian art world: The well-known artist Bharti Kher, her even more well-known husband, Subodh Gupta (whose swanky new studio everyone is angling for an invite to), and the Bombay-based artist couple Jitish and Reena Kallat mingled delightedly with the hordes of well-heeled collectors and admirers. Meanwhile, Nataraj Sharma and Mithu Sen (sporting a hibiscus in her hair) were busily examining their respective artworks: a vast steel cage, in which were trapped metal mini-airplanes, and two large pink thrones smothered in a pink, gummy substance encrusted with yellow fiberglass teeth and flowers. Both installations were part of the Summit’s “curated” section, titled “The Purple Wall Project,” put together by Delhi-based critic Gayatri Sinha. Also on display were a sprinkling of European curators and critics: “Altermodern” proponent Nicolas Bourriaud, theorist Thierry de Duve, and (surprise!) Hans Ulrich Obrist had all made the trek. (They had been invited to participate in the daily seminars on aesthetics, Asian art, and the art market.) Conspicuously absent, however, were works by India’s most (in)famous painter, M. F. Husain, which had been banned due to the risk of attacks from religious extremists.

Left: Artist Nataraj Sharma. Right: Artists Jitish and Reena Kallat.

The excitement was palpable—and you could tell it was more than the sum of all the free-flowing alcohol. Last year, Mumbai’s big-wig dealers largely boycotted the fair, opting instead to “wait and watch,” but this round they turned up en masse, putting their best (if more casually shod) feet forward. Sakshi Gallery showed off a glittering El Anatsui installation featuring bottle-caps woven to resemble silk. Sharmistha Ray of Bodhi Art sat determinedly next to Hujoom, Gargi Raina’s wooden sculpture of a decapitated horse, and staved off rumors of closure. International galleries making forays into the Indian art market were out in full force, too. London’s Lisson Gallery arrived with two metal discs by Anish Kapoor: One ice blue, the other fire-engine red, they resembled giant sequins.

Not everyone was bubbling with good humor (or sparkling wine). “It’s a bad year,” grumbled one disgruntled dealer. “People are just putting a good face on things.” Others were disappointed with Sinha’s section, which they argued, privileged trendiness over artistic merit. Subodh Gupta’s comment on war, Gandhi’s Three Monkeys made up of three massive heads—one of a soldier, another of a burka-draped person, and the third of a man in a gas mask—built from the artist’s signature pots and pans, was probably not selected for its subtlety. And Sinha’s much-anticipated video lounge consisted mostly of shorts by artists better known (quite justifiably, it turned out) for their work in other media.

Bangalore’s GallerySke took an aggressive approach with sales: For the duration of the fair it turned itself into a variety shop. Store Ske was a roaring success. Wares (priced between one hundred and fifteen thousand rupees) consisted of, among other knickknacks, a pair of spectacles by Sudarshan Shetty, rimmed with a gooey tearlike substance, and black T-shirts by graphic designer–turned-artist Abhishek Hazra. Was Store Ske a tongue-in-cheek comment on the insipid commercialism of art fairs or an unabashed targeting of “new collectors”? Probably both.

Left: Dealer Peter Nagy of Nature Morte with the artist-designer duo Sumir Tagra and Jiten Thukral. Right: Bodhi Art director Sharmistha Ray.

Critiques of conspicuous consumption flew swiftly from my mind on Thursday evening, when collector Anupam Poddar warmly welcomed guests to his Devi Art Foundation. Bourriaud, the ubiquitous artist-curator (and soon-to-be dealer) Bose Krishnamachari, and Chanel Mobile Art curator Fabrice Bousteau were all gathering attention on the dance floor. As Poddar encouraged us to “see the shows,” attendees were duly equipped with glasses of wine and maps of the cavernous building. The most affecting exhibition was a suite of paintings and eldritch installations on the first floor by Bangladeshi artist Mahbubur Rahman. One part was dedicated to a seated audience of “women,” shrouded in black head scarves, watching a film of a cow getting its throat slit. In the gloom, the fiberglass figures were eerily lifelike, and guests could be forgiven for preferring the less macabre seductions of the cocktails and chaat proffered on the lawn. A bevy of satellite shows opening the next night provided more aesthetically satisfying (if marginally less hospitable) experiences: Water-obsessed Atul Bhalla’s photographs and sculptures at Anant Art Centre in Noida considered the Yamuna River and its importance to “old Delhi,” while A. Balasubramaniam’s white-on-white sculptures at Talwar Gallery offered serene inducements for meditating on existence.

For many, the final day was passed in hazy euphoria. Notwithstanding mutterings of “Let’s see whether our new collectors pay up,” the fair was largely deemed a success. By the end, Sunil Gautam of Hanmer MS&L guessed that nearly forty thousand people had walked through. Were they buying? At the very least, we know the two Kapoors were snapped up. “Expectations were surpassed,” reiterated Mortimer Chatterjee, co-owner of Chatterjee & Lal. Most of the fifty-four galleries jubilantly professed to having largely sold out their booths. Gautam himself could be spotted ecstatically shaking hands and promising an “even better” fair next year. The Summit might have been cautious in its scaling of artistic heights, but it provided a much-needed boost to the Indian art scene in recessionary times. “The tide is turning,” yelled New York dealer Thomas Erben as he whizzed off to a celebratory dinner.

Left: Sakshi Gallery director Geetha Mehra. Right: Dealer Thomas Erben.

Left: Julie Herbel of Christian Hosp Gallery. Right: Mortimer Chatterjee of Chatterjee & Lal.

Left: Sunitha Kumar Emmart of GallerySke. Right: Artist Kiran Subbaiah in a Abhishek Hazra T-shirt.

Left: Artist Julius McEwan. Right: Exhibition designer Mark Prime and Priya Jhaveri of AM Art.

Left: Sunil Gautam, managing director of Hanmer MS&L. Right: Sotheby's deputy director Maithili Parekh with Project 88 owner Sree Goswami.

Left: Artist and curator Bose Krishnamachari. Right: Asia Art Archive's Susanna Chung.

Left: Collector Anurag Khanna. Right: Art India writer Avni Doshi.