ROUND AND ROUND and round we go. It was the eve of the sixth edition of the India Art Fair, and a group of us had made our way into Gallery SKE for Sudarshan Shetty’s solo exhibition, “Every Broken Moment, Piece by Piece.” The show kept us busy ruminating on revolutions, both physical and metaphorical: At its center was a burnt hexagon-shaped wooden container filled with shattered white crockery, and at the core of this chaotic jumble sat a delicate pink-and-gold teacup, rotating serenely. All the usual Shetty themes were there: the cyclical passing of time, decay, resilience. Walking out of the building—itself under renovation, as loud crashes and bangs testified—I wondered if I would escape the turmoil of the next few days as unscathed as Shetty’s porcelain.
This year’s fair produced a sense of déjà vu—at least initially. As massive as the last one, it occupied three tents and two hundred thousand square feet at the NSIC grounds, sheltering ninety-one booths crammed with artworks by one-thousand-odd Indian and international artists. Also like last year, queuing up outside the entrance were a smattering of “special” sculptural projects, such as young Anjana Kothamachu’s giant cement beastie, Agalma. Twelve feet high and weighing two tons, it resembled a cross between a demonic lizard and a chrysalis. “Agalma” is Greek for a seductive offering to the gods, yet for all its hefty menace, the sculpture itself was hollow. How deceptive appearances can be.
Inside the tented enclosures, the fair was in full swing. Its opening preview afforded all the trappings of success. Certainly, lots of designer-clad local celebs could be glimpsed in the crush. The bejeweled art patron Feroze Gujral and Kiran Nadar (owner of the eponymously named private museum) jostled amid the usual run up of “glocal” talent: Reena Kallat in a flowing blouse; Jitish Kallat (the artist director of this year’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale) doing his rounds; the ubiquitous Subodh Gupta (he of the shiny bartans, many of which were on display); Bharti Kher; Nalini Malani and the photographer Dayanita Singh. And there were the stalwarts: art historian Geeta Kapur with her hubby, artist Vivan Sundaram; Bombay-born cultural theorist Homi Bhabha. A mandatory sprinkling of “international” grandees—the Tate Modern’s Chris Dercon and Asia Society’s Melissa Chiu—rubbed shoulders with artists like London filmmaker John Akomfrah and Superflex’s Rasmus Nielson.
The art market didn’t seem depressed. Just as Christie’s Amin Jaffer was raising a bubbly-brimmed glass to the apparent success of his first Bombay auction, Yamini Mehta of Sotheby’s nursed her own secret: “We are going to be establishing a bigger presence in India,” she said, promising that announcements would be made soon. The parties were as stuffed with art as they were overflowing with alcohol: At their lunchtime bash, the mother-and-son duo Lekha and Anupam Poddar dished up—for invited guests, of course—an array of thoughtful, mostly abstract art: New Yorker Zarina Hashmi’s monochrome woodcuts chatted up Pakistani-Welsh Idris Khan’s black-and-white digital prints on the mansion’s walls.
Yet the fair itself didn’t offer up as much aesthetic titillation as previous editions. None of the big-name international galleries were there—Lisson, White Cube, and Hauser & Wirth had vacated the field. And if the IAF’s press release boasted of “galleries from Israel, France, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Turkey, and, notably, from Karachi, Pakistan,” most of them (barring Galleria Continua, Istanbul’s adventurous NON gallery, and Galerie Lelong) tended to be second-rung outfits. Which perhaps accounts for founding fair director Neha Kirpal’s guarded statement: “India Art Fair attracts an interesting mix of galleries looking for emerging markets, fueling tremendous possibilities for both business and culture.” No official visitor or sales figures were released.
Conspicuously missing in action were Bombay-based Chatterjee & Lal and Project 88. “I’m neither seen nor heard,” twinkled a sari-clad Sree Goswami of Project 88 as she glimmered by one of the booths during the opening. Amid a great deal of glitter—think Jagannath Panda’s giant gilded deer sculpture at Delhi’s Nature Morte booth—some Indian galleries offered true gold: Bombay’s Jhaveri Contemporary participated for the first time; Gallery Lakereen showed-off Waqas Khan’s skillful, discreet drawings. Trouncing competition was dealer Abhay Maskara. His khaki-green, net-swaddled booth imitated an army barracks. There Shine Shivan’s untitled “painting” was smeared with palm thorns, blood, and resin—what looked like the beaks of screeching birds were ranged along the canvas. “It has been a triumph of the will even at the fair. In the end, I’m happy: Things did sell, but to known people.” The complaint surfaced elsewhere too: “The biggest problem is to grow our collector base,” corroborated Prateek Raja of Kolkata’s Experimenter. “I’ve sold to the same young collectors—not new ones.” Parisian dealer Suzanne Tarasieve and her India consultant, Anne Maniglier, didn’t hold fire. “The IAF has to make more connections for the foreign galleries, they have to introduce them to major collectors. Our main frustration is that we are neglected,” complained Maniglier.
But NON’s Derya Demir saw the sunny side of things. “Ultimately, this event was about the city,” she said. Outside the fairgrounds we were spoiled for choices, reveling in a variety of contrasting exhibitions. As political video artist Nalini Malani grabbed our attention at Vadehra Art Gallery, Ranjani Shettar’s pleas for local flora, in the guise of wood-and-glass sculptures, at Talwar Gallery, quietly stole it away. If Zarina Hashmi spoke about mobile homes in her “Folding House” at Gallery Espace, Gupta’s extravaganza, “Everything Is Inside” at the National Gallery of Modern Art, attempted permanence, with a giant silver-shiny tree, dangling pots instead of fruit, putting down roots on the lawn.
Perhaps the most compelling blockbuster of all was INSERT 2014, an initiative presented by the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation and curated by Raqs Media Collective—with a little help from their friends. It spoke about the role of artists in changing the city and politics. With a weighty agenda and a humongous lineup of heavyweight artists—Superflex, Kendell Geers, and Rirkrit Tiravanjia, among others—the show could have turned into an overstuffed disaster. It didn’t. Filling up the Mati Ghar (aka “Mud House” in Hindi) of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the show was a labyrinthine archive of facts, footage, and epiphanies. Clark House Initiative’s curated section inserted young Prabhakar Pachpute’s crumbling, yellowish wall installation Wanted/Unwanted Move to discuss the ravages of time and enforced migration. As you approached the flaking wall, you noticed tiny, scuttling charcoal figures. “Through efforts such as Insert, we have begun tackling the limitations of the fair,” pledged Sumesh Sharma of Clark House.
Another significant offsite exhibition was Delhite Sonia Khurana’s atmospheric “Oneiric House,” a sprawling video-photographic installation that, Khurana explained in her sibilant-soporific press release, was “an examination of the realm of sleep, insomnia, somnambulism, somnolence.” As I watched Khurana nod off in her video, it occurred to me that the Indian art market might be resting, but the artists themselves are waking up. For me, this year was all about the satellites, and (surprise!) the art. A fair tradeoff.