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How a new platform may start the next big trend in the Indian art market — NFTs

Inside India’s first blockchain-powered platform, solely dedicated to South Asian artists and art sales

Written by Benita Fernando | New Delhi |
April 25, 2021 6:04:09 am
See, Click, Buy: Natlet (2019) by Susanta Kumar Panda and Ramakanta Samantaray. (Images: Terrain.art)

We are at the beginning of a massive journey. It’s like the internet. It’s going to stay,” says Aparajita Jain, co-director of Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery. Jain, 41, is referring to her latest venture, Terrain.art. Launched earlier this month, the online platform sells artworks of South Asian origin, represents artists, educates audiences and engages with the latest technology craze — non-fungible tokens or NFTs.
An NFT is like a tamper-proof unique identification code. Nearly anything can be minted into an NFT — from the poignant to the downright absurd — and buyers are collecting memes, tweets and even recorded farts. In March, a blockchain company purchased a Banksy, set it on fire, but sold its NFT for three times the value of the artwork. Many doubt whether this is the space for “serious” artists, but they may change their minds given the exponential growth it is seeing. This year, digital artist Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days sold for $69 million at a Christie’s auction. The “world’s first NFT art gallery”, Superchief, has opened in New York, and, earlier this month, cryptocurrency trading platform WazirX opened its NFT marketplace for Indian artists.
While Terrain.art appears to be like any other art-sales website, it takes online art sales a step further by minting a corresponding NFT for each work on Ethereum, a widely-used blockchain platform that powers applications and helps users send cryptocurrencies. Besides a marketplace for contemporary art, it features an interactive timeline of Indian art history, starting with 1840, when photography was introduced to India by the British.
After the 2018 show “Gradient Descent” at Nature Morte — touted as India’s first Artificial Intelligence art show — Jain felt technology could address the art world’s problems. The solution to “up our physical infrastructure”, whose deficit became glaring during the pandemic, lay in creating a virtual infrastructure.
The need to reach a wider audience in an ongoing crisis, regardless of the kind of technology used, has drawn artists, too. Among them are Odia artists Ramakanta Samantaray, 48, and Susanta Kumar Panda, 38, who share a studio and are based in Delhi. Their acrylic-on-linen works, which show a tangle of vines and birds, are priced at more than Rs 5 lakh. With a transaction cost in place, Terrain.art has signed on 35 artists, mainly young, emerging ones from India “who are gifted but weren’t represented”, with artists from rest of South Asia set to follow.
NFTs can be revolutionary in establishing provenance — sifting originals from fakes, legal purchases from smuggled goods. In 2015, Los Angeles’ Verisart was the first platform to apply blockchain for certification in the art market.
Mumbai’s Al-Qawi Nanavati, 26, whose practice is a far cry from the digital space, signed up with Terrain.art last year. Her textile and paper works draw on relationships and memory, turning particularly to her mother, Mumtaz, who died three years ago. She wasn’t sure why she needed to worry about fakes. “Terrain.art reminded me that it’s not about who I am today, but what could happen years from now,” she says. Besides putting 40 of her works on sale, the platform will guide her on navigating the market and shows.
“We are not an authenticating agency,” says Jain, “I can’t say if a (MF) Husain is real or not. But contemporary artists can archive their entire practice, putting them through the blockchain and have NFTs coming out of it. The artist will say which works are theirs. So, in the future, there will be no fakes.” When a collector buys a work, the digital ownership rights to it will be transferred as NFT into their Ethereum account. Here, the NFT works like a certificate of authenticity instead of old-school hard copies. In the coming months, Terrain.art will sell crypto art (digital works sold as NFTs).
It, however, doesn’t support ETH (Ethereum’s cryptocurrency) yet. Jain calls it “a grey area”. Since India plans on proposing a law to ban cryptocurrencies, transactions, for now, will happen in fiat money through credit/debit cards.
As for artists, who mostly make money only once in their artwork’s life — the first sale, they stand to gain royalties from re-sales at Terrain.art. This doesn’t typically happen in the secondary art market. NFTs will help track the artwork’s movements and rake in royalties. “Many artists give up practising since they can’t make a livelihood (off their art). Money ensures liquidity in the market,” she says, adding, the reasons why a buyer enters a new space will matter less if the space grows, and grows well.

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