Art in America- India Art Fair

A piece for Art in America

India Art Fair Gains Major Dealers, Courts Collectors

by shoba narayan 01/24/12

“Once you exceed 100,000 people, it’s not a numbers game anymore. It’s about bringing high quality collectors in,” says Neha Kirpal, 31, founder of the India Art Fair, explaining to A.i.A. her strategy for the fair’s fourth edition, which takes place at the NSIC Grounds in New Delhi, Jan. 25–29. Last year, some 128,000 people visited the fair—that’s London’s Frieze and Art Basel Miami Beach combined, by some estimates.

This year, 91 galleries from 19 countries have signed up to show at India’s largest-and only-contemporary art fair, half of them Indian and the other half international. These include White Cube, Hauser & Wirth, Gallery Continua and Grosvenor Gallery. Among the participating Indian galleries are Gallery Ske, Sakshi Gallery, Naturemorte, Tasveer Arts and Apparao Galleries, showing marquee names such as Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat and Subodh Gupta.

This year the fair adds a performance workshop called KhojLive, hosted at Blue Frog, a nightclub and performance space. Performa biennial founder RoseLee Goldberg will deliver the introductory lecture, after which 13 Indian artists, including Pushpamala N. & Mamta Sagar, Vivan Sundaram, Mr. Dotty and Madame Potty, will showcase their performance works.

Each gallery pays Rs. 18,000 (about $359) per square meter to rent a booth. This income, along with corporate sponsorships, is the main revenue for the fair. At $4, or Rs. 200, the entry ticket is priced lower than the cost of a “Bollywood movie ticket,” according to Kirpal. Last year, artist Anish Kapoor was a speaker, along with Homi Bhabha, dean of Harvard’s school of humanities. India’s Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, visited the booths, swarmed by security.

Kirpal and her team of young art management professionals (mostly women), work through the year for the four-day event. The logistics aren’t easy. Last year, a leak in the roof just weeks before the opening meant organizers had to waterproof 11,000 square feet of roof. “No other organization would do that in India because nobody else shows art on this scale here,” says Kirpal.

After returning to India from London in 2007, Kirpal wanted to do an art fair along the lines of Frieze and Basel. “Nobody even knew what an art fair was,” she says. “Everyone said that it wouldn’t work in a chaotic country like India.” She wrote a business plan on an airline sickness bag, borrowed about $500,000 from a private investor and founded the first Indian Art Summit, as it was called in 2008. Only 10,000 visitors attended and the Indian art establishment predicted that the venture would die. It didn’t, partly because Kirpal made some smart moves like synching with the Jaipur Literary Festival, held a week before the art fair, and partly because, like the Jaipur Literary Festival, the art fair was treading on virgin ground. Once the fair’s organizers got the formula right, the celebrities began coming. Oprah Winfrey is in India now to attend the literary festival, and organizers hope she’ll visit the art fair as well. Visitors come “by private plane or two-day train rides,” says Kirpal with satisfaction.

“What makes the India Art Fair compelling relative to other Asian art fairs are the numbers,” says Malini Gulrajani, owner of 1×1 gallery, Dubai, who has participated in the fair since its inception. “We did in Art Stage Singapore and there were about 20 to 30,000 people.” Even the Hong Kong International Art Fair (Art HK), arguably the region’s biggest, recorded 63,000 visitors last year.

Earlier this year, Sandy Angus and Will Ramsey, who co-founded Art HK (which was acquired by Art Basel last year), bought a 51-percent stake in the India Art Fair. Kirpal used the cash infusion to repay her start-up loans and has used the fair’s success to work on easing government regulations on the import and export of artworks.

This year, for the first time, the Indian government has designated the fair a “temporary museum,” which allows galleries to import and export artwork duty free; they only pay duty on works that are actually sold. In previous years, law required they pay duty upfront, regardless of whether a work was sold. The Indian government charges 14- to 17-percent duty, compared with Dubai’s 5 percent. “I spent a lot of time lobbying with the government to convince them that the country will make more on cultural tourism through events such as the art fair than they make on import duty,” says Kirpal.

She also is working on developing a collector base in an immature market. This year, she has launched a “Collector’s Circle,” which will provide lectures and art walks for its members. “I want to use the art fair as a catalyst and tool to develop the art scene in India,” she says.


