Seven Year Itch

Left: India Art Fair owners Sandy Angus and Neha Kirpal. (Photo: Manoj Kesharwani) Right: Artists Thukral and Tagra. (Except where noted, all photos: Zehra Jumabhoy)

NOW IN ITS SEVENTH YEAR, this year’s India Art Fair recalled a debutante at the end of the season, i.e., a wee bit weary. The preview to the four-day affair boasted less zest than prior iterations. Of course, familiar faces could still be spied, even through the alcoholic blur of opening night: Multimedia artist Mithu Sen, with the obligatory dusky-pink rose pinned to her kurta, floated gaily by (she’d just won the Prudential Eye Awards for “Drawing” in Singapore). Did I see the Delhi-based husband-and-wife team Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta? Thukral and his artistic twin, the beaming Tagra, shook hands in fluorescent-suited splendor alongside their dealer, the black-clad Peter Nagy.

If art-world glitterati seemed thinner on the ground, Bollywood actors—like the stubbly Arjun Rampal—eagerly took their place. Happily, I also clocked first-timers associated with brains rather than brawn—like the Courtauld Institute of Art’s director Deborah Swallow and art historian Julian Stallabrass, critic Barry Schwabsky, and British artists Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane. And I reunited with long-missed friends: Bombay dealers Mort Chatterjee (of Chatterjee and Lal), Sree Goswami (of Project 88), and Abhay Maskara were on full charm offensive on opening night, though none of them had booths. “Collectors at the fair seem to be buying at the decorative end of the spectrum. We will remain on the sidelines until we see a fundamental shift in emphasis on the part of the organizers,” vowed Chatterjee.

In all fair-ness, a number of Bombay folk were happy to add to the cocktail. Chemould Prescott Road’s booth was stuffed with talent: Hema Upadhyay presented a white “painting”— actually a grouping of long-grained rice inscribed with miniscule words recording anxieties about migration. At Jhaveri Contemporary the sharp-edged, Op-arty sculptures of British artist Rana Begum were paired with Pakistani Hamra Abbas’s filigreed paper cubes in sea-colored shades. Arshiya Lokhandwala of Lakereen settled for serenity: Pakistani artist Waqas Khan had contributed two drawings with miniscule pencil-markings. My favorite (what’s new?) was Experimenter’s peaceful portion. Here, Kolkata dealers Prateek and Priyanka Raja shared Ayesha Sultana’s graphite geometric works on paper—finely drawn lines shimmering like spools of silver thread.

Left: Girish Shahane, artistic director of India Art Fair. Right: Dealer Conor Macklin of Grosvenor Gallery.

“In Delhi, the market likes recognizable names and colorful images,” warned Londoner Conor Macklin of Grosvenor Gallery. With only a few Indian collectors, the scene seems precariously poised. Nor is the Delhi fair the gateway to Asia that Hong Kong turned out to be, or which Singapore styles itself as. “The fair is at the risk of becoming too local if the significant international galleries choose not to participate, as has been the trend over the last three years,” Raja lamented. Luckily, many of the booths sold works to the intrepid collector Kiran Nadar. And the pall cast by the recession appeared to be lifting. New York dealer Thomas Erben was relieved: “We had more sales than in 2012. We actually covered our costs.”

Costs (or consequences) weren’t exactly on my mind at the various “satellite” events—a kebab-filled bash at collector Nitin Bhayana’s house of plush paintings, Outset Gallery’s bit of fun on Lodhi Road—which included toppling over the collective CAMP’s studious videos about the “Palestinian question”—and Sotheby’s annual piss-up at the Imperial hotel. Was that collector Anupam Poddar wearing red sneakers? “Yeah, the parties are almost as good as Dubai, but who cares about parties? I’d like to see some business,” said a visiting dealer after much red wine at artist Krishen Khanna’s dinner at the Golf Club. Quite so. Another martini please?

For those interested, there were some good art shows too. If the midcareer un-retrospective for text-savvy Raqs Media Collective at the National Gallery of Modern Art was not quite the cure for my Saturday-morning hangover, the late Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Transfigurations at the same venue had me transfixed. At Mukherjee’s first retrospective at the institution, sculpted jute and bronze organic forms huddle in puddles of light—sometimes resembling unfurling flowers, at others the squat outlines of menacing medieval warriors.

