Recent changes in contemporary Indian art are taking it in new directions

May 03, 2024

2023 was a quantum leap in the growth of contemporary Indian art, with record breaking sales, as well as monumental developments aimed at increasing its reach. Amrita Sher-Gil’s The Story Tellers (1937) became the highest grossing artwork by an Indian, selling for an unheard of amount of INR 62 crores. This was close on the heels of SH Raza’s Gestation (1989) breaking the record at INR 51 crores. Things seem to be looking up for Indian contemporary art.

But what is the reason behind such rapid developments? Why has contemporary Indian art taken so long to reach this pedestal? And what does the future hold for its further growth? We take a plunge into the curious ecosystem of contemporary Indian art and its growth.

The new look

Within popular imagination, only one name in contemporary art was heard all over India: M.F. Hussain.Thanks to his dalliance with Indian films, as well as his prolific brilliance that courted controversy, Hussain was synonymous with modern art. Added to this was the fact that in the early ‘90s, markets were flooded with prints and forgeries of Hussain’s work, the appeal of which has never really gone away. Even today, it isn’t unusual to see the odd Hussain print in someone’s home.

Meanwhile, currents were in sway that would ensure that such a monopoly on contemporary Indian art would not be maintained. Art galleries found a new lease of life with newer audiences and foreign patrons helping fund and making newer artists more visible. The opening up of NGMAs outside of New Delhi and Mumbai, as well as a coterie of private art galleries setting up shop in the capital, created more awareness regarding contemporary art and gave artists more room to experiment and host their work.

Initially starting off as passion projects from art enthusiasts who had the means to source and display artworks, art galleries have considerably developed their expertise and reach in the past two decades. Legendary art galleries, such as Dhoomimal and Chemould Prescott Road, have gone from strength to strength since their opening decades ago thanks to the prestige of their names. Meanwhile, newer art galleries, such as KNMA in Delhi and Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai, have changed the game with their outreach programmes, which have inspired older spaces into incorporating similar initiatives into their structures.

This panoply of art galleries across the country, supplemented by art festivals such as the India Art Fair (which sold out this year on its first day), Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Serendipity Arts Festival among several others, has been a boon for young artists in India. With more avenues to exhibit their work, emerging and established artists have found new audiences and more appreciation for their art. 

The newer art galleries are also unafraid of taking a punt on experimental works that sometimes might incorporate extra space or performance. This not just points to the art industry’s comparative stability or popularity, but also a conceptual commitment among Indian art galleries that speaks to their conviction in promoting new Indian art. 

A healthy Indian art scene for the past decade has convinced bigger players to enter the Indian art market, which is behind the recent overdrive. Last year, the long awaited Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre opened in Mumbai as a space decimated solely to the arts. With spaces for public art, as well as a four storey visual art exhibition space, NMACC has already started making strides in promoting contemporary Indian artists, alongside introducing different art styles to the general populace. 

Bangalore, meanwhile, has recently welcomed Hampi Art Labs into its environs. Located closer to the historic capital it derives its name from, it is a 9 acre space dedicated solely to contemporary art. Not to be left behind, Delhi is adding to its already vast selection of art galleries with a behemoth in The Brij, a 7.6 acre site for contemporary and traditional art.

An undervalued proposition

However, it is not just the monumental success of KNMA and DAG that has prompted giants like Reliance, JSW, and Hero Enterprise to enter the art space and invest heavily into it. It is a response to realising the deeply undervalued Indian contemporary art space and the possibility of acquiring appreciating assets that are financially risk-free as well.

The event where Sher Gil’s The Storytellers broke all records was part of an epoch-making night that saw other personal records being broken as well. Organised by India’s largest auction house, Saffronart, Evening Sale: Modern Art featured 70 other artworks by prominent artists. A. Ramachandran’s Autobiography of an Insect in the Lotus Pond sold for over INR 4 crores, which was almost four times its estimated price. The Storytellers itself was valued at close to 38 crores, and it easily outstripped its estimate. This points to Indian contemporary art and artists steadily gaining currency across the world.

