Unmasked: Indian Contemporary Art Abroad

"5 Masks" By Jatin Das (from my personal collection)

Today the Sotheby’s announcement graced my inbox, informing of yet another upcoming auction—“Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art Including Indian Miniatures.” A 1971 Raza painting, a stunning dark acrylic on canvas, was chosen to lead the forthcoming auction.

Upon reading the Sotheby’s announcement, I found myself releasing a sigh—one that I and so many who seek to appreciate Indian contemporary art often express.

My mind raced to the art studios of the Delhi and Bombay artists with whom I have had the great fortune to spend time—reminded of the smell of mixed oils and freshly stretched canvas against the heat of a Delhi afternoon or the humidity of a Bombay evening.  While some of them may find their names in the Sotheby’s auction, it will be unlikely. For the tastes and preferences that drive the sells of Indian art abroad are firmly grounded in the Great Masters.

Raza. Hussein. Souza. Gaitonde. Each will no doubt be included, and each artist will be prominently featured in major international auctions—branded as “Indian Contemporary Art.” While each deserves his seat at the forefront of Indian Contemporary Art, the politics that dominate the Indian art market, have created a striking divide between Indian art consumption for the international community and Indian art consumption at home.

Why is it that so many great Indian contemporary artists are not entering the international market—K.H. Ara, Jatin Das, Krishen Khanna, J. Swaminathan?

Each market is has its own masks—catering to the preferences of the different elites who shape the art scene. Abroad—the Great Masters dominate because preferences of Indian contemporary art abroad are driven by a small entrenched group of highly politicized art dealers and an upper-middle class Indian Diasporas.

It is rare along the East Coast of the United States to enter an Indian household without finding one of Hussein’s iconic horses, or at the very least a seriograph, hanging in the family’s sitting room. But a two minute discussion with the family usually reveals a striking lack of knowledge about the Indian Contemporary art scene, and sometimes even about the painter himself.   The horse is no longer about Indian art. It is appreciated only as a status symbol, and it is no secret that Hussein himself painted to a variety of audiences.

Saffronart’s auction next week leads with works such works by Hussein, and even prominent galleries that take risks with newer artists, galleries such as Aicon Gallery in New York, still repeatedly hold exhibits featuring his work among the works of the other great masters.

It should not be surprising. Contemporary art has always been used by some as a status symbol, and why would Indian contemporary art be any different?

I sometimes, however, find myself worrying about the future of Indian contemporary art. Will art for status overtake art for appreciation? Can we remove the status mask to see the beauty behind so many of India’s great unknown masters?

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