Material World

Left: Skoda Art Prize director Girish Shahane. Right: Dealer Lorenzo Fiaschi. (Except where noted, all photos: Zehra Jumabhoy)

THE FIFTH EDITION of the India Art Fair kicked off with a bang. Or should I say a smash? At the fair’s opening a couple weeks ago, dealer Lorenzo Fiaschi subbed in for artist Michelangelo Pistoletto—infamous in recent years for his performance Twenty-Two Less Two, in which he breaks giant gilded mirrors with a sledgehammer—and had a go at a piece of long, silvery looking-glass. CRACK! it went, shooting glittery shards all over Galleria Continua’s booth: The VIP preview had begun.

Mingling with the shiny fragments of mirror that night were lots of bejeweled guests. Among the art-world glitterati were William Kentridge, El Museo del Barrio chief curator Chus Martínez, Beaux-Arts editor Fabrice Bousteau, and the Guggenheim’s Sandhini Poddar. Also out and about were Lekha and Anupam Poddar, the mother-and-son co-owners of Delhi’s Devi Art Foundation; Tasneem Mehta, honorary director of Bombay’s Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum City Museum; and oodles of local talent. Mithu Sen posed for her portrait delightedly, a flower perched prominently in her hair (did it look purloined from one of her flowery paintings?). T. V. Santhosh rested wearily beside his Effigies of Turbulent Yesterdays, a sculpture of a beheaded rider astride a black horse with faux fountains of blood spewing from his neck. “So beautiful!” Bharti Kher exclaimed at the Kalighat patua paintings in Delhi Art Gallery’s booth, and “Bombay Boy” Bose Krishnamachari—the artist now known as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale’s cocurator—beamed with appreciation.

Left: Artist T. V. Santhosh. Right: Guggenheim adjunct curator Sandhini Poddar and Hanan Sayed Worrell. (Photo: Flint)

There was lots of soul-searching to be conducted at this fair, where mystical themes kept distracting us from material considerations. Gallery Espace’s gilded booth featured a peeling gold-leaf Tasbih by New York–based artist Zarina Hashmi (currently blessed with a retrospective at the Guggenheim). Pretty prayers notwithstanding, Paula Sengupta’s decapitated dolls were the truly moving items at Espace. They recalled nineteenth-century Tibetan figurines from the Losel Doll Museum in the Indian suburb of Mcleod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, where the Dalai Lama has his official residence. At Galerie Lelong, superstar artist Nalini Malani curated a “feminist” display: A Louise Bourgeois cozied up to a Nancy Spero, surrounded by floating female figures painted by Malani herself.

Like the previous Delhi Fairs, this one was liberally strewn with Subodh Gupta’s bartans, Bharti Kher’s bindis, and El Anatsui’s shimmery bottle-cap concoctions (imitating swathes of Ghanaian kente cloth). And though White Cube didn’t have a booth, we didn’t miss Damien Hirst: A photograph of For The Love of God ensured that his diamond-studded skull grinned toothily at visitors. Luckily, some usual suspects made unusual contributions. In Covering Letter, one of the fair’s official projects, artist Jitish Kallat screened Mahatma Gandhi’s letter to Adolf Hitler on a wall of mist. As we approach the letters, they disappear, and we feel like we we’re being swallowed in swirls of gleaming vapor. But it wasn’t all gilt and glow. “Unfortunately, some of the better foreign galleries, like Lisson, Hauser & Wirth, and White Cube, are not back,” lamented Sree Goswami of Mumbai’s Project 88. “Last year, they made us pull up our socks.”

Left: Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan, Christie’s Amin Jaffer, and Nadia Samdani. (Photo: Flint) Right: Hauser & Wirth's James Lavender and artist Subodh Gupta.

But the fair wasn’t the only game in town, and with so many satellite events, there were plenty of escape routes. The most thoroughly hyped of these was “Homelands,” a giant traveling exhibition exploring the porosity of national boundaries sponsored by the British Council at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Curated by Delhi-based Latika Gupta, the show includes stars like Mona Hatoum (who arrived in fine form and delivered a lecture), Jeremy Deller, Nathan Coley, and Grayson Perry, who—are you surprised?—contributed one of his risqué vases. Hatoum’s Prayer Mat resembles a soft carpet or welcoming doormat, but from certain angles its brass pins glinted evilly.

Thankfully, we were assured of a more comfortable reception elsewhere. Unfortunately, despite its hospitable fete at the Czech Embassy, this year’s Skoda Art Prize (India’s version of the Turner Prize, directed by critic Girish Shahane) was less of a nail-biter than earlier editions. At the National Gallery of Modern Art, there were videos by CAMP, an igloo-esque sculpture by Srinivasa Prasad, some installations by Shilpa Gupta, and Veni, Vidi, Vici, a work by L. N. Tallur comprising a traditional terra-cotta roof on which tiny figurines do yoga. Are his levitating yogis smiling with predictive knowledge? No prizes for guessing who won: Tallur bagged the one million rupees—roughly $18,500—for his 2012 show at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

As always, the real challenge at the IAF was sorting fiction from truth in the gossip mill. The juiciest tidbit was that Peter Nagy of Delhi’s Nature Morte was selling out to dealer Aparajita Jain of Seven Art Limited. “Don’t believe all the rumors!” Nagy ordered, then explained: “As an American, I am not allowed to have a business without an Indian partner. Previously, my partner was Dr. Arani Bose of Bose Pacia. But, as he has closed his gallery in New York, I had to find a new Indian partner. Luckily for me, Aparajita was interested. For the next few years, both Nature Morte and Seven Art will continue with no visible changes.” And indeed Bharti Kher’s solo at Nature Morte, featuring a wooden staircase and wheel bedecked with (yes, you guessed it) shimmery, spermlike bindis, only reaffirmed the strong direction of the gallery’s program. “Bind the dream state to your waking life,” the exhibition’s title advised us. Far away—both in distance and aesthetic—Seven Art showed a video of water leaking across a concrete floor by Brazil-based artist Vijai Patchineelam. Oddly enough, the scene recalled a snow-covered battlefield.

Left: Dealer Peter Nagy of Nature Morte and Aparajita Jain, owner of Seven Arts Gallery. Right: Artist Bose Krishnamachari, director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Elsewhere, too, the specter of conflict loomed large: Christie’s and Sotheby’s were waging war. If the former was listed as a “partner” of the fair, the latter—whose South Asia department is now spearheaded by Yamini Mehta—achieved a coup too: Amrita Jhaveri (incidentally, a former Christie’s representative) decided to sell off part of her collection with Mehta. “It does say something when one of the savviest people in the field entrusts us with her collection,” suggested Mehta. The auction preview featured a fashion show (!): lots of sequins-studded outfits and a gold-tipped umbrella created by the designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, as well as plenty of bubbly “to celebrate,” as Mehta put it. Not to be outdone, Christie’s resident dandy, Amin Jaffer, cohosted a champagne lunch with the Samdani Art Foundation—a nonprofit organization dedicated to Bangladeshi art—at Olive Bar.

Back at the fair, international punters were joining the fray. “Over twenty-three museums were represented,” noted India Art Fair founder and director Neha Kirpal, and indeed reps from MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Tate were clearly out in full force. Were they buying? “There was great museum interest. We did sell a fair share,” punned Aparajita Jain. “Fourteen booths sold out completely, and almost everyone reported sales,” maintained Kirpal. While there was general consensus that the fair had achieved better sales than last year, not everyone agreed it had spawned new collectors. “We are all selling, but to the same people,” contested Prateek Raja of Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery. “India has a young collector base,” explained Sandy Angus, a shareholder in IAF. “It has a long way to go before it catches up with the rest of Asia.” (Did he sound somewhat conciliatory?)

The week of the fair facilitated nostalgic meditations. “For us, this year was all about historical material—Nasreen Mohamedi, Zarina Hashmi, and Somnath Hore,” enthused dealer Mort Chatterjee. And in line with his assessment there was “A View to Infinity,” a riveting retrospective of the late Mohamedi at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Modern Art. To accompany her spare black-and-white line drawings, curator Roobina Karode reconstructed Mohamedi’s spare studio: a wooden stool, a drawing board, a geometry set. “It’s like a Sufi’s den,” said Karode. Were we about to cast off our materialistic shackles, ditch the hustle and bustle? That seemed like a fair trade.

Left: Tasneem Mehta, honorary director and trustee of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and art historian Estrella De Diego. Right: Dealer Rob Dean and Sotheby's Yamini Mehta.

Left: Collector Anita Zabludowicz, Christina Chandris, and critic Deepak Ananth. (Photo: Flint) Right: Dealer Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road.

Left: Art consultant Zara Porter-Hill and Kiran Nadar, founder of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Modern Art. Right: Nadia Samdani, collector Amrita Jhaveri, and Feroze Gujral. (Photo: Flint)

Left: Artists Jitish Kallat and Reena Saini Kallat. Right: Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels of Jack Shainman Gallery, Sunitha Kumar Emmart of Gallery SKE, and Prateek Raja of Experimenter Gallery.

Left: Abhay Sardesai, editor of ART India magazine. Right: Collector Bernhard Steinruecke, Beaux-Arts editor Fabrice Bousteau, Ranjana Steinruecke of Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Aman Nath of INTACH.

Left: Sotheby's Gauri Agarwal, Grosvenor Gallery's Conor Macklin, and artist Olivia Fraser. Right: Dealer Sree Goswami of Project 88.

Left: Artist Rashid Rana and dealers Tara Lal and Mort Chatterjee of Chatterjee & Lal. Right: Dealer Usha Gawde of Sakshi Gallery.