Saffronart’s event garnered over 140 crores in all, which is a monumental sum. While it might not look like much compared to the prices that the Picassos or Monets of the world end up getting, Indian art is slowly reaching there. It certainly has potential, which is why Christie’s set up shop in India all the way back in 1995, having since then sold several record breaking artworks.

There are a few reasons behind contemporary Indian art’s undervaluation. The first among these has to be The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, which created the ‘Navratnas’ of Indian art. The lack of early foreign interest in Indian art is to do with the paucity of works that were available to foreign galleries. The few artworks of legendary Indian artists that were in the possession of foreign art galleries or collectors received some attention, but as merely examples of ‘South Asian art’, and as such, divorced from a rich tradition that would have seen it as part of something larger.

The evaluation of an artwork is dependent on several factors, only one part of which is the prestige of the artist. Amrita Sher Gil’s art, in addition to being historically significant, is also a rather rare commodity, with only a few in private hands. Another factor behind an artwork’s estimate is the prolificacy of the artist. While Picasso is revered as an artist, he was immensely prolific. So certain artworks belonging to certain periods of his life are worth less than the rest, due to their vast availability. The same can be said of M.F. Hussain, who was way more prolific than the Spanish maestro. In short, the more exclusive the artwork, the more expensive it tends to be. 

The value of an artwork is also heavily dependent on the artistic tradition that it belongs to. The increase in awareness of the rich history of Indian art and how contemporary Indian art has borrowed elements and techniques from traditional as well as Western art forms to tell its own story has certainly helped in establishing a demand for contemporary Indian art.

Needless to say, appraising an artwork is quite a skill. Alongside galleries having acquisition specialists, auction houses, such as Christie’s, Saffronart, and AstaGuru among others, are responsible for evaluating and presenting artworks to prospective buyers. A formerly enigmatic arena, art auctions have seen a change in terms of first-time buyers.

The exclusivity of art has moved from a gatekeeping kind, to an exclusivity owing to skill. Simply old artworks are not the only valuable ones, and owning an artwork does not always have to cost a fortune. Thanks to initiatives like India Art Fair’s Young Collector’s Programme, millennials can get started on their art acquisition journeys with small steps. For there is a change in the way the ownership of an artwork is being seen as well. While artistic merit and uniqueness are certainly huge aspects of it, art as a financial asset is also being seen as a suitable proposition for the younger populace.

It is an exciting period for Indian art, as it finally comes into its own, thanks to a thriving domestic demand prompted by both rich conglomerates and millennials. It is only a matter of time that contemporary Indian art starts competing with its Western counterparts.

What would the world look like a few decades from now? While science fiction never fails to add to our already rich imaginations (think: The Creator), things might take a different turn when it comes to urban design, where the focus will primarily be on sustainability. This means more green zones, prioritising eco-conscious building material and an emphasis on recycling. But what would that result in? And would bigger cities become obsolete, as per popular predictions?  

Cities will continue to exist, but might look vastly different

Cities are already home to 56% of the world’s population, which is expected to double by 2050. And this need will result in reimagining them. “The truth of it is that cities are living organisms, they alter and change… and they’re unbelievably resilient.” Mary Rowe, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, told Vox. Across North America, giant office buildings will cease to exist and might be used for housing (given the rising crisis). Downtowns will diversify. Public health and green spaces will take priority.

More focus on community building and nature

RIOS recently presented the Hyper-Abundant City plan at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. It reimagines the future of Apgujeong, a neighbourhood in Seoul, to find a solution to urban flooding. They proposed the cultivation of ecological plots to allow for gradual evolution over time. Mexico’s Smart Forest City is another great example. The metropolis would reportedly contain 7.5 mln plants and will be based on the area’s Mayan heritage and its relationship with the natural world.

Newer and smarter cities

Urban population might double, but not necessarily in existing cities and towns. Newer cities, with effective environmental initiatives, are likely to sprawl. And they might look very different from what we imagine a city to be. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s ‘The Line’ is set to become a 100 mile long linear city sans cars and with high-speed autonomous transit. 

