Boom and bust

Different Strokes


Foreign Body: A painting by Max Ernst, one of the close associates of Ravi Kumar.

Born in Delhi in 1937, Ravi Kumar has been a resident of Paris since 1965. In 2005, he was made the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite (Knight of the Order of Merit), one of the highest civilian honours conferred by the French government.  The citation acknowledged how Kumar had transcended distances, divided his time between Delhi and Paris, and dedicated his energies and time in the cause of promoting Indian Contemporary artists in India and abroad.

In Paris, Kumar has had the good fortune of befriending some of the biggest names in the art world of the 20th century like Max Ernst, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Robert Rauschenberg. He was close to Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, the renowned art dealer of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, among others. In such illustrious company, Kumar developed a deep understanding of Western art which complemented his knowledge of Indian art and artists.

Kumar has worn many hats — as a collector, curator and publisher of high quality art books. Over the years he has organised several curated shows of contemporary Indian artists in several parts of the world. His show, ‘Seven’ (2003), featured works of some of the country’s most accomplished abstractionists; another curated show had 25 Indian artists and concluded with a month-long exhibition in Moscow in 2007. More recently, he put up an exhibition titled ‘Dus Mahavidyas’, to ‘honour, celebrate and acknowledge the creative expression’ of women artists.  

When I first met Kumar two years ago, the art market in India was booming. Artists were commanding high prices; galleries were pampering ‘saleable’ artists and luring prospective buyers. Glossy catalogues and glitzy parties were intrinsic part of the hype and hoopla, where new groups of investors — many of whom with little or no clue about art — were making their presence felt. Kumar had minced no words in decrying the trend.

“Artists have become factories,” he had bemoaned. “They are employing assistants and producing works by dozens. Prices are being manipulated and multiplied several times. A painting which sold for Rs 25,000 has skyrocketed to Rs 5 lakh within a year. Artists, galleries, dealers and auction houses — all of them are in it in equal measure. The bubble will burst sooner than later.”

As we sipped coffee recently at the Bangalore Club, Kumar had this ‘did I not tell you?’ look on his face. Things had dramatically changed in the last 12 months. “Recession has hit the entire world and the art field has also been affected badly,” he surmised.

“Galleries which had sprung up from nowhere are shutting down. Hyped-up artists are suddenly finding it difficult to sell their work. They are yet to reconcile to the fact there isn’t going to be another art boom in the next 20-25 years. Only true artists — not those money-making dim-wits — are going to survive.”

Is he happy about these developments? “There is no question of being happy or otherwise. Things have evened out and prices have come down to acceptable levels. Please remember, the so-called art boom was triggered and sustained by greed.  Greedy dealers, greedy buyers, greedy artists. The media and a set of self-proclaimed art critics also joined the party. Now all that is gone.”

Isn’t this is a worldwide phenomena? How is the artist in the West coping up?  “In the West, the problem was triggered by economic recession and not because of the kind of hype and greed which was created in India. In the West, they are suffering but as far as creativity is concerned, there is no let up. I have seen for decades, the Western artist is always concerned about his growth trajectory, his aesthetics and evolution; and his ability to outgrow success or failure. He is not always thinking about multiplication and manipulation of assets or money… He doesn’t get caught up in the whirlpool of money and more money. Here the greed seems limitless.”

How is it that artists behave differently in different places? “First and foremost, it is the education. An artist in the West — even if he is self-taught — knows and values his vocation. He is trained in art and aesthetics. You go to any museum or reputed gallery, you will see busloads of children being taken in and shown the best of classical and international art. It is compulsory art education, in a way. Here, I am afraid, the scene is awful. When I go to art colleges in Delhi, for instance, I find students have creative minds but are going hither and thither in five different styles. When I ask them why they are doing that there is no clear answer. They say there is hardly any worthwhile interaction between students and professors. Last year, I went to a show of students of a Delhi art college, picked up six very creative and interesting artists. When I asked them about the price, their reply was horrendous. They were speaking in terms of lakhs of rupees; these kids were not even out of college!”

But surely, not everything is so bad. In the last few years, didn’t many Indian artists make it to international galleries and auction houses? “Look, you cannot quote an auction result and tell that the artist has made it big. You know as I do, auction