NEW DELHI - No doubt there is a burgeoning contemporary art scene across the Indian subcontinent, and for the past few years one of its main hubs has been the India Art Fair in New Delhi. Now in its sixth edition, the fair brings together 91 galleries, with half from India and the others coming from as far afield as Italy and Latvia. The fair bills itself as “South Asia’s leading art fair for Modern and contemporary art from across the world,” and for a while it appeared that it was indeed poised to become a global contender. In 2011 its founder and director Neha Kirpal sold a 49 percent stake and brought in international investors and the co-founders of the Hong Kong art fair, Sandy Angus and Will Ramsay, a move which encouraged major international galleries such as Lisson, Krinzinger, Hauser & Wirth and White Cube to take part.

However, this year, although many of India’s major – and internationally acclaimed – contemporary art galleries are exhibiting, such as Mumbai’s Volta and Chemould Prescott Road Galleries, Delhi Art Gallery and Vadhera Gallery from Delhi and Experimenter from Kolkata, the big league American and European names are not in evidence. It seems that the main appeal of the India Art Fair – for the time being at least – remains as a major showcase for Indian art both historical and contemporary. “The fair always creates a great buzz and they always get a huge footfall,” says Delhi-based patron and philanthropist Lekha Poddar, whose not-for-profit Devi Art Foundation in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon houses one of India’s major art collections. “It’s a very democratic space and in a short time has done a great deal to help raise awareness of Indian contemporary art, both at home and abroad. It was just starting to take baby steps when it got skewed by the rush to make quick money between 2003 and 2008, and then the crash came. So we have to learn how to walk again.”

Yet all is by no means gloom and doom across the subcontinent, and much of the energy of the Indian art scene lies beyond the market per se. In the face of almost non-existent government assistance for the arts, a crucial role is played by significant private initiatives such as the Devi Art Foundation and also the Kiran Nadar Musuem of Art, which opened in Delhi in 2010.

Jitish Kallat, Artistic Director, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014.

Another important factor in raising the profile of contemporary art both locally and globally has been the launch in 2012 of India’s first biennial in Kochi, Kerala, which attracted nearly 500,000 visitors as well as wide critical acclaim. “The Kochi-Muziris Biennale takes the conversation out of the Mumbai-Delhi art spaces and opens it up to a range of public who haven’t been exposed to contemporary art,” says artist Jitish Kallat, who has recently been appointed artistic director of the Biennale’s second iteration opening in December 2014.

Both Jitish Kallat and Lekha Poddar are also eagerly anticipating the second Dhaka Art Summit, a major not-for-profit platform for art taking place in the Bangladeshi capital in February that will present projects by over 250 artists from South Asia – including Kallat – as well as performances, screenings, presentations by galleries and an extensive talks programme. “The Dhaka summit further widens the corridor between artists in India and their immediate neighbours across the region,” says Kallat. “Until recently I don’t think there were any conversations across these borders and now there is deep and active dialogue. Overall across the subcontinent the circumference of the scene is widening all the time.”

Louisa Buck is a contemporary art correspondent for The Art Newspaper.


India Art Fair, 30 January–4 February

Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Fort Kochi, Kerela, India

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