And this means…

The definition of an ‘urban area’ might change. It might no longer be about concrete jungles, speeding cars, or even a higher population. Instead, it’ll shift to living in sync with nature while equipping societies with modern technology in the most sustainable way possible. 

 

Thank You For Coming, which recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF), releases in theatres today. While it’s too soon to say whether the film, directed by Karan Boolani, will be successful in throwing light on female sexuality with the kind of nuance the subject deserves, we could not help but notice the interesting cast. 

From Kusha Kapila and Dolly Singh to Shibani Bedi, it has its fair share of ‘influencers’. Which brings us to the question: has social media established itself as an alternative platform for aspiring actors? More importantly, has there been a shift in the way people are being cast in Bollywood?

The number game seems to be gaining the upper hand  

Influencers have become a critical part of the marketing strategy in most industries, and Bollywood is following suit. People with celebrity status on social media are being cast on the big screen based on the potential benefits they can bring to a project. At the same time, seasoned actors are being questioned on their following – an issue actors Vidya Balan and Huma Qureshi had raked up last year

Where does this leave the question of fame?

Influencers making their way into Bollywood is one thing, but actors being rejected for not having enough followers is another. Until now, it was an actor’s on screen presence and performance that got them followers and not the other way around. With influencers gaining celebrity status, that seems to be changing. Though, even today, the chances of people recognising and cheering for say, Ranbir Kapoor (who is not on social media) walking down the street, is way higher than expecting a similar reaction for Bhuvan Bam (who has 17 mln followers on Instagram). 

So are we to witness more influencers stepping into an actor’s shoes?

Though influencers are regularly being cast in films and shows off late – from Anubhav Singh Bassi in Tu Jhooti Main Makkaar to Kusha Kapila in Masaba Masaba, their roles (for the most part) remain limited and similar to their online personas. So, even as Bollywood’s way of casting people may be shifting, the larger question remains – has the perception of talent changed in the industry or is this yet another phase?

 

Remember when designer labels proudly displayed their names and logos on their products – from clothing to accessories – and so many wore them with even more pride? (who else wishes they had listened to that one friend trying to explain how tacky this looked even back then?) 

Well, a reverse trend has been gaining popularity this season, especially with the recently concluded Paris Fashion Week. Conspicuous consumption is passé, with quiet becoming the new loud in fashion – and ‘quiet luxury’ the ongoing trend. 

What went on at the Paris Fashion Week?

Besides proving to be a global stage for Indian fashion designers, with the launch of Rahul Mishra’s new label AFEW (and Aishwarya Rai’s moment with Kendall Jenner), minimalism got its revenge on maximalism. Dopamine dressing was replaced by subtlety with an increased emphasis on ‘wearable’ clothes and minimal makeup (Pamela Anderson definitely set an example). Overall, a restrained approach to fashion seems to be settling in, although some designers would disagree

Pragmatism dominated New York as well 

The New York street style collection was more about dealing with the heat wave and clothes to make it through the day cool and collected. From big, boxy button-downs that let in a little breeze to the understated Mary Janes, it was all about comfort. Neutral tones like chocolate, camel, and espresso dominated the ramp. Pleated skirts also made a comeback. 

Economic climate is a factor

For long, fashion weeks have marked two ends of the spectrum – one that is for a more niche audience (and exorbitantly expensive) and the other has been street style (not always pragmatic). With more focus on timelessness, affordability, and comfort without compromising on quality, the gap seems to be closing. And a lot of it has to do with the current economic climate

So, what can we expect?

High fashion becoming more accessible. A Y2K-influenced mood in style translating into subtlety and timelessness and an increased focus on making clothing ergonomic. Essentially, fashion is set to broaden its niche audience. 

 

When the US Ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti, visited the country for the first time as a teenager in the 1980s, he immediately fell in love with it. India’s “warmth, cultural heritage, and amazing people” brought him back for a visit again in the 1990s, and many times thereafter.

Though the “trappings and technology” may have changed since his earlier visits, “I’ve also been impressed with how much has remained the same,” he notes. “That incredible richness and vitality is the same as it’s always been.”