Left: Artist Bharti Kher and dealer Aparajita Jain. Right: Dealer Priya Jhaveri and Mark Prime.

There was gratification to be found at the fair too. Girish Shahane had curated a number of special projects, including Pakistani Muhammad Zeeshan’s doomed offerings: Dubbed On Indefiniteness (2008), wasli paintings, encased in vitrines, were inscribed with the words IN GOD WE TRUST. The letters were slowly obliterated with black ink. Not relying on the Almighty’s benevolence, Shahane had planned the Speakers Forum (which merrily included the Courtauld Institute of Art and Artforum’s Writing Art: Conflicts & Collaborations) with aplomb. Yet despite Shahane’s dizzying lineup of speakers—ART India magazine’s Abhay Sardesai, Hong Kong curator Jackson Chang, and the Hamburger Bahnhof’s Britta Schmitz among them—not all the panels were packed. Had the yummy food (and martinis?) sidetracked audiences?

As I took refuge in Francesco Clemente’s outdoor tent inhabited by painted Buddhas, I groped for enlightenment. Maybe the lackluster atmosphere had another cause? The second installment of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale opened last December to much fanfare. Perhaps it was too much to expect galleries, patrons, and would-be collectors to cope with a fair and biennial in such quick succession. Especially since the same small pond of people is expected to bankroll both.

Certainly many of the galleries who eschewed booths at the fair backed Kochi instead. Lisson Gallery organized Descend—the swirling whirlpool of water that is Anish Kapoor's contribution—while Chatterjee & Lal have a number of their stable on display, including performance artist Nikhil Chopra, who posed as the fifteenth-century Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama. Sadly, by the time I arrived in Kochi—after the fair—Chopra-as-Da Gama had sailed away. (Unfortunately, party time was just a memory too—replaced by a series of panels starring Shahane, Gayatri Sinha, and Mona Hatoum.)

Left: Artist Jitish Kallat, director of the 2nd Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Right: Artist Bose Krishnamachari, founder of Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Curated by artist Jitish Kallat, India’s only biennial sprawls seductively over the port city of Fort Kochi. Taking into account Kochi’s ancient links with the spice trade, Kallat skillfully pulled together artworks related to science, astronomy, mathematics, and nautical navigations. At Kochi the smell of money doesn’t mingle ostentatiously with that of spices. From the earthy, crafty contributions of Valsan Kolleri to Benitha Perciyal dun-hued, aromatic sculptures enmeshed with Christian symbolism, Kallat’s choices couldn’t have been further from the superficial sparkle invariably associated with Art Fair Art. Even Bharti Kher suppresses her passion for iridescent bindis with her room-filling wooden triangles. As Stallabrass put it, Kochi is “very different from shopping.”

Nonetheless, as I watched yet another film referencing Kochi’s maritime past, I realized that at the biennial, too, commerce is vital—even if its operations are as convincingly disguised as Chopra himself. If commercial galleries hadn’t forked out for Fort Kochi’s unpretentious delights, we might not have had a biennial at all. Much like in the fourteenth century, when Kochi was the epicenter of marine bartering, the city’s prominence continues to be connected to cash. Money makes the Indian art world go round. Or, in Kochi’s case, stay afloat. Is that unfair?

Left: Artist Riyas Komu, cofounder of Kochi-Muziris Biennale.  Right: Collector Lekha Poddar of Devi Art Foundation and Deborah Swallow, director of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

Left: Dealer Peter Nagy of Nature Morte. Right: Dealer Geetha Mehra of Sakshi Gallery.

Left: Dealer Kajoli Khanna of Grosvenor Gallery. Right: Dealer Tushar Jiwarajka of Volte Gallery.

Left: Collectors Jahnvi Dameron Nandan and JM Dameron. Right: Bombay-based artist TV Santhosh.

Left: Art consultant Cordula Von Keller. Right: Artist Nandita Kumar with Wol Balston, director of Flint PR. (Photo: Manoj Kesharwani)

Left: Julian Stallabrass of the Courtauld Institute of Art. (Photo: Manoj Kesharwani) Right: Curator Sumesh Sharma of Clark House Initiative, curator Amanda Sroka of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and artist Donald Fels.

Left: Artist Luigi Ontani. Right: Artist Faig Ahmed and Afet Baghirova.