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India's Growing Middle Class Becomes More Invested in Art

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 24, 2009; A09

NEW DELHI -- At an intimate gathering of artists, students and fans this week, an American fine arts photographer named Waswo X. Waswo spoke about his unusual experiment in hand-painted digital photography and his work with traditional Indian painters.

At a session aimed at raising awareness about contemporary Indian art, Waswo spoke about his journey from being a "solo act" to engaging in collaborative projects in India. He then told his audience that the experience created a quandary for him when displaying his work, which features a series of studio portraits of street vendors and manual laborers posing against hand-painted backdrops.

"When it was time to exhibit the work in the gallery, I was confronted with an ethical question: Is this work mine? There is a man who stitches the back cloth, there is another who paints it, and a hand colorist who works on the digital prints. I take the photograph. It is a group effort," he said of his show, "A Studio in Rajasthan," which opened in New Delhi last month. "So, I signed the photograph on the front and the hand colorist signed on the reverse."

In the past two years, art outreach programs like this one have mushroomed in the capital to address a burgeoning market for contemporary Indian art and growing public interest among the city's upwardly mobile middle class. One newspaper, the Indian Express, recently called it New Delhi's "Art 101."

"Contemporary Indian art is an ivory tower endeavor, and very few people actually understand it," artist Manisha Parekh said after listening to Waswo. "Public conversations like this are important, not just for a layperson but for artists as well."

Art curators say contemporary Indian art often captures the conflict and contradictions of a nation of more than a billion people that is undergoing the transition to an economic powerhouse. According to the Indian auction house Osian's, the Indian art trade has been growing at 35 percent annually. In the past five years, the rising sales of Indian art at global auctions has created a buzz that India may be a new hot spot for the global art market. This drove many uninitiated Indians to invest in art.

At a Sotheby's auction last week, an untitled oil-and-acrylic painting by India's M.F. Husain sold for $374,500. But the economic slump has weakened prices for other Indian art in auctions this year. Some gallery owners now say that the slowdown is an opportunity for people to take time to educate themselves before rushing to buy.

Last month, a two-day introductory course, priced at $30 per person, was conducted by a new suburban community center called Epicentre. Private art galleries are offering art talks by visiting international curators and collectors, and "meet the artist" events at their openings.

Aastha Almast, 23-year-old researcher at the financial rating agency Standard & Poor's, said she attended the classes with her father.

"I am interested in art, but I do not know much about it. I want to start buying. It is best to enter the market in the slump phase," Almast said. "I am still a beginner, but I have a bit of a discerning eye now."

She said the classes, with lessons ranging from India's classical tradition to contemporary art and artists, were held next to an art exhibition and provided her tips on how to view art.

"These art outreach programs are usually packed, with no place to sit. It shows people are hungry for this kind of a dialogue. And then there are those who are in desperate and urgent need to learn because they have invested in art to make a quick buck," said Kavita Singh, associate professor in the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Unfortunately, the city's public museums have had rudimentary education programs where they bring in school groups who just walk in and walk out. Private galleries and auction houses that have a commercial stake are filling this gap."

Private galleries are also beginning to open their doors to the city's children -- those from slums and from families of art collectors.

"We invite small groups of children to get down and dirty with hands-on activities in our galleries," said Parul Vadehra, director of the Vadehra Art Gallery. "This reduces the feeling of intimidation people have toward contemporary art."

The capital's 55-year-old art museum, the state-run National Gallery of Modern Art, is changing with the times, too.

In January, the museum, with more than 17,000 modern artworks, opened a new exhibition wing that made the museum six times its previous size.

Rajeev Lochan, the director, said the museum will resume its evening art appreciation course and guided tours this summer. He said the museum plans to reengage with the public through an array of school programs, interactive art talks and artist-at-work events.

Unlike museums, private galleries have commercial goals, he said.

"Even old, reputed galleries, many of which have been the mainstay of young budding artists, are primarily driven by profit, which necessitates them to involve, educate and expose the public to their holdings via a cultural route, concealed sophisticatedly in 'art awareness programs,' " Lochan said.

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