Walking through Art Expo India 2009 in Mumbai's Nehru Centre, it's hard to imagine that there is a global economic crisis. If anything, the canvases are larger and more obviously bright than they were in previous years, the sculptures and installation pieces hold pride of place, and the gallery owners look cheerful. And while there are a few top artists present, it is clear that the new generation is holding down the fort. The Indian art market is still very much in its nascent stage. Just as recently as 1999, the scene was dominated by a venerated few, and most artists, except perhaps greats such as MF Husain, were relatively unknown. All that is now changing, and if figures are to be believed, the lesser-known artists are seeing their stars rising.
Indian gallerists have used the economic climate to promote younger, lesser-known artists to their advantage. This could also explain the recent emergence of new galleries almost everywhere you turn, not to mention the phenomenal success of online art galleries. Saffron Art recently had an auction that yielded excellent results. Paintings went from between $5,000 (Dh18,365) to $379,000 (Dh1.4 million).
"The slowdown has definitely helped people realise the expansion of other artists," says Rishiraj Sethi, the director of Aura Art Development. "When you invest in lesser-known artists, they are bound to appreciate in value. It's like getting a fixed deposit in terms of art." Sethi certainly knows how to work the market. He brought the artist Jayant Parikh's work to Mumbai's Four Seasons hotel and sold his canvases, which have watercolour and oil images of elephants and Indian streets, at competitive prices. Parikh is due to receive an award and extra publicity in the coming months, and Sethi hopes that people who have purchased from the gallery before that will see their paintings greatly increase in value.
This sort of market planning is in the minds of all gallery owners. Take Priyasri Patodia, an artist who started the Priyasri Art Gallery in 2003. "Other galleries were unwilling to invest in younger artists," she says when asked why she decided to jump on board, "And the prices were so ridiculous." She cut prices, offered younger exhibitors and pulled lithographs and prints into the limelight. The result? "There's greater interest and they're cheaper to buy." By bringing new material into a previously saturated market, Patodia and a lot of other curators and gallerists are ensuring that prices for senior artists stay stable while the junior ones climb the ladder. "Not just any old masters appreciate," says Patodia, "but the younger ones have a greater chance of increasing in value." Sethi agrees with this: "There is a general flight towards safety and quality." He draws a graph to illustrate his point, using the artist Subodh Gupta, who is currently selling at anywhere between Dh674,000 and Dh1.5 million. An artist such as Parikh, who is pricing his largest canvas at Dh30,500, grows slowly, but his graph will continue to rise just as steadily. Not many people will be able to afford Gupta's works for much longer. In fact, the Saffron Art website points to this fact. Its recent auction fetched $209,875 (Dh771,000) for an untitled work by Gupta, whereas a similar piece sold previously for $1.5m (Dh5.51m). Obviously, people are reluctant to spend too much money, even to secure work by a well-known artist.
What of quality? A recent article from the Madrid Art Fair by the Indo-Asian News Service revealed that the focus of Indian art has switched quite dramatically from price to quality. "It's art for art's sake," claims Patodia. "Before the recession, this didn't happen." The well-known artist Paresh Maity, whose giant sculpture made out of motorcycle parts dominates the entry, confirms this. "Nowadays," he says, "younger artists are more prominent because their works are better than they used to be. There's a lot of striking, colourful work."
Anjolie Ela Menon, one of India's foremost artists, thinks that the drop in Indian art prices - and there is quite a significant drop - preceded the recession. "The boom was started by the investors," she says. "And they all started to offload in the last two years. There are huge quantities of work that are pumped up too fast, and that will crash faster as a result." She also thinks that since all this work will be offloaded to collectors, there will be a shakeout of unaesthetically pleasing works. "Very ugly art, the works that are depressing, for example, will be the first casualty of the recession," she says. "Also, political art will fade somewhat, once the cause for which it was painted has been realised."
There is also interest in the art scene in India from foreign buyers. Auctions of Indian art abroad have had paintings go for as much as $1.6m (Dh5.88m) last year. That was for a Husain work, but the other artists are also doing well, selling for tens of thousands of dollars. At the Korea International Art Fair, India was the guest country. At Art Expo India, the inaugural speech was by Kay Saatchi, the ex-wife of Charles Saatchi, and an art world doyenne in her own right. Today, there will be a talk by Kirsty Ogg, curator of the Whitechapel Gallery in London. "India is on the map," she says, cheerfully. "The sales in London have been quite good, especially of a core group of Indian artists." She believes the worst of the tough economic times is behind us: "It's not quite as catastrophic anymore," she says, adding: "Just because the sales have dropped, it doesn't affect the intellectual value of the artwork."
The downturn has also seen a lot of new mediums being explored. Indian artists are beginning to explore video installations, photo collages and graffiti. And in the same way that music has evolved into a web-based medium, it probably won't be long before online art galleries are the only place to shop. These new media artists, who were never really taken seriously before, are now being invited to showcase all over the world. Despite rising costs of production, it doesn't seem like they want to stop. The video installation artist and photographer Chittrovanu Mazumdar, who was at the Art Expo, explains: "It came from a time when nothing used to sell, so buyers or the lack of them were never a deterrent. I mainly create because of a very primordial wish and a will to work." The "old school" artist Maity is echoing the same sentiments. "I believe in slow motion," he says. "I'm not affected by the recession at all. I just want to create, happily."