Reaching one of India's most coveted contemporary artists involves a journey over potholed roads flanked by shimmering new malls, where Delhi fades into the satellite city of Gurgaon. Nestled in a quiet street, away from the offices of multinational companies and call centres, is a sculpture of a gorilla's skeleton slumped in the middle of the floor of a white-walled studio. In another room rests a life-size sculpture of a woman who has sprung antlers from her delicate head.
The creator of these fantastical creatures is Bharti Kher, one of India's rising art superstars. A year ago, the 39-year-old was part of a growing group of struggling artists whose work was virtually unknown outside of India. Today, her sculptures of animals, female human-animal hybrids and spectacular sleeping elephants are displayed in some of the most cutting-edge contemporary art galleries in the world.
As interest in Kher's work balloons, so have prices. Misdemeanours, a piece of sculpture of a snarling hyena made from fibre glass, wood and fur that examines the shattered harmony between man and nature sold for $167,000 (Dh613,000) at an auction as Sotheby's this summer. Another work, Missing, sold through the auction house for $210,900 (Dh774,600) in May, while An Absence of Assignable Cause - a giant heart of a blue whale cast in fibre glass and festooned in bindis - was snapped up by Charles Saatchi, London's ad man turned art impresario.
In person, Kher is a blur of action. Between talking, she takes calls on her BlackBerry, directs her team of women assistants and organises packers to transport her latest body of work to her new show next month at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris. The last year has seen Kher catapulted into the international spotlight with the prestigious Zurich and London gallery Hauser & Wirth representing her, in addition to her first solo show in the UK at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead.
In conversation, she hardly takes a breath as ideas and opinions run seamlessly into each other. Her work, she says, engages with the idea of "hybridity"; with questions about how we construct narratives, myths and legends and what is real. "I'm driven by a fascination with and admiration for human beings," Kher says. One reoccurring theme in her work is the morphing of the female body. "A lot of my work is hugely feminist. But it's not overtly political. It can have many interpretations."
Although she's lived in India since 1992 and her work is conspicuously from the subcontinent, Kher was born and raised in Britain. She arrived in Delhi and ended up marrying a small town boy from Bihar who had not long arrived in the Indian capital himself. His name is Subodh Gupta, the current king of Indian contemporary art, who was the first Indian installation artist to sell his work for more than $1 million (Dh3.67 million).
"We were lucky because in those 10 years when no one paid us any attention, we had space to try things out and find our own voice," Kher says. Gupta's rise to art stardom, she concedes, "just happened so fast. And you think, 'we can buy a house now'." Kher and Gupta symbolise the breakthrough of Indian contemporary art onto the international scene as it rides the wave of the nation's fast-growing economy. Works are reaching prices never previously seen - or imagined. In the last three years alone, Gupta's prices at auction for an oil painting increased by 5,000 per cent, while modern Indian artists, such as the 82-year-old Tyeb Mehta, who has lived a lifetime of financial struggle, have seen their paintings suddenly fetch more than a million dollars.
Artists who once stood aloof, commenting on the change in India, are now its direct beneficiaries as domestic and international collectors clamour to build Indian portfolios. The boom was kick-started by wealthy Indians, mainly those living in the US, whose pride in India's rising economic status spurred them to acquire art from back home. Never before had Indians or Indian expats invested in art, signifying a cultural shift in values.
This trend was dramatically revealed when a New York-based Indian hedge-fund manager stunned Christie's in 2005 by paying $1.6 million (Dh5.8 million) for one of Tyeb Mehta's paintings titled Mahisasura, of a Hindu buffalo-demon. At the time, nobody paid those prices, but it proved to be a canny buy. Foreign buyers are beginning to see Indian art in the same way as that of another ancient Asian civilisation, China. Like Chinese artists, Indian painters and sculptors are being courted by international buyers and museums.
This has paid off, with major exhibitions planned next year in London's Serpentine Gallery, Japan's Mori Art Museum and the prestigious Arco Contemporary Art Fair in Madrid. Perhaps the most influential vote in the art world is that of art arbiters, such as Saatchi, whose patronage of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin in the 1990s helped to create the Young British Artists phenomenon. Saatchi began collecting Indian art last summer and plans to put on an exhibition titled The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today, next year. It is likely to be a watershed moment for the subcontinent.
The best-known gallery owner in the Indian capital is not Indian, however. Peter Nagy is a self-proclaimed New Yorker who arrived in New Delhi in 1992 and within five years had set up Nature Morte, more an incubator of the hottest artistic talent in India than a gallery. "In terms of the international scene, interest in India in still nascent," Nagy argues. The gallery remains the first and only one from India to be included in international art fairs, such as Art Basel and Miami and FIAC in Paris.
But the 49-year-old gallery owner, who backed artists such as Subodh Gupta long before they were feted outside of India, says Nature Morte is today "swamped" with inquiries from curators, private collectors, galleries and foreign journalists. It has enabled Nagy to expand Nature Morte, with a gallery opened in Kolkata last year in collaboration with New York's Bose Pacia Gallery, and a branch due to open in Berlin in October, which will show both Indian and non-Indian contemporary art.
Driving the interest, Nagy says, is the fact that India has suddenly become fashionable. "With the economy opening up in the Nineties, Indian culture has become more relevant to the rest of the world. It's influencing music and fashion, where you're now seeing Punjabi folk music mixed with gangster rap and the hip and happening restaurants in New York are Indian ones." Escalating prices are not just due to new Indian money, but also to the internet. Several online auctions have instantly connected hungry buyers to once-obscure artists. The pioneer of the model is Saffronart.com, which burst onto the scene with a $1.5 million (Dh5.5 million) sale of a painting by Francis Newton Souza, one of India's modern artists, in 2005. It gave buyers price transparency where previously there had been none. "Giving buyers information gave them the confidence to spend. As traffic increased among the Indian diaspora, the confidence effect trickled down to Indians inside the country," says Dinesh Vazirani, co-founder of Saffronart.
Around 40 per cent of the 12 million hits on the website are from interested buyers within India - a huge rise from the 20 per cent they represented when the site was launched in 2000. Meanwhile, interest from international buyers with no family connection to India has risen from five per cent to 12 per cent. But increasingly, users are the young, newly wealthy executives living in smaller booming cities such as Bangalore and Pune, Vazirani says.
The global flurry of interest in Indian contemporary art has spurred some Indian collectors who traditionally have kept their purchases under lock and key to open up their vaults to the public. Last month, hundreds of Delhi's well-heeled great and good turned up for the opening of the Devi Art Foundation, India's first contemporary art museum. The foundation is housed in a 697 square metre dedicated gallery space in Gurgaon and sees a giant structure of rust-coloured steel and exposed brick set over twin three-storey blocks, which face each other across a huge atrium open to the sky.
Created by Anupam Poddar, a key collector of Indian contemporary art and his mother, Lekha, who holds an enormous collection of folk and tribal pieces, the museum has been hailed as ground-breaking in the way it will challenge prevailing ideas in India about what art is. The inaugural show, Still Moving Image, showcases photography and video in a country where painting is still valued above all other forms. Using external curators, the museum will exhibit shows built entirely from Anupam's 2,000-strong contemporary collection and his mother's 5,000 pieces.
One of the artists shown in the Foundation's first exhibition, Ranbir Kaleka, has moved not only with the times by switching from paint to video, but also geographically by returning to India a decade ago after many years living in London. Now 55, Kaleka left Delhi in his early 30s for London, where he had won a scholarship to study painting at the Royal College of Art. Far from being a struggling artist in India, Kaleka had been patronised since his undergraduate days in his native Punjab by the late American collectors Chester and Davida Herwitz, who then held the largest and most comprehensive body of modern and contemporary Indian art in the world. They bought every work Kaleka made at a time when "people didn't sell very much". Before he left for London, Kaleka recalls that artists in Delhi would meet and talk about their work, but not prices. "They'd talk about how to save money by not squeezing too much paint on the palette and turning the canvas around to use both sides," he says.
When he returned to India, the buzz around contemporary art was just beginning to happen. "There was great excitement in the Indian art scene when Britain had long looked depressing. It no longer seemed to be a handful of artists but a much more vibrant scene," Kaleka says. Another factor in Kaleka's return to India was that financial climate had changed. In the early 1990s, he sold a series of paintings in an Indian gallery auction to an Indian industrialist for more than one million rupees (Dh80,495). "That was considered a huge figure then," he says.
For Kaleka, modern India has two draws: it is cheaper to produce art for which videographers and editing suites are needed, as well as India's rising status in the art world. "More people come to see me here than they would if I was still in London making the same work. It's made a difference that I'm an Indian," Kaleka says. The heightened interest in India has doubled the value of Kaleka's work in the last three years. One of his recent works is about to be sold for over $100,000 (Dh367,000).
Although the Indian art market has come a long way, there remains some way for public art in India to travel. Artists complain of a lack of state funding and support, about the absence of rigorous criticism of the work itself and too much focus on prices. Monica Narula, part of the Raqs Media Collective, a group of three Delhi-based artists who are just back from curating a show at Manifesta 7, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art in Italy, is among them. "In India, the most symbolic value of art is linked to what you sell for. There are no not-for-profit spaces, foundations and grants, so there's no other way for an artist to survive than to sell in commercial galleries. What will sell decides what you make."
While Raqs is known and respected across Europe where it has been part of many high-profile public art projects (most recently when the trio constructed a lighthouse and sea sound installation in an abandoned cinema in Norway), they are rarely invited to show in India. "The way the art system works here means that we don't fit in. We don't make things that are easy to hang on a gallery wall. The idea of who an artist is remains stuck in the 19th century model of an individual who works from their guts."
Perhaps most troubling for artists in India is the threat of censorship. The issue is exemplified by the fate of India's most famous living artist, MF Hussain, who has been in self-imposed exile since January 2006: forced out by threats from Hindu groups enraged by his paintings of nude gods and goddesses. His paintings were conspicuous by their absence at India's first modern art summit in August.
Recognised as one of the first Indian artists to sell his work in international auctions, the 93-year-old is credited with laying the seeds for today's boom. Despite India's supreme court clearing him earlier this month of the charges, which claim he hurt "Hindu sentiment", the artist says it is still not safe for him to return to his native Mumbai and lives between Dubai and London. "I really would love to [come back to India]," he told the Indian magazine Tehelka after the judgement. "But I might wait awhile because the battle was not just in the courts. There is still a real danger of violence on the street."