It is perhaps these qualities that have evoked a certain zeal in him for India’s generation on the rise. “I think India’s potential is limited only by its aspiration… One of my key goals as US Ambassador to India is to create opportunities for this generation to achieve this potential,” he told us in an exclusive interview.

Catch our conversation with the Ambassador below, where we discuss everything from how he plans to achieve this goal to the Indian cities he is most excited to explore.

India is a nation with one of the largest millennial as well as diasporic populations in the world. What kind of influence are we likely to see this cohort have on the global stage?

I think India’s potential is limited only by its aspiration. Today’s rising generation is stepping into a world of unlimited possibility, as India works with the United States and with partners all around the world to confront the 21st century’s most urgent challenges. The stakes are high, so we need to get this right, but the potential to achieve world-transforming advances has never been stronger.

One of my key goals as US Ambassador to India is to create opportunities for this generation to achieve this potential. We’re working with partners in India and the United States to expand opportunities for a world-class US education; to strengthen supply chains on cutting-edge technology; and to increase deployment of clean, green energy, to protect the planet for future generations.

How is this different from what you encountered during your initial visits to India in the 1980s?

The India of today is different in many ways from that of the 1980’s – after all, not many people back then might have imagined the country landing a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon – but I’ve also been impressed with how much has remained the same.

I first came here when I was 14 years old, and fell in love with the country’s warmth, cultural heritage, and amazing people. I returned in 1990, and many times thereafter, and each time fell in love all over again. The trappings and technology may have changed, but that incredible richness and vitality is the same as it’s always been. Today, I am still filled with wonder as our two countries together write the next chapter of our shared journey. 

Last month, you had announced that the US would issue a record number of visas in 2023, while also stating that the US sees India as the “most important country in the world”. As India’s largest newsletter on travel and worklife, we are keen to know the travel and career opportunities our readers can expect in the near future? 

The ties between our people are stronger than ever. As we wrap up another record-breaking year for student, employment-based, and immigrant visas, I’ve been blown away by the stories people have shared about their US experiences. Our Embassy and Consulates are working diligently to open the door to even greater opportunities next year!

In your opinion, what is the most underrated Indian food/breakfast item? 

Spicy food – anything with chilies. And anything you can eat with your hands. I’m half Mexican, so we eat with tortillas. That’s the way you experience food – with your fingers.

As The Jurni believes you are what you read, which book(s) would we find on your nightstand right now?

Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller and The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. 

In the spirit of our ethos – “stay curious; never stop seeking” – which Indian city are you most keen to explore next?

Two – can’t wait to get to Pushkar, Rajasthan and Kisama, Nagaland. 

Who is your favourite actor/singer/artist from India or the Indian diaspora?

Sharmila Tagore, Shah Rukh Khan, Mindy Kaling, Norah Jones, A.R. Rahman, and Zakir Hussain 

An unexpected similarity you’ve observed between Americans and Indians? 

We dream the same dreams. We strive for the same ambitions. And we get that same breathless look on our faces when our sports team pulls it out to clinch the match at the last minute.

If we ask you to think about a film, say a rom-com based in Korea, would you be immediately able to picture it? Now, let’s change the location to Bangladesh. Would the image be as clear? One of Asia’s biggest film festivals – the Busan Film Festival or BFF – concludes today after screening some of the most thought-provoking films of the year. From Korean Director Park In Je’s fantasy drama Moving, which walked away with several awards, to Hansal Mehta’s crime drama Scoop, which reigned supreme from the Best Asian TV Series category, the range was as diverse as it was captivating.

But more interestingly, it helped us notice the less visible players in the global cinematic landscape – like Bangladeshi and Nepali cinema. So, this National Cinema Day, we thought we’d shine the spotlight on our talented neighbours and celebrate their contribution to world cinema while exploring what’s changed. 

Universal themes rooted in local narratives

Be it Bangladesh's Something Like An Autobiography which confronts themes of pregnancy alongside societal and political pressures on celebrities, or Where The Rivers Run South from Nepal, which tackles the issues of migrant labourers and the patriarchy —  themes that successfully transcend national borders and are very relatable. At the same time, the films are also deeply rooted in their local milieu, giving us ample occasion to explore and understand the geographical, political, and cultural context of a story. 

