The Indian art market, as it happens, is at an all time high. With art moving into the category of capital asset and being treated as an investment rather than merely a luxury collectible, FY23 has been a particularly good year for Indian art. This is evident in the ‘State of the Indian Art Market Report FY23’ by Grant Thornton Bharat and Indian Art Investor which shows that there has been an unprecedented turnover of $144.3 million through the sale of 3,833 works this year.
By no means is this sudden boom an accident. Backed by a decade-long rising trend, the combined effect of the pandemic and the development of an online ecosystem leading to the democratisation of art has ensured that there is now a larger section of people who are interested in and are willing to invest in art.
The month of June 2023 saw a number of auctions focusing on contemporary Indian art, two of them being the Summer Online Auction: Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art by Saffronart from 22nd to 23rd June, and Modern Indian Art: Collectors Choice by AstaGuru Auction House from 21st to 22nd June. Offering 109 and 205 lots of artworks respectively, these two leading auction houses of India saw some impressive sales spanning across hundreds of modern as well as contemporary artists. A significant section of art that stood out at these auctions was contemporary indigenous Indian art, dedicated to the representations of the tribal communities and the marginalised.
The indigenous arts of India have long been evaluated under the pre-Independence colonial rubric that assigned them the categories of “ethnographic arts”, “tribal specimens”, “outsider art”, “minor arts” and so on. Such categorisation implies that Indian folk art and craft traditions are perpetually frozen in time, unable to respond to the external world around them; when in reality (as we see in the artworks for sale at these auctions), this is simply not the case.
Saffronart in its Summer Online Auction offered the works of six seminal contemporary indigenous Indian artists — Jangarh Singh Shyam, Jivya Soma Mashe, Anmada Dei, Dulare Devi, Bimala Dutt, and Jaidev Baghel. All six are artists who learnt the art from and were inspired by their tribal ancestors, but then chose to walk a different path from that of their inherited tradition in their individual quests to respond to the contemporary world around them.
Jyotindra Jain in 20th Century Indian Art traces this urge to amplify one’s visual expression from a tribe-based location to the arrival of paper in villages in the late 1960s and 1970s. Post-Independence government schemes sought to further the social advancement of rural and tribal communities in India by introducing sheets of paper, allowing rural artists to produce portable and easily marketable paintings. “Unanticipated by the government, however,” writes Jain, “it amplified the possibilities of visual expression, enabling the artists to break out of the confines of limited rural iconography and symbolism, to work on a different scale of space and surface, and to explore the possibilities of visual representations of personal as well as contemporary social and political conditions of life” (531).
Jivya Soma Mashe (1934 – 2018), for example, freed the tradition of Warli painting from being a women’s art replete with ritual iconography and practised on a ritually consecrated wall, by bringing it into the male domain as he became the first Warli artist to paint on canvas.
Helping the art form gain recognition in popular and contemporary circles, Mashe’s legacy went on to inspire A. Ramachandran to write and illustrate Jivya and the Tiger God — a children’s book, using intaglio etching and simulating the style of Warli painting, while alluding to Mashe in the title.
Jangarh Singh Shyam (1962 – 2001), who hailed from the Gond tribe of Madhya Pradesh, adapted the community’s cultural imagery for a contemporary setting, thus altering the trajectory of Gond art forever. One of the first Gond artists to use acrylic on paper and canvas, Shyam went on to develop his unique style — an extraordinary mix of tribal and contemporary art featuring gods and goddesses, birds, animals and trees, now known as the Jangarh Kalam.
Artwork: Makdi, Suar, Keeda (Spider, Boar, Insect) (Gond Art) by Jangarh Singh Shyam. Image Courtesy: https://www.saffronart.com/auctions/PostWork.aspx?l=43450
Dulare Devi (b. 1968), a prolific second generation Madhubani artist, has worked to expand the subject matter of Madhubani paintings well beyond its traditional imagery. She depicts social issues such as female foeticide and floods, as well as gods and goddesses in her intricate paintings.
Similarly, all the 13 lots of contemporary Indian tribal artworks at the Saffronart auction reflect the respective artists’ practice of infusing the traditional with the contemporary. In this context, Jyotindra Jain goes on to write that if the works of these artists are ‘contemporary’, “it is not because they made the leap into our contemporaneity but because they responded to it as a part of their individual and social trajectories” (525).
The number of works by female Indian contemporary artists, however, is quite low in both these auctions. AstaGuru offers works by artists such as Anjolie Ela Menon, Madhvi Parekh, Zarina Hashmi, Arpana Caur, and Rekha Rao, while Saffronart has Zarina Hashmi, Radhika Khimji, Adeela Suleman, and Rana Begum — the rest are all modern artists.
The 1970s saw a rise of female artists as a self-conscious group, and according to Partha Mitter in Indian Art, this was “the most significant development in the subcontinent since the 1970s” (226). Helmed by colonial education and nationalist concerns, the women at the turn of the century began to reassess their lives and aspirations — and this gave rise to a wonderful group of women artists who challenged the patriarchal art world in their own ways. Some carried forward the lineage set in motion by Amrita Sher-Gil, while others went on to experiment with new forms and mediums of art.
A new age of art required fresh methods of evaluation. Unfortunately, as Mitter writes, the dominance of the western canon in the art world with its “international art capitals” in London and New York meant that artists from the colonial world were invariably evaluated by western standards. It was in the 1990s that South Asian artists began to challenge this dominance and simultaneously, the “market forces as represented by western art galleries and notable auction houses” (239) turned eastwards, setting up branches in Indian cities and holding auctions there.
We have come a long way since then. The online ecosystem has transformed the Indian art auction landscape in significant ways. Art, often regarded as an inaccessible and daunting luxury item, is now available at just a click on the screen, making the process of bidding a most convenient affair. Bringing in an influx of capital from both generational and novice investors, online auctions have also been a significant force in pushing the market forward. Over the next few years, experts predict that online auctions will be the drivers of the majority of the movement in the market.
Even though FY23 is historically the most successful year for Indian art at auction, there has been a significant 9 percent decline in the number of contemporary artists at auction. Nevertheless, the overall numbers for the Indian art scene lay a firm foundation for a successful decade ahead for Indian art.
“Indian Art Market Witnesses a Successful Year with a Turnover of USD 144.3 Million in FY 2023.” Grant Thornton Bharat, 4 May 2023, https://www.grantthornton.in/press-room/indian-art-market-witnesses-a-successful-year-with-a-turnover-of-usd-144.3-million-in-fy-2023/. Press Release.
Jain, Jyotindra. “The Contemporary in the ‘Folk’ and ‘Tribal’ Arts of India.” 2oth Century Indian Art, edited by Partha Mitter, et al, Thames and Hudson, 2022, pp. 522-539.
Mitter, Partha. Indian Art. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Ramachandran, A. Jivya and the Tiger God. Vadehra Art Gallery, 2012.
*Featured image: Snippet from Jivya Soma Mashe’s Untitled Warli Painting from SaffronArt Summer Online Auction. Image from https://www.saffronart.com/auctions/PostWork.aspx?l=39090
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Sriza Ray (he/her) is a postgraduate in English Literature from Presidency University, and currently works as an Assistant Editor at Kolkata Centre for Creativity. She harbours an interest in all things related to art, literature, history and research. Above all, Sriza is passionate about mountains, museums, and maintaining a list of names for his future pets.