‘Great art has no boundaries’

Rosalyn D'mello | Updated on March 10, 2018




Deepanjana Klein

The South Asian art scene is coming into its own and there is an impending paradigm shift, says Deepanjana Klein, International Head of Department, South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art

Christie’s inaugural auction on Indian soil at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal on December 2013 historically resuscitated a market that had been comatose for a good six years. An untitled non-representational painting by VS Gaitonde sold for a historic ₹23.7 crore ($3.8 million) to a US-based collector in anticipation of a planned retrospective of the late artist’s works, which took place at the Guggenheim, New York, in October 2014. Two years later, the local art scene is growing steadily; two critically acclaimed editions of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the upcoming eighth edition of the India Art Fair, and a host of other collector-led initiatives have creatively substituted for the government’s apathy towards the visual arts. As Christie’s readies for its third auction, we spoke to Deepanjana Klein, International Head of Department, South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art, about her insights into the future of the Indian art market.

This is Christie’s third live auction in India. What excites you most about this particular edition?

There are several things I’m excited about this auction. One is the fact that we came into this market with the idea that our focus would be on works that are national treasures and hence cannot leave the country. Over these last three years we have achieved that. This selection has an incredible set of paintings from the Bengal school, many of them national treasures. We wanted to source locally and sell globally. That’s our business plan and vision, and we feel like we’ve been very successful in putting this together. There are some rare jewels that we were able to bring to the market and we’ve launched a few new artists as well. We’re opening up a world stage for them by including them in our catalogue. A lot of works in these collections have come from various artists. They have a great provenance, great history; most of them were gifts. The Dev Burman collection, for instance. He was a disciple of Nandalal Bose and Tagore. His gurus loved him and gifted him these works. Same with Indira Dugar, a student of [Nandalal] Bose or Lalitha Lajmi, a student of Nasreen [Mohamedi], who gifted her a work, or [KH] Ara or [Prabhakar] Bharve. These paintings have such beautiful stories around them. When a collector is collecting at auction, it’s not just about buying a piece, but buying a part of that history that’s not necessarily written in a textbook. That's what makes this auction really special.

What has the response been in the last three years?

We’ve received a tremendous response from India. With every sale the number of new registrants has gone up. A lot of new collectors are coming in, which is not just great for us but for the entire art market. In 2013, we of course had our loyal following who love us and we love them. But the newer collectors are coming in very aggressively. The collectors who’ve been with us for 10-15 years, they’re solid; they’re pruning their collection, filling gaps. But since we’re able to source great works at great estimates, the new generation coming in can participate.

What’s your estimate of the Indian art market’s performance and its potential from a global perspective?

From the response we’re getting, I think there’s tremendous potential in this market here. It’s a market that is robust and getting stronger everyday. The response we’re seeing is in terms of not just new collectors participating locally but those starting to participate in our London and New York sales rooms as well. My hope is they’ll not just participate but be integrated into the larger art world. It takes curiosity of mind to become a collector. One doesn’t just need to see one particular thing — yes, you collect and focus on one thing — but we want to open up other avenues too. In India it’s happening faster than what we’re seeing in our categories in Europe, England or the Americas. In terms of number of people getting involved, the number of collectors coming in, participating, registering, it’s a lot higher. Overall, India has the potential of being our biggest saleroom globally.

With emerging events like the Dhaka Art Summit, the Colombo Biennale, two forthcoming biennales in Pakistan, do you think there’s a shift in the category of South Asian art?

I sense a paradigm shift, and it’s happening as a South Asian movement. Each region, whether Pakistan, Bangladesh, India or Sri Lanka, they’re all contributing to this paradigm shift, and my hypothesis is as the shift happens, we will actually lose that identity of being South Asian, it’ll become global. That’s what we want, because great art has no boundaries.

The Dhaka Art Summit started with Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani coming to the India Art Fair (IAF), being inspired and then starting the summit in Dhaka. Rashid Rana pretty much mobilised the Pakistan biennale. IAF’s biggest contribution is that it acted as a catalyst to spin off these smaller movements. Regardless of what it is, and it is not a small thing, it has made a tremendous contribution. It started a cross-fertilisation. It became a destination for collectors to come to. Then the Kochi-Muziris Biennale happened, more curators started coming, museums started coming.

It’s no longer us looking at the West; the West is now looking at us. The fact that right now there’s Gaitonde showing at Guggenheim, Nasreen showing at Rainer Sofia, Bhupen [Khakhar] at Tate Modern is proof. Nasreen’s is the only solo that’ll be opening at MET. That’s incredible. It’s like all the stars are aligned.

Rosalyn D'mello is a Delhi-based art writer

Published on December 16, 2015

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