India Art Fair 2012

Here is the piece in Mint

  • Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Jan 27 2012. 9:51 PM IST
Why art needs to speak a simpler tongue
The India Art Fair is in full swing; and Delhi feels like it is at the centre of the universe. This is the trick that geography plays. When you are part of an event, part of its intellectual mindspace, you get drawn into its “reality distortion field”

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

One of the questions facing all organizers of large events in light of what happened in Jaipur is this: How much of a broad base of support do you need to build for an event that is essentially (or has become) an elitist pursuit?

The India Art Fair is in full swing; and Delhi feels like it is at the centre of the universe. This is the trick that geography plays. When you are part of an event, part of its intellectual mindspace, you get drawn into its “reality distortion field”. A few hundred kilometres away, the same event becomes a forgotten footnote to the daily hazards of traffic jams, water shortage and what the chief minister did.


Eclectic : The art fair affords visitors the opportunity to stand before an original Raza as well as discover emerging artists.(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Eclectic : The art fair affords visitors the opportunity to stand before an original Raza as well as discover emerging artists.(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)


Politicians deal with these parallel realities every day, and perhaps this is why they are able to dismiss the censorship issues swirling around Salman Rushdie so easily. Blaming the Rajasthan government for cancelling the video link at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is to ignore the pragmatism of politics; or for that matter, event management. The greatest good for the greatest number, as utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham might have it. Not all the time, but at least till the show closes. Moral rectitude takes spine—Judge John Woolsey’s ruling in the United States v. One Book Called Ulysses is an oft-quoted example—but is easier done from a judge’s bench. 

At the art fair, people still talk about M.F. Husain and how his works were banned from the 2009 India Art Summit, as it was called then. At that time, the organizers issued a statement: “While we acknowledge the lifelong achievements and the iconic status of artists like M.F. Husain in Indian art,” it read, “we are unable to put the entire collective concern at risk by showcasing artists who have, in the past, been received with hostility by certain sections of the society unless we receive protection from the government and the Delhi police.”

Was that the right thing to do? As an art lover, it is easy for me to say, “Absolutely not”. But had I been part of the organizing team that worked all year to put up the fair, only to find it under threat at the last minute, I am not sure I would have done anything different. The “solution”, I guess, is to build up a diverse constituency of support for such events. This, arguably, is not part of the job description of an event organizer, but here in India, with its stark inequalities and divisive opinions, it cannot be escaped.

Artists and authors are society’s conscience keepers. They must speak their mind and follow their contrarian impulses. But as art and literary festivals move from the homogenous cultures (Art|Basel or the Hay Festival) to countries with heterogeneous populations with about as many opinions, they have to decide if they want to follow Immanuel Kant’s absolutism or Bentham’s utilitarianism.

Neha Kirpal, the founder of the art fair, at least for now, seems to have gone with Bentham. It is important to her to have a variety of art lovers visit the festival, she says. “We have people coming on private planes and others who take two-day train rides to Delhi to see art. The ticket price (Rs. 200) is less than the cost of a movie ticket.”

The strategy has worked. Last year, 128,000 people visited the art fair, much higher than the region’s juggernaut—the Hong Kong International Art Fair (ArtHK), which drew 63,000 people in 2011. The ArtHK people, incidentally, have taken a 51% stake in the India Art Fair and are themselves part-owned by Art|Basel. Contemporary art, at the end of the day, is a small community. Commercially, it makes sense to keep it so. You want affluent collectors to visit your booths, not the art student from Bihar who took a two-day trip to Delhi. Artist Subodh Gupta undertook such a journey a few decades ago.

What Kirpal and JLF co-director Namita Gokhale have accomplished is bold and path-breaking. To create a business or event that is bigger than you, and will likely outlast you, is the dream of any artist or entrepreneur. These women have accomplished both, and their success will likely spawn other dreamers. The India Art Fair is stunning. If you are a lover of contemporary Indian art, you must visit this playground of desire. Where else can you stand before an original S.H. Raza or discover upcoming artists that you love? I discovered several, and next week, I plan to write about them.

Kirpal told me that she spends a lot of her time lobbying for the art fair and increasing community involvement. That seems to be the way to go. Art is an elitist pursuit, but here in India, it must be inclusive as well—for pragmatic reasons.

This evening, three artists—Jitish Kallat, Navin Thomas and L.N. Tallur— will duke it out for the Rs. 10 lakh Škoda Prize. “Tallur comes from a strong sculpture tradition with an interesting take on traditional motifs,” says Pooja Sood, one of the jury members. “Navin’s focus is on research and cutting-edge sound and technology. Jitish’s is an interventionist, with an intellectual interpretation of space.” I respect Sood, but “interventionist”? What’s that? This is the kind of talk one hears at the art fair.

