When Neha Kirpal founded what became the India Art Fair (IAF) in 2008, she had a general idea of what she wanted to achieve. True, the fact that she had studied marketing and the creative industries in London no doubt nudged Kirpal in the direction of some of the most prestigious art fairs in the world, including Frieze London, Art Basel and Art Hong Kong – but this wasn’t some cooler-than-thou exercise in one-upmanship for a niche audience.
“We really wanted to create a platform for art in India, because the market was new and the infrastructure was limited,” she remembers. “And encouraging trade in art was actually only one of our objectives – really, we wanted to build awareness of the great potential and talent in India. It became clear that a healthy art market could only be achieved through a long-term effort to engage new audiences.”
And five years on, playing the long game is beginning to pay dividends for Kirpal. The first art jamboree in New Delhi (it was formerly called India Art Summit) had 30 exhibitors, but when the 2013 IAF opens today, there will be 105, showcasing the work of more than 1,000 artists from India and the world.
And it’s not just cool new work from Asia that dominates, although the likes of the Saatchi favourite, India’s Muktinath Mondal, and Thailand’s Pakpoom Silaphan will no doubt draw a lot of interest. The IAF also boasts work from the man called the Indian Picasso, the late but increasingly popular M F Hussain, and, well, Picasso himself.
Far from being an exclusive, foreboding experience aimed at those with deep pockets, the IAF is actually becoming something of a crowd pleaser.
“Because we’ve done the work to reach out to people in India and the world, we’re seeing renowned museums, galleries and collectors make the trip to Delhi, but we’re always keen to make it accessible to the general public,” says Kirpal. “People from all walks of life come to the fair, which reflects the Indian art market. It’s a huge reservoir of talent set against rich cultural history. We’ve seen a rise not only in the number of predictable buyers – high net-worth individuals from big cities – but also younger professionals from small towns.”
No wonder, then, that galleries from 24 different countries are off to the IAF – including Dubai’s 1x1 Gallery (www.1x1gallery.com). Given that it’s an international gallery specialising mainly in Indian contemporary art, it would be odd if it didn’t go.
But the director Malini Gulrajani explains that the Middle Eastern artists she will take to New Delhi, including the experimental Emirati Mohammed Kazem, means she feels part of a cross-cultural exchange. “The IAF gives me a great platform to increase awareness of the work in India and of the gallery internationally,” she says. “Over the last five years, it has genuinely developed into the primary place for important galleries and artists to exhibit their works, as well as providing an insight into the developments on the Indian art scene.”
But for all the undoubted success of that scene – its growing energy and confidence are rare at a time when global economic conditions are hardly clement – there is a concern that the much-vaunted Indian middle class that drives it is more interested in acquiring assets than art itself. Good for business but not, perhaps, for lasting, interesting work.
Gulrajani recognises some of these issues but they don’t affect how she runs her gallery.
“Yes, the Indian middle class has always formed a large part of the collector base for Indian art and continue to do so. But, in my view, class has no bearing on how one reacts to a work, or how one chooses an artist to work with.”
It’s a relief, then, to find an exhibitor still so enthused by the idea of finding great – rather than bankable – art. “It’s a constant search, and there is always an element of surprise, of discovery,” she says. “It keeps me going.”
Which, in the end, should be the experience of anyone who goes to an art fair, too. Among many others, Kirpal says she’s particularly looking forward to the arrival of galleries from Argentina, Korea, Latvia, Turkey and Russia – countries with exciting new art scenes but without heavy exposure in India to date.
“There is an interest in this kind of art in India from people looking to explore international art by established artists, or cutting-edge work from emerging practitioners,” she explains. The IAF’s Speakers Forum will offer insights into the development of these scenes, too.”
These international connections are being made barely five years after a small art summit was first held in New Delhi. It is confirmation, then, that Kirpal’s original hunch – that an Indian art fair could generate real interest in the region’s art scene – was spot on.
“I was always drawn to working in this space in India,” she says. “It may have been a more challenging and less structured environment, but it’s also been very exciting because of the country’s cultural and artistic heritage. Just seeing the kind of support the fair has received from the art community – in India and then internationally – has been a great satisfaction.”
The India Art Fair in New Delhi runs from today until Sunday. Visit www.indiaartfair.in