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Indian contemporary art hot and haute in global market

October 13, 2005

By Sugita Katyal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Move over Mughal miniatures.
Contemporary Indian art is here. After years of buying ancient
Indian art from the Mughal and colonial periods, art lovers at
global auctions are increasingly snapping up contemporary art
from India, with its sweeping brushstrokes and sometimes exotic
religious themes.

Contemporary art has been going up the popularity charts
for some years now, but last month it scaled a new high when
auctioneer Christie’s sold a painting of a Hindu goddess locked
in embrace with a buffalo demon for a record $1.5 million.

Tyeb Mehta’s black and red painting “Mahisasura” is a
modern-day interpretation of a traditional Hindu legend of the
warrior goddess Durga slaying the demon.

“The rise in demand for Indian contemporary art has been
largely brought about by the growing economic power of
Indians,” Yamini Mehta, head of modern and contemporary Indian
art at Christie’s in New York, told Reuters.

“Plus there’s also the investment aspect.”

Experts say the hottest Indian export after curry are
paintings from the Progressive Artists Group, the best known of
them being the iconoclastic 90-year-old Maqbool Fida Husain.

Although inspired by European masters, the group’s
painters, including Francis N. Souza and S.H. Raza, sought to
break away from the styles of the past and combined elements of
Western Modernism with Indian heritage.

Also popular are the Bengal Masters who shun western styles
and use water colors, glass paintings and tempera to make
sometimes satirical social statements on subjects ranging from
politicians to bored housewives.

“There has been consistent and systematic growth because
we’ve changed the infrastructure and the knowledge base,” said
Neville Tuli, chairman of India’s first auction house.

GROWING CANVAS

Although Indian art is still a long way from the top of a
global art market where an Andy Warhol can sell for more than
$10 million, the growth has still been steep.

Five years ago, a Christie’s auction sold Indian art worth
$650,000; last month it sold works for $8.6 million, way above
its pre-sale estimate of $3.75 million.

Some of the big sellers at Christie’s were Husain’s
“Trial,” a representation of a gathering of village council
women, which went under the hammer for $486,400, and Akbar
Padamsee’s mythical landscape, “Mirror Image,” which went for

$419,200.

Media reports said a Sotheby’s auction of Indian
contemporary art in New York last month achieved sales of $5.5
million compared with a pre-sale estimate of $3.8 million.

“Progressive painters garner the highest prices because
they are so well known,” said Mehta. “But younger painters are
also selling.”

For years, the biggest Indian draws in the global market
were centuries-old miniatures, best known for their Islamic and
Persian styles, while contemporary art was relatively unknown.

But with growing awareness of art and more spending power
in an economically liberalized India, experts estimate that the
Indian art market has grown to 6 billion rupees today from just
50 million around eight years ago.

Last year, Husain sealed a deal with a leading businessman
to paint 100 canvases for 1 billion rupees, in one of the
biggest sales in the country’s growing art market.

Art galleries have mushroomed in Indian cities and the
country’s increasingly affluent upper middle class is investing
in art just as it is in the booming stock market.

The growing art market has also led to a flourishing market
in fakes: Some shops in Delhi brazenly sell Husain copies for
just 25,000 rupees while others make to order from catalogues.

“Everybody looks at the brand names. But the secondary
market has also grown because of better documentation after all
these auctions,” art critic and curator Ratnottama Sengupta
said.

“Painters have also become more savvy and begun playing the
market by scaling back production.”




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