Bolder storylines 

These films are not just tackling certain issues head on, but are experimenting with bold and eccentric themes. For instance, another Bangladeshi film, Agantuk or The Stranger, which was also screened at BFF, explores matters of familial relationships and burgeoning sexuality. On the other hand, Nepal's A Road To A Village is the story of how a family from a remote village grapples with its new reality after gaining access to city life.  

So can we expect more in the near future? 

Definitely. Just like this year’s BFF proved that all ‘superheroes don’t need to come from North America’, it also demonstrated that good cinema can come from any part of the world. But it will need our support and encouragement. After all, a show without an audience is not much of a show. 



 

A curious aspect to this year’s Literature Nobel laureate, Jon Fosse, is that the Norwegian author writes in Nynorsk, a rural language used by just 10% of the Norwegian population, though understandable to most of Fosse’s countrymen. But perhaps this is the very reason why Fosse has been awarded this year.

An author awarded for his “innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable”, Fosse is known as a writer with a sparse and minimalist style that seeks to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with experimentation. Dream of Autumn (1999), which shot Fosse to fame outside Norway, is an exercise in bending space and time in theatre.

In case you feel that is too avant-garde, Fosse’s magnum opus, Septology, is a three-volume tome that consists of a single sentence. The narrative follows two painters who share the same name and are neighbours, but do not interact. The book’s third volume was nominated for the 2022 International Booker. 

The bleak and existential nature of his subjects, as well as his voice, has led to Fosse being anointed ‘the 21st century Beckett’ by Le Monde (His 1996 play, Someone Is Going To Come, is based on Waiting For Godot). With an astonishing oeuvre consisting of 40 plays, over 70 novels, and a multitude of short stories, this introspective writer is likely to overtake his former student, Karl Ove Knausgård, as the best known Norwegian writer.

 

Isn’t it amazing how music has so many genres – from rock to hip hop to jazz – each made different by the dominance of certain instruments and synchronised through unique notes? Food is a lot like that, where specific ingredients and cooking styles blend to bring it closer to a distinct culture. 

And just like A.R. Rahman has brought different genres together through his experiments with ‘world music’, there was a person who did something similar with food. As Alexander the Great conquered lands far and wide – from the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt to the Middle East and parts of Asia – he brought food traditions together, creating a unique symphony between cuisines, and birthing newer ones. Since it is World Food Day (and we couldn't care less about calories on this occasion), we take a look at how he influenced world cuisine. 

Greece goes gourmet

Before Alexander, food was purely a means of sustenance in Greece. The Greeks mostly consumed basic seafood, certain meat dishes, and grains. Alexander brought to Greece gastronomic influences from different parts of Europe, introducing them to new herbs, spices, recipes, techniques, and a variety of cheeses. Surprisingly, lettuce was considered a passion-killer in Greece. But greatly impressed by the Egyptians (who were big on lettuce), Alexander encouraged its consumption, creating a culture of salads in the country. 

What about Indian food?

There was a significant increase in trade activities between India and Rome as well as some Mediterranean nations which led to a notable infusion of saffron (which Alexander used to colour his locks with) and some herbs and spices. The impact of Greek cuisine was especially notable since it led to the rise in popularity of vegetables like zucchini and aubergine in the subcontinent. Jammu’s pan-fried kalari – very similar to the Greek cheese kasseri – is a great example. 

The First Gastronomist 

Imagine if the Greeks did not have their salads, or if we were unaware of the magic saffron can bring to food. And these are just some of the examples. This birth of new flavours and cultural identities has been possible thanks to Alexander of Macedon. Dare we say that when it comes to food, his contribution unquestionably turned out to be great

 

The London Film Festival wrapped up last Sunday showcasing some of the most applaud worthy and buzz generating films. From Director Adura Onashile’s Girl starring Déborah Lukumuena to Hansal Mehta’s The Buckingham Murders starring Kareena Kapoor (which received a standing ovation), the audience was spoilt for choice. But, amidst the selection of tasteful cinema, was an understated Japanese creation that got everybody talking. 

Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Evil Does Not Exist is the story of a village’s fight to preserve the ecological balance of the natural world and the local people’s way of life. They are up against a Tokyo company intending to turn their land into a swanky tourist destination. While the subject of corporate capitalism despoiling the environment might not come as a breath of fresh air, the treatment of the narrative does.

Because the film doesn’t take sides. As the name suggests, it refuses to segregate those involved in the conflict into heroes and villains. Instead, it puts both POVs into context, and brings out their vulnerabilities in a way that is nothing short of poetic. 

“It is both a lyrical portrait of family and community, and a nuanced consideration of the ethics of land development. Amidst a strong competition the jury is unanimous in our admiration!” Variety reported the jury as saying. The film, which also won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is available on Mubi. 

Lately, there has been an increase in the number of translated books hitting the Indian markets. This follows, in part, from Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker win for Ret Samadhi, as well as Perumal Murugan’s work, which has received international acclaim in the past few years, culminating in the nomination of Pyre for the International Booker last year. But it would be a stretch to say that these awards are solely responsible for the burgeoning readership in vernacular literatures. Then what gives?

Walk English, Talk English, Read English

Up until a few years ago, reading habits among Indians were more aspirational. Readers in urban spaces tended to gravitate towards Indian writing in English more than regional literatures, owing largely to our collective colonial hangover. As aspirational readers, Indian readers were more partial towards award-winning novels, as they came attached with the tag of ‘serious literature’.

Literature gone local

A major reason why vernacular literatures have more readers now is simply because of more exposure, which brings with it funding as well. Regional literatures have always enjoyed an audience, even if it was niche before. The arrival of social media, and the work of organisations like the Raza Foundation, the Rekhta Foundation, and the Sahitya Akademi, made visible the work of legendary as well as contemporary writers and poets. Moreover, the award juries themselves, instead of being selected on a whim or through celebrity status, go through a rigorous vetting and selection process to ensure a diversity of voices and worldviews. Likewise, the reading habits of our generation have changed from aspirational to relatable writing. Millennial and Gen Z readers want to read more narratives about their identities, which talk about their place as Indians in the world. And publishers like Blaft and Westland are obliging them.

Looking to the future

With the increase in readership and receptivity towards vernacular literatures, there has been a strong thrust on their translation as well, which has resulted in a strong cohort of translators who are masters of their craft. This increases the visibility of translated works, leading them to a position from which they can be nominated for literary awards. If anything, Geetanjali Shree’s win is just the beginning of the story. Local Indian Literatures have arrived on the scene and the sky is the limit.

What country comes to mind when you think of 'perfumes'? If your answer was Italy, France, or Bulgaria, then you may want to look at a new entrant in the arena — Mexico. This North American country is all set to alter our association with premium perfumes forever. 

How, though?

Think of it like the heritage perfumes from India, for instance the Kannauj perfume and its rise in the international luxury market. Something similar is happening in Mexico, where fragrances derived from ingredients native to the country -– like Mexican black cherry, patchouli, black sapote, tuberose, and lime — are being used to create fragrances rooted in authenticity, and at times, spirituality. 

“...It's almost a surprise that this uprising is just surfacing now because the heritage in Mexico and the connection to the sense of smell is part of their culture,” a master perfumer at Givaudan, Rodrigo Flores-Roux told Vogue

And this is changing the face of Mexico

For long, the global outlook on Mexico has been skewed. However, with this movement, a critical part of its rich heritage will be associated with luxury for the first time. 

“In [fragrance], it often is always France or Italy [for creation and inspiration]; it’s never been done this way with Mexico," Bernardo Möller, founder of the first major Mexican-American scent brand, House of Bō, told Elle. “Mexico has been seen as a lot of things, but not always as a provider of luxury.”

So what can we expect in the future? 

An expansion of Mexican perfumery through culture, storytelling, and packaging along with the hope that this market spreads its wings in other areas too. As the country slowly emerges as a renowned name in luxury perfumes, maybe we’ll see more glimpses of Mexico’s cultural richness very soon.