Just a few days after Salman Rushdie was excluded from the Jaipur Literature Festival because of an extremist Muslim campaign against his writings, paintings by M.F.Husain are hanging at the India Art Fair without any objections from Hindu fundamentalists who have had them taken down in the past.
The fair opens today and Husains (left and below) are on show at six galleries, four from India and two from London. In 2009, his works were not included and last year they were temporarily withdrawn , and then hung again with a police guard standing alongside them. This time there is no special security.
Like the Jaipur festival, the fair (previously called the Art Summit) has grown enormously since it were started in 2008 and it now has 91 exhibitors from 20 countries. Both events are visited by tens of thousands of people, opening up the worlds of art and literature to those who would not normally have access to see or listen to – and mix with – famous painters and authors.
The aims of the fair says Neha Kirpal, its founder and director, is to increase India’s currently very small number of art collectors, to encourage Indian companies to do more to promote art, and to open up India internationally. That is very similar to the aims of the Jaipur festival, but both are vulnerable to religious extremists who use the arts stifle debate and development.
Last year Jawhar Sircar, the government’s secretary for culture, told me that the reappearance of the Husain works demonstrated India’s freedom of expression being supported by its “strength of pluralism and elasticity”.
Regrettably, that does not always happen, as was shown at the Jaipur festival last weekend, when alleged assassination and other threats led Rushdie to decide not to come to India. Risks of violent demonstrations then led to a video-link being cancelled. Legal cases have been started by Muslim and other groups against the festival organisers, alleging incitement to violence. These cases, which are likely to drag on for months and maybe years, could be used to stifle the festival and its voice in the future.
This shows how little “pluralism and elasticity” there is in Indian society when religious extremists decide to stir up trouble – especially when that coincides with a group that is politically significant, as Muslims are currently in Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly elections. Attempts are now being made to cover up the blot on India’s open and democratic image by implausibly suggesting that the problems were started and encouraged by Rushdie and, or, the festival organisers to attract publicity, and that the legal problems were exaggerated.
India’s Congress Party is deeply involved. Though it did not initiate the crisis, it seems to have decided to let it develop, once it started, because it is wooing the Muslim vote in UP. It is in power in Rajasthan, where Jaipur is the capital, so it controls the police and could have pressured interest groups such as the Muslim demonstrators to de-escalate the protests. It seems not to have done so and now, unsurprisingly, is denying there was any link with the UP elections.
The Art Fair has this year moved from easily-accessible central Delhi exhibition grounds to a less well-known location in the south of the city. That has enabled it to be laid out by international experts along the lines of leading events in the US and Europe, but the difficult location might deter some visitors.
Half the 91 exhibitors come from India, and works on show range in price from Rs15,000 to Rs2 crore – roughly $3o0 to $400,000. The galleries have been chosen from over 250 applicants by a selection committee based on their performance and artists, but more pruning might be needed in future years to strengthen the focus and quality of what is on show.
The exhibitors include prominent overseas galleries such as Hauser & Wirth, Lisson, and Fabian-Claude-Walter from Europe. Along with their foreign artists, most of them are showing Indian works – those three galleries for example have works by Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Anish Kapoor and (less well-known) Viveek Sharma.
The next few days will be an important test of the Indian art market, which has been sluggish for a couple of years. Good sales would provide it with a much-needed boost, and a good number of visitors at the new location would also help to spread awareness of the riches of Indian and foreign art.