Building a broader base of support for contemporary art, literature and music in India is hugely important, particularly if small fanatic factions can derail landmark events. It involves reaching out to larger swathes of our population and educating the general public about contemporary art and literature. Most important—and I say this as a logophile, and yes, the irony of using this obscure word in this sentence is not lost on me—it involves speaking a simpler tongue.

Shoba Narayan highly recommends a visit to the India Art Fair. Disclosure: She was a guest of the art fair. Write to her at


Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns


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India Art Fair

  1. Here are some of the articles that I wrote about the India Art Fair.

Curators and gallerists put finishing touches to 2012 India Art Fair

Shoba Narayan

Jan 25, 2012

Iranian art seems to be, if not the flavour of the event, at least a point of interest at the 2012 India Art Fair (IAF), where more than 1,000 art works from 91 galleries will be shown. Contemporary Iranian art from the Anupam and Lekha Poddar Collection will be unveiled at the fair’s closing party on Sunday. Curated by the Tehran-based graphic designer and curator, Amirali Ghasemi, the invitation-only event, titled “The Elephant in the Dark”, has already generated a buzz in Indian art circles, if only because Poddar is known for being a collector that is ahead of the curve.

Ghasemi, the curator of this exhibition, is himself one of the artists who is being shown at the fair by Dubai’s 1×1 gallery, along with Alireza Fani, Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Nosratollah Moslemian and Pooya Aryanpour, who will be juxtaposed against five Indian artists: Rameshwar Broota, Ravinder Reddy, Chittouvanu Mazumdar, Simrin Mehran Agarwal and Biju Joze. “We have a huge captive audience in India as against, say Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai with smaller populations,” says the owner of 1×1 gallery Malini Gulrajani, who has been showing at the IAF for the past four years. What draws Gulrajani, along with Abu Dhabi’s Salwa Zeidan gallery and global heavyweights such as Hauser & Wirth, White Cube and Gallery Continua, are the swelling numbers of people who attend, relative to other Asian art fairs in Singapore and Dubai. Even the region’s behemoth – the Hong Kong Art Fair – attracted 63,000 visitors in 2011 relative to India, which attracted 128,000 visitors last year. The hope is that a significant percentage of these visitors will convert into buyers.

“When we showcased in Art Stage in Singapore, we did a curated show. Here we have given our artists carte blanche because we expect a lot of sales,” says Anahita Taneja, the owner of Shrine Empire gallery in New Delhi, who is showing four female artists in her booth. Three of them — Fariba Alam, Samantha Batra Mehta, and Priyanka Dasgupta — are based in New York, and one, Suchitra Gahlot, is based in New Delhi.

The mood on the ground is giddy as curators and gallerists put finishing touches on their booths. Bhavna Kakar, the brash, fast-talking owner of Latitude 28 gallery, likens it to a big fat Indian wedding. “You meet the same people at gallery openings and parties,” she says. “The collateral events – Skoda, performance art – have become really huge. People talk about what you are wearing for this party and what about tomorrow for breakfast, particularly if you are staying at the same hotel. It’s like an Indian wedding.”

Pooja Sood, the co-founder of Khoj, an artists’ association, collaborative space and incubator, is putting together an evening of performance art, something that is new in India. Featuring marquee Indian names such as Subodh Gupta, Vivan Sundaram, Pushpamala N and Mamta Sagar, Khoj has invited RoseLee Goldberg, an art historian and the founder of the unique and prestigious Performa Biennial in New York, to give an introductory talk at KhojLive12. “We are going nuts,” says Sood. “Choosing Blue Frog (a nightclub) was revolutionary because we have diverse spaces to work with and are organising avante garde lighting.”

Sood is also part of the five-person jury that will decide the Skoda Prize, Indian contemporary art’s largest and most prestigious prize, at least in terms of monetary reward (Rs 1 million or Dh73,000). Three prominent Indian artists — Jitesh Kallat, LN Thallur and Navin Thomas — form the shortlist for the award, which will be announced on January 28 in a glittering ceremony at the Taj Palace hotel, where artists, collectors and curators will schmooze with each other. “A lot of the fun stuff happens outside the aegis of the art fair,” says one art maven who has visited the art fair every year.

