Sales of Indian modern art are hitting new highs in the wake of the pandemic. A $16.34 million auction at Mumbai-based Pundole on February 23 produced record prices for several artists. A couple of weeks earlier, the annual India Art Fair in New Delhi that yielded substantial sales with virtually all galleries reportin substantial results for the second year running.
The most surprising record at the Pundole auction was a Rs 65 lakh hammer price (just over $91,000 including buyer’s premium) for a Gond tribal canvas by Jangarh Singh Shyam, probably India’s leading Adivasi artist.
Painted in 2001, a few months before he died, the 27 in x 40 in serigraphy and acrylic work depicts a traditional scene of Lord Krishna dancing with his gopi (follower), surrounded by a popular Gond rendering of brightly coloured animals, birds and trees. The artist’s previous record of $31,250 was at Sothebys in 2010.
There has been some interest in Shyam’s work in the intervening years and a renewal of interest in tribal art with acquisitions by International institutions such as the Guggenheim and the Chicago Cultural Institute, among others, says Rob Dean, a director of Pundole auctions. This has encouraged a new group of Indian collectors.
Among other records set in the auction was for one for a very different style and age – a 28 in x 20 in oil on canvas by Raja Ravi Varma, which sold for Rs 38 crore ($5.3m including premium). A second work by the same artist went for Rs 16 crore. The previous Varma record of Rs 20 crore ($2.99m) was set in 2016, also at a Pundole auction.
Varma, who died in 1906, sought commissions from the rich and powerful in colonial India. He now has a steady flow of buyers who go for his colourful and grand mix of European artistic styles and Indian life.
The unsung hero of the India Art Fair was Krishen Khanna, a leading veteran Indian artist in the ‘modern’ style. Now in his 98th year, Khanna had a new work in his iconic Bandwalas series that he had painted over the previous month in his home outside Delhi, working on the 36 in x 24 in canvas for two hours a day.
Shown on London’s Grosvenor Gallery stand, “Bandwalas in a Truck” sold quickly on the preview day for Rs 45 lakh ($54,450), marking a triumph for the only surviving and active member of the famous Progressive Artists Group that began in Bombay in the mid-1900s and still dominates South Asian auctions.
The fair, with 71 galleries, was generally voted the best of the series of 14 annual events that began in 2009 when it was spun off from a public relations firm. Initially called an Art Summit, it was located at Delhi’s old Pragati Maidan exhibition grounds in a brutalist building with a leaky roof that had to be sealed, a far cry its current smart professional tents at south Delhi exhibition grounds.
There were fewer international galleries than before the pandemic – eight compared with a record of 16 – partly because of economies and cutbacks on regional fairs. Delhi is still building a reputation as a place for galleries from outside South Asia to sell both their own Indian artists as well as foreign names.
One that returned after missing a few years was Paris-based Galleria Continua. Maurizio Rigillo, one of the founders, told me “we are happy with coming back”. The gallery reported individual sales from $5,000 to nearly $900,000 by leading Indian artists including UK-based Anish Kapoor with one of his trademark red concave mirrors that was said to have been sold for $750,000.
Most galleries reported substantial sales on the preview day. Among those from India that did well was Delhi-based Vadehra, which sold a five-part artwork by Rameshwar Broota for $ 200,000 to a private UK collection and two works by Balkrishna Doshi for $100,000 to the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. “We are very happy” said Parul Vadehra. Another leading Delhi gallery, Nature Morte, sold a work by Tanya Goel for over $60,600 but failed to find a buyer for an aggressive looking glass and brass wall sculpture by Subodh Gupta.
The fair organisers stopped revealing total sales figures and the number of footfalls a few years ago, but Jaya Asokan, the fair director, told me that there were 2,000 to 3,000 more visitors on the first two days than previously. There were not significant numbers of foreign buyers though there were curators and managers from the Venice Biennale, Sao Paulo, the London Tate, the Oxford Ashmolean and elsewhere.
There was little sign of much interest in crypto currencies’ non-fungible tokens, recently the rage, though the blockchain Tezos was giving away 3,200 NFTs as part of a “computational convergence” presentation showing where art and technology meet.
Asokan makes the point that India is “a self-sustaining market” with younger as well as established artists and buyers. She put the range of individual sales as Rs 50,000 ($605) to over Rs 7 core ($850,000).
This showed that, while auction houses specialising in Indian art are finding it difficult to maintain a strong flow of top lots ranging up to the current record auction price of $6.44m, there is considerable demand for works from new buyers at lower levels, as well as established collectors.
Explaining the lack of readily available top auction lots, one specialist told me, “Works at the top levels go into collections and don’t re-sell so go out of the market”.
The current $6.44m (including buyer’s premium) record was paid for a work by V.S. Gaitonde, one of the most sought after Progressives, in a Mumbai-based Pundole auction a year ago. Pundole is perhaps the most respected Indian auction house and yesterday’s results shows that it has pulling power.
Saffronart, the Mumbai-based market leader, has an auction on March 16 where the highest estimate is Rs 32 crore ($3.95m) for a Gaitonde oil on canvas, but the next highest is only Rs 7 crore ($850,000).
Sotheby’s and Christie’s appear to be lagging behind at their New York auctions later next month with top estimates of $1m-1.5m – Sotheby’s for an M.F.Husain work and Christie’s for one by Manjit Bawa.
But there can be surprises, and fresh trends as has been shown with the growing interest and visibility of tribal art, plus artists like Manjit Bawa and others attracting growing attention.
This article was originally published on the author’s blog.
John Elliott is a journalist.