Summit Kind of Wonderful

Zehra Jumabhoy at the third India Art Summit

Left: Artists Anish Kapoor and Mithu Sen. Right: Homi K. Bhabha. (Except where noted, all photos: Aqdas Tatli)

ENCOUNTERING THE SWANKY CROWD gathered at the red-carpeted VIP entrance last Thursday at Pragati Maidan, I guessed that this year’s India Art Summit was going to be an intimidating event. I was wrong. In fact, the building’s severe Soviet-style architecture formed a counterpoint to the hedonist revelry within. Alcohol flowed freely (quite literally: Cocktails were on the house), and celebrities appeared high on art—or each other. Theorist Homi K. Bhabha paraded around with his pal Anish Kapoor, who rubbed sharp-suited shoulders with superstar Indian artists: Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Vivan Sundaram, and Gigi Scaria (whose work will show up in India’s pavilion at the next Venice Biennale). The omnipresent Hans Ulrich Obrist dashed about (presumably in preparation for the KHOJ Marathon he was hosting on day two). Sheena Wagstaff of Tate Modern fraternized with art historian Geeta Kapur (diligently wielding her walking stick). Every once in a while, someone bumped into the armed security guards “protecting” M. F. Husain’s controversial paintings.

Undoubtedly, the summit’s third edition appealed to a wider range of international bigwigs than its previous iterations. Or, as the press release put it: “Visitors from seventeen cities in India and sixty-seven cities around the world” turned up. Speculations that India and China are going to be the next “superpowers” were aired regularly. “We feel there is huge potential here,” confided Nadine Knotzer of Dubai’s Carbon 12. By and large, the quality of artworks was better this year too. Bangalore-based Gallery SKE’s booth was a favorite: Here, Sheela Gowda’s work, consisting of cascades of plaited hair, shared the limelight with Sudarshan Shetty, who lounged on a smooth wooden bench—i.e., his artwork. A silver sign on the seat read GOD ENVIES MY MORTALITY. Indeed.

Left: Michelle D'Souza of Lisson Gallery. Right: Yamini Mehta, Christie's head of Indian modern and contemporary art, with dealer Mortimer Chatterjee.

Speaking of Supreme Beings, rumor had it that the father of postcolonial theory, Bhabha, lingered especially long over Ranbir Kaleka’s painting-cum-video installations. (Perhaps, he was pondering their “in-between-ness”?). Nearby, artists Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra played it safe. This mischievous duo, better known as T&T, set up a billiard table with two balls––a pink one that stood for one’s sexual partner and a white one that symbolized condoms. If participants got either ball into a hole, they received a gift: boxer shorts printed with images of condoms. Elsewhere, artworks seemed to be flying off their perches as rapidly as T&T’s billiard balls were ricocheting around the table. Dealer Mortimer Chatterjee couldn’t have been happier: “The Indian art scene has come of age,” he bubbled, having sold all his wares.

In her official postfair statement, the summit’s director, Neha Kirpal, announced that there “were literally hundreds of first-time buyers” and “many of the most expensive works . . . went to international private collectors.” Yet not everyone was raking in the chips. New York’s Thomas Erben, who participated last year, confessed to playing the waiting game: “I have heard from colleagues that in the Indian market only Indian or India-related material sells. This still seems to be the case.” Such dampeners notwithstanding, there was general jubilation that at least Indian collectors were buying.

If some galleries decided not to participate at the summit, they benefited from its presence in the city anyway. This was certainly the case for Talwar Gallery’s solo exhibition of Ranjani Shettar’s dreamy gold-and-blue installations. In Lagoon, azure- and pistachio-hued beads dangled from the ceiling. Resembling bunches of glossy fruit in deep, dark forests, the work provided a restful respite from the fair’s bustle. “There’s so much energy around the summit that it’s spilling over into satellite events,” observed Radhika Chopra, director of the nonprofit Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art. The most glittering of these “spillovers” was the Škoda Art Prize 2011. Its launch at the Taj Palace Hotel was (arguably) more glamorous than the summit’s opening. Modeled along the lines of Tate Britain’s Turner Prize, the award was given to Delhi-based Mithu Sen, to the jubilation of the artist and the distress of some critics who felt that Kiran Subbaiah should have bagged it instead. Luckily, we could drown our sorrows with champagne cocktails as we pondered Sen’s audio-visual display, which featured (among other treats) pink drawings of naked men coupling and defecating next to white flowers.

Left: Nadine Knotzer of Carbon 12, Dubai, with a work by Sara Rahbar. Right: Artist Sudarshan Shetty. (Photo: Shanay Jhaveri)

The summit’s self-congratulatory mood was tempered with debates about lacunae in India’s infrastructure––most of the fair’s panel discussions addressed this concern. Such talks are timely given the plans afoot for a new museum in Delhi (which The Guardian has already dubbed “Delhi’s Tate”) as well as the state of that city’s government-run National Gallery of Modern Art. The latter is hosting Anish Kapoor’s first retrospective in India in its new wing. Given that the Exhibition Hall’s gleaming black-tiled floor (that could belong to a classy bathroom) drags attention away from Kapoor’s works, even a sympathetic observer would have to admit that the show has not exactly boosted the NGMA’s reputation.

Anupam Poddar’s closing party at his private museum––aka the Devi Art Foundation––compounded the impression that different versions of India are currently jostling against one another. Here, pink martinis battled with the flavor of juicy, orange-spiraled jelabis; a shadow puppet show from Andhra Pradesh, reenacting the Ramayana (think Hanuman, the monkey god, stamping on blue-black demons), competed with the seductive strains of Bollywood hits wafting from the dance floor. “What is, like, authentic?” muttered a perplexed visiting journalist in the wee hours.

Left: Artist Jiten Thukral playing his game. Right: Dealer Abhay Maskara.

Left: Dealer Peter Nagy of Nature Morte. Right: Dealer Thomas Erben.

Left: Designer Chirag Dewan with architect Ashiesh Shah. Right: Collector Anupam Poddar.

Left: Writer and curator Shanay Jhaveri. (Photo: Zehra Jumabhoy) Right: Artist Andrew Logan in front of RAQ's Revoltage. (Photo: Amruta Nemivant)