Shanghai art collector Kong Ying trots the globe in search of “good art.” But, two years ago, when he was in India, he was unwilling to pick up any artwork. “The Indian art boom was too recent and risky,” he says from the comfort of his living room in his apartment overlooking Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s popular shopping haven. A week’s stay in Mumbai and Bangalore and trips to the art galleries and interaction with curators made him change his mind. And with Darjeeling tea and Indian textiles, he took back an abstract watercolour and a figurative work (oil on canvas) by upcoming Indian artists. “Today, their price has almost doubled,” says the 55-year-old, as he glances at a surreal canvas by contemporary Chinese artist Du Xinjian that hangs on his living room wall. Ying now keeps a tab on Indian art through online galleries and auctions as do several of his friends.
In September 2006, Beijing’s gallery Arario opened its doors to Indian art with the exhibition, Hungry God-Indian Contemporary Art. Covering a grand 1,800-metre square of gallery space, the show had works by Atul Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Ranbir Kaleka, Bharti Kher, Tallur L N, Justin Ponmany, Reena S Kallat, Tushar Joag, Sonia Khurana, Nalini Malani and Nataraj Sharma. “The show was an outcome of the realisation that Indian contemporary art had never been introduced in China and was rarely shown in Asian countries,” says June Y Gwak, director of Arario. “The response was great. Request for information came from a lot of artists, critics and collectors and several works were sold.”
After critical hosannas in the West, Indian art is now looking east, as it finds buyers and admirers in mainland China. In some ways, the Arario exhibition was the window to the Indian art scene. And the Chinese haven’t stopped looking. Last year, Arario took another big step when Gwak organised a Jitish Kallat solo, titled 365 Lives, which included installations and sculptures by the Mumbai-based artist. “It was a packed opening with several acclaimed Chinese artists like Fang Lijun, Zeng Hao, Yang Shaobin and Wang Mai in attendance,” recollects Kallat, who is no stranger to the Chinese subcontinent. The artist’s video installation Conditions Apply was part of a group exhibition titled Soft Power-Asian Attitude at Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art in November 2007. His works also featured at the Shanghai Art Fair, where the skeleton cab Autosaurus Tripos, exhibited in “best of artists” segment and sold for an impressive $ 1,25,000. “This is part of the changing landscape of art. The Chinese policies too promote cultural exchange,” says Kallat.
Unlike Kallat, Mithu Sen may not have travelled to China for the prestigious fair, but her works were part of the Indian ensemble at the festival along with those of Atul Dodiya, NS Harsha, Zarina Hashmi, Sudarshan Shetty, Tushar Joag, Bharti Kher, Hema Upadhyay, Jagannath Panda and Anant Joshi. “The Chinese also relate with Indian art due to the cultural similarities between the two countries,” says Sen, whose works made of artificial hair were picked up by a collector in China.
Reaching out has been a slow process, despite the geographical proximity. “Only after some years of being exhibited in Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore, has Indian art finally reached the mainland. Four years ago, only a handful Chinese were buying Indian art, but in the last year I’ve got more than ten requests over e-mail,” says Mohit Jain, director of Dhoomimal Art Center.
International auctions too have helped popularise Indian art. “The record prices at international auctions grab the attention of art aficionados across the globe,” says Tripat Kalra, owner of Gallerie Nvya. She has in her client list Chinese collectors based in several countries including Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea. “They are usually young professionals who are looking at mid-caps. Recently they have picked up creations of Manu Parekh, Paresh Maity, Shuvaprassana, Seema Kohli and Viraj Naik.”
That Chinese art is relatively more expensive also works in favour of Indian art. “The real art aficionados look at the quality of the artwork and not simply the popularity of an artist. An Indian work would considerably be more reasonable vis-à-vis a Chinese creation in the same segment,” says Shanghai-based art coordinator Kenta Torimoto, who is planning an Indian art exhibition in China in the coming months. “It’ll feature contemporary artists,” he reveals.
Bharti Kher sees the phenomenon as part of the process of globalization of art. Says she, “International artists are now being showcased the world over. No comparisons should be made between Chinese and Indian art, each has its own identity,” The Delhi-based artist is currently preparing for her solo show at Arario that will take place in November.
There are hurdles in the way. Having recently sold creations of Sourav Jana and P.R. Narvekar to Chinese collectors, Vikram Bachhawat, director of Kolkata’s Aakriti Art Gallery and Emami Chisel Art Auction House, says, “There are discrepancies in the legal procedure involving export of artwork. The Indian government also needs to play an active role in the popularisation of art.” Ludovic Bois, director of Chinese Contemporary Gallery in Beijing, feels Indian artists need to be more accessible. He notes, “It is for them to introduce their works to other regions. This is of utmost importance due to the basic difference between the two markets. While Chinese art has a strong international market, Indian works are picked up by domestic buyers.”
Ying, on the other hand, has another India tour lined up in July. This time he has kept aside a couple of days for art shopping. “I am looking at a canvas from South India. Artists from there seem to be doing well,” he says.