The founder of the Indian Art Fair, Neha Kirpal, 31, and her team of 11 people are working around the clock to get the venue ready, taking care of everything from “PR to maintaining toilets”, as she says. Last year, weeks before the opening, one section of the roof leaked, causing them to waterproof 11,000 sq ft of roof virtually till opening day. “No other organisation would have done this because nobody shows art on such a scale in India,” says Kirpal.

This year, a British production company (20-20 events), German tents and an Indian set designer (Sumant Jaikishan) have all come together to stage the fair, which charges galleries a fixed rate for exhibition space.

The organisers don’t take a commission on any sale and remain resolutely non-aligned, claiming to be “equal promoters” of every gallery that makes it to the art fair. “We have never transacted on an art piece and we never will,” says Kirpal. “We don’t have opinions on the art scene. We are service providers and catalysts, that’s all.”

Critics say that over the years, the art fair has become too commercial, “very much a bazaar with no quality control”, partly because the managing team has no arts expertise. Indeed, large banks such Deutsche Bank and UBS that support the Frieze and other arts fairs have so far not come forward to sponsor the Indian one. Kirpal responds that the art fair is a reflection of the Indian art market.

But for now, she has speakers to house, museum groups to schedule and room after room of art to oversee.

The India Art Fair will be held in New Delhi at the NSIC Exhibition Grounds, Okhla Industrial Estate, starting today and continuing until Sunday. For details, visit


Indian art market a rosy picture

Shoba Narayan

Jan 23, 2012
The subcontinent's art market is estimated to be worth as much as 20 billion rupees. Above, visitors look at a car-like sculpture made out of material moulded in the shape of bones. Raveendran / AFP

The Indian art market is bucking a global trend of declining sales and hopes are high some expensive pieces will change hands at the India Art Fair in New Delhi this week.

More than 100,000 people are expected to attend the event, due to be held from Wednesday to Sunday.

Exhibiting galleries are hoping for robust sales and continued interest from wealthy domestic buyers, thereby fuelling the country’s art market, estimated to be worth as much as 20 billion rupees (Dh1.46bn).

Although globally art sales are down, India is showing surprising resilience.

“The Indian art market boomed very, very fast and is now more mature, more stable. Indians have the money and the potential to become serious collectors,” says As Bhavna Kakar, the owner of Latitude 28 gallery in New Delhi.

“In fact, galleries such as mine have survived the recession purely through selling to local Indian collectors. If the market can sustain us through local consumption these last four years, then you know that the Indian market has good potential for international galleries.”

Each gallery pays about Dh1,310 per square metre to have a booth at the fair, on which just under Dh7 million is spent on advertising and Dh14m on public relations throughout the year, done mostly “through barters and partnerships with media companies”, according to Neha Kirpal, 31, the energetic founder of the event, now in its fourth year.

The fair makes money through corporate sponsorship and the sale of floor space. This year, 26 museum groups from across the world are scheduled to visit. Half of the 90 exhibitors are Indian galleries and half are international – from South Africa, Latvia, Portugal, France and the UK, among other countries.

The event has come a long way since 2008 when fewer than 10,000 people visited and many in the art establishment told Ms Kirpal she was foolhardy to attempt to run an art fair in a poor, chaotic country with a minuscule art market.

Undeterred, Ms Kirpal, who has a master’s degree in marketing from the University of the Arts, London, wrote an initial business plan on an air-sickness bag on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai.

She took out a personal loan of about Dh150,000 and founded the fair. After losing money every year, she is “cash-neutral” this year, she says, thanks in part to an injection of funds from Will Ramsay and Sandy Angus, the co-founders of Art HK, an international event held in Hong Kong, who have bought a 49 per cent stake in India Art Fair.

Ms Kirpal used the funding to repay her loan.  It costs about Dh500,000 to organise the fair, she says. Sixty per cent of the operating budget goes towards renting the venue and 15 per cent goes to the production company.

Unlike mature art markets, many Indian buyers are speculators who come in with a lot of money but have little knowledge about art. The fair has launched a “collector’s circle” to interest and educate novice but wealthy collectors. Members pay a fee of US$200 (Dh735) and are invited to events and lectures throughout the year.

“The art fair is a wonderful platform because it has brought together galleries, curators, artists, museums, non-profit organisations and auctioneers – but it still remains very commercial,” says Maithili Parekh, the director of business development at Sotheby’s India.