Two months to go to India Art Fair and we have a crisis on our hands. The retrospective we had planned as a collateral event has fallen through, but it's too late to pull out the invitation from the VIP Diary. It's panic time. Can we do something with the resources of the huge private collection of Indian modern art at our disposal? It will involve research, the curation of works from an immense inventory, restoration, specialised photography, framing, commissioning, designing and editing a 400-page book with the perspective with which Delhi Art Gallery is associated (Disclaimer: the writer is head of exhibitions, DAG), all at breathless, breakneck speed. As we look at pictures, a latent idea and consensus is shaped. Can we pull off an exhibition on Indian nudes with a historic overview? A few days of poring over the inventory later, we decide — yes, we can.
In another part of the capital, preparations on a far grander scale are underway as a hangar, 20,000 sq ft in size, has sprung up with 350 workmen toiling to haul the big top over what will house 105 exhibitors that include 42 international galleries from 24 countries. In one corner of the site is a nursery where fair director Neha Kirpal’s three-month-old baby has found temporary refuge while her mother supervises the annual event, aspirations from which continue to ride higher as the slowdown pinches harder every year. In the absence of booming business, the art market is looking for sympathy, but the management is unyielding, uncompromising with anything to do with schedules or passes or last-minute changes. There is some grumbling, but for now the Indian galleries know they must accept it, whether in good grace or not. But there have been a few casualties in the list of international galleries. While it’s still extremely difficult to find a toehold in Dubai, or Hong Kong, or Basel, the queue for Delhi isn’t as long as it should have been.
The year 2012 was when hope died in a scarred art industry that went from buoyancy to bankruptcy since that first euphoric edition of the India Art Fair (then called India Art Summit) in 2008. At first no one believed the recession would last. Before the start of every art fair, prophesies of good times, catalytic triggers and a boost were touted. Anticipation hinged on every sale. But enthusiasm and faith can only last so far — 2013, therefore, rides on low morale and lower prospects. Five years of wishing on a silver lining that has failed to provide succour have proved financially draining. Kirpal, usually buoyed with optimism, has this year taken note of the sombre mood. “There’s a sense of caution in the market that has been communicated to us,” she concedes amidst the chaos of the under-construction venue that will be streamlined into a world-class platform by designer Sumant Jayakrishnan a few days from now.
Actually, it’s a hiatus that would be difficult to ignore as reports filter in of the increased difficulty in filling up the space with quality participants. Among the international galleries, regulars such as Lisson and Hauser & Wirth are notable for their absence. “That pullout is based on their international situation,” confides Kirpal. “What we have got from them is that they will do alternate years with us.” These and other Western galleries are testing the market with Rio in Brazil this year, part of their mandate to explore newer markets “which will convert curiosity into something tangible”.
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If the buildup towards the show has been slow — some might say comatose, sensing the popular mood of reticence when it comes to spending — it has not been at the expense of eminence. The management has pulled out all stops, and the action, even if it appears somewhat grudging, is going to be in New Delhi as the global art fraternity waits to pronounce judgement on whether it has exceeded expectations or failed spectacularly.
While no one’s holding their breath yet, those from international museums such as Tate and Moma and other cultural cauldrons who’ve registered are starting to raise optimism about an imminent Indian buzz, so what if it’s not strictly commercial. “That follows,” says a gallery owner with deeper pockets than most, “till then, building relationships is important.” Familiar friends and galleries are back — Vadehra, Sakshi, Apparao, Espace, CIMA, Chemould — amidst newer entries, hoping to build just those bridges.
The outreach in preparing for this year’s art fair just might add some muscle to the event with promotions in Tier II cities vying alongside the moneyed and powerful who are expected in Okhla. Christie’s is bringing a group of 23 “powerful” collectors to the forum. Groups from Israel and Australia have booked up for curated walks. The tempo for Sotheby’s dinner invitations is rising as word has got around that it will be launching designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla’s tome India Fantastique at the Imperial. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art has been much more generous with its invitations for Difficult Loves, its new curated venture, where the bar can be counted on to outlast the last guest standing. And if you haven’t got a pass yet for the vernissage, you might as well be invisible on New Delhi’s champagne list.
Several artists this writer spoke to have confirmed what some might have suspected — that the art fair, at least for a while — has replaced what galleries did traditionally: host shows. For this annual outing, they’ve worked harder on projects, and whether or not they translate to sales, you can count on more zing and ideas on offer at the fair. Emails and text messages are clogging up the cyberway with entreaties to stop by at booths, solo projects, galleries, sessions — a failure to acknowledge which could damage potential associations. The lineup of international speakers, the debut of galleries from the hood (Pakistan and Bangladesh) and those from unusual geographies (Argentina, Korea, Latvia, Spain), the presence of global art leader China sussing out the Indian market, the possibility of celebrity collectors and acknowledged artists rubbing shoulders with the hoi-polloi, educated viewer and philistine follower together in close confinement add to a sense of camraderie.
And away from the hum of the fair grounds, the city has turned into an art arena with after-parties, launches, openings, private viewings, awards announcements and the razzmatazz of gossip and politics amidst triumphs, sales, disappointments and achievements. At Lado Sarai, the city’s gallery precinct, the boutique shops have hung out their wares in a mix of group and solo shows and installations. In distant Gurgaon, Art Alive has got artists to paint on the walls which “deconstruct the market” that it will preview, no doubt to great curiosity, on February 3 over cocktails, just before the closing party moves to Devi Art Foundation amidst India’s most critically acclaimed space for contemporary ideas. “Raqs has put together an interesting series of performances for that evening,” director Anupam Poddar affirms. That evening, whether we’ll be draining our wine in celebration, or pleasant exhaustion, you can be sure that everyone will be raising a toast to the fair. And whatever its takeaway, critical or commercial, you can count on at least four days of feasting in this republic of art.
India Art Fair in New Delhi is open to the public from February 1-13, and strictly by invitation on January 31