Posted by: John Elliott | January 21, 2011

Crowds flock to Delhi Art Summit and Jaipur Lit Fest – with Husain on show

It’s a great weekend for the arts with a big Art Summit in Delhi and a Literature Festival in Jaipur. Both events are expecting to pull in crowds of 60,000 to 70,000 between today and when they close – the Art Summit on Sunday and the Jaipur festival next Tuesday.

Rodin’s $1.17m ‘The Thinker’ + Henneke Beaumont $60,000 figures

The Art Summit has had a tremendous first two days, with most of India’s leading collectors mingling with people from international galleries and auction houses and hundreds of local art buffs. Many of the 85 Indian and foreign galleries reported substantial sales. It is therefore clear that the Summit has put Delhi on the international map as a centre for international as well as Indian modern and contemporary art, with foreign galleries bringing masters such as Pablo Picasso and Auguste Rodin (right, on Robert Bowman Sculpture stand) and contemporary artist Damien Hirst to attract publicity and tempt India’s richest collectors.

The Jaipur festival, which opened this morning, was originally conceived as an Indian celebration of local language as well as Indian English writing, but it now brings in top leading international authors – this time they include Nobel prize winners Orhan Pamuk from Turkey and John Maxwell Coetze from South Africa. Foreign visitors include literature festival organisers from Edinburgh, Berlin, Australia, Poland and elsewhere, as well as countless publishers and literary agents. I’ll be there on Monday to moderate a session on Branding India, so more from Jaipur then.

The especially good news at the Art Summit is that works by 95-year old M.F.Husain, India’s leading living modern painter, are on display for the first time for several years in a major public show. Three of his works were withdrawn this morning after right wing Hindu fanatics continued their campaign against the artist because of his depiction of Hindu deities. At least one gallery, and the summit organisers, had threatening phone calls and messages yesterday, so the organisers decided that to avoid the risk of trouble, despite a heavy police presence. Senior government and other officials were consulted during the day and the works were going back on display this evening, demonstrating what Jawhar Sircar, the government’s secretary for culture, described as India’s freedom of expression being supported by its “strength of pluralism and elasticity”.

Anish Kapoor explains….

The best point about both these art and literature events is that they both attract people who would not usually have access to top art works, or to meet and listen to leading artists and literary figures. At the Art Summit, they include Anish Kapoor, the sculptor, who will speak at a summit session tomorrow, and this morning took visitors round an exhibition of his works at the National Gallery of Modern Art –  explaining (right) that “red is my favourite colour”.

The access point is especially significant for the Art Summit (it should be called an Art Fair) which is being held for the third time in the fading concrete jungle of Delhi’s Pragati Maidan exhibition grounds. Many Delhi residents, who would be nervous going into an art gallery, feel comfortable at Pragati Maidan because they are used to going there for trade, book and autos fairs.

Neha Kirpal – FT photo by Abhishek Bali

Neha Kirpal, a 30-year old pr executive (left) who conceived the Art Summit three years ago and now directs it, reckons that 40% of the Rs26 crore($5.4m, £3.3m).sales at the last event (in August 2009) went to first time buyers. There were over 40,000 visitors. This time prices of works by 570 artists shown by 84 galleries from 20 countries range from Rs20,000 ($440) to Rs7 or 8 crore (about $1.5m).

That confounds critics who suggest the Summit has become a champagne-bubbly event for the rich and elite. There are of course fringe events at galleries all round Delhi, which are mostly accessible by invitation and where champagne does flow.

The best so far was the opening three evenings ago of the refurbished Delhi Art Gallery in Hauz Khas, with an amazing exhibition of more than 250 works by the veteran Progressive artists’ group that includes names such as Husain, F.N.Souza and Hari Ambadas Gade. The gallery has published a big book of the works (below) and the show is on until March 8 and is an essential visit to see how modern Indian art has evolved since independence.

The Progressives are a recurring theme around the fringe events, reflecting the fact that India’s modernist painters are the safest buy at a time when the market is still recovering from the economic slump of two or three years ago.

F.N.Souza on cover of Delhi Art Gallery book

Another party was held by the Saffronart on-line auction house, which opened a new gallery in Delhi’s Oberoi Hotel last night with a rare show of Vasudeo S. Gaitonde’s works. The Vadehra Galley has an exhibition of Tyeb Mehta’s works and has published a book of what is on show. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art – one of two big privately-funded art centres in Delhi – opened in a new location, and Oxford University Press earlier this week launched a new book by Yashodhara Dalmia, a curator and art writer, called Journeys of Indian Artists – Four Generations of Indian Artists in their Own Words.

Neha Kirpal’s big achievement over the last couple of years, in addition to adapting Pragati Maidan’s decrepit infrastructure (including rainproofing the roof with a plastic cover) for an international show, has been to bring India’s jealous and status-conscious art fraternity behind the Art Summit, and to get government backing with minimal interference. That is partly because she and her organisation have no stake in the art market, so can keep jealousies at bay.

Her work has helped to stimulate a debate about how India‘s art activities should be improved with better run and funded government museums, more encouragement for private sector initiatives, a stronger educational and academic base, arrangements for foreign acquisitions and other issues. These were debated this evening in an open forum where the summit’s energy generated demands form action – and a proud statement from Mr Sircar that “the Husain pictures are back up on show”.

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