Modern Masters Meet Street Artists in India Art Fair

A visitor looks at "The Threshold into a Dream," an exhibit by Indian artist T.V. Santhosh, at the India Art Fair in New Delhi on January 29, 2015. The fair focuses on homegrown artists and exhibits inspired by contemporary themes such as the worst floods in the Kashmir region in over a century. Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

Delhi's annual India Art Fair that took place last weekend had style and crowds, but there was more artistic spontaneity on display a short auto-rickshaw ride farther to the south of the city, where street artists were painting railway containers at a cargo depot in the shadow of a mountainous rubbish dump.

This is the fourth year that the artists have been active around Delhi, painting buildings in an attempt to liven up urban areas. Arjun Bahl, one of the organizers, talks about the art "giving people a sense of pride" in places where they live and work. He sees it as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign that generally arouses more skepticism than support.

These are not the sort of random unsanctioned graffiti works seen elsewhere, but a more formalized arrangement carried out—however improbable it may seem—in cooperation with India's Ministry of Urban Development that runs the Swachh campaign and the government-owned Container Corporation of India (Concor).

Now in its eighth year, the Indian Art Fair (IAF), which also aims to spread knowledge about art, is establishing itself as an important regional venue for both established and new art collectors.

For the biggest international galleries and collectors, it does not rival the annual Art Dubai fair that takes place in March, but it does attract a sprinkling of foreign buyers and institutions, though some galleries said they had seen fewer top collectors. It also generates a wide range of other activities in the capital.

This year's overall quality of art on show was somewhat better than in the past. The organizers said this partly stemmed from 35 percent of galleries that applied being rejected by a selection committee, which reduced the total number from around 90 to 70.

But there was little on show that was especially memorable, with few eye-catching installations, though the spacious layout of booths in large exhibition tents on the Okhla site was an enormous improvement on previous years.

The fair organizers have refused, for the first time, to announce attendance figures and indications of sales, even though many galleries said they had good results. This suggests that the attendance was not much higher than last year's 80,000 visitors, though Neha Kirpal, the founder and director of the fair, talked without being specific about 100,000.

Last year, the sales were said to be 25 percent above 2014's (undisclosed) value, with the top 2 percent of collectors together spending "over Rs30 crore" (Rs300m, then $4.8m)

The actual totals, however, need not be so sensitive as the public relations black-out makes them seem, because the fair is successfully consolidating its position as an annual focal point for art activity.

Galleries that reported successful sales, or potential sales, included the London-based Grosvenor with paintings by Senaka Senanayake from Sri Lanka. South Asian art was a special focus area for the fair, which could help to compensate for some European galleries that have stopped attending because of a lack of sales of foreign art, plus Indian customs' complex import and export regulations.

Also reflecting regional interest was the Hafez Gallery of Saudi Arabia, which might indicate that India's collectors are broadening to Middle East art. Nature Morte, the pace-making Delhi contemporary gallery, also had good sales, as did the Experimenter from Kolkata that had one of the more innovative and interesting stands.

The biggest display was staged by the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) with two large spaces, one devoted to its impressive collection of Indian masters.

The gallery ran its own lectures and school visits, separate from those organized by the fair, as well as a daily newspaper, firmly establishing it as the biggest spender among India's galleries. It even had a Raza painting reproduced in a pattern of lines and grids on acrylic for blind people to be able to explore the work, along with a description in Braille.

Curiously, however, it did not show its latest prize purchase—a large F.N.Souza, Man and Woman Laughing, which it said would be on show after it bought the work at a Saffronart auction in Delhi last September for Rs16.84 crore ($2.59m), displaying financial muscle that took the art world by surprise.

Fringe events included India Today magazine's Art Awards that honored elderly veteran painters S.H.Raza and Krishen Khanna and, among others, the Experimenter Gallery.

Continuing exhibitions include a show of works at The National Gallery of Modern Art by Bhupen Khakhar, a modern painter whose works will be at London's Tate Modern gallery in June. The Devi and Gujral art foundations have an abstract exhibition on 1947 partition, This Night Bitten Dawn, in a Jor Bagh house curated by Salima Hashmi from Pakistan.

Among others. collector Kiran Nadar's museum in south Delhi features Himmat Shah, and Vijay Kumar's archive in the satellite city of Noida is showing a collection by Jamini Roy, while a 50th anniversary exhibition of works is on at the Kumar (no relation) Gallery in Sunder Nagar.

The British Council is displaying work by 55 Indian and British painters on playing cards. Last month, Mumbai's India Art Festival held a much smaller event at the National Stadium in the center of Delhi, catering for less significant galleries and art shops.

The street art has mostly appeared on government buildings, including some office blocks and the Lodhi Colony residential area in central Delhi, using paint supplied free by Asian Paints, India's biggest manufacturer.

The container initiative started when Sanjay Bajpai, the manager of the Concor container terminal at Tughlakabad, heard about Arjun Bahl's St+art [Correct] Foundation and offered a group of 100 ventilated food containers that might later travel together as a cargo train.

Last weekend, 24 international artists included Amitabh Kumar from Bangalore, who was painting five containers with a massive beast that was headless, he said, to mark the (not yet confirmed) death of the nearby rubbish mountain. For him, street art "spreads the perception of art to a wider audience." That neatly fits with Neha Kirpal's concept for the art fair, which has a big outreach program to local schools.

So it doesn't really matter if there are 80,000 or 100,000 people at the fair, nor whether a large number of famous London and New York galleries have stands.

More important is that the fair continues to pull in the most significant Indian galleries and collectors, plus others from the region, and that it remains a focus for other events and generates a wider awareness about art in Delhi—and in Mumbai, if one day it moves there.

John Elliott's most recent book is Implosion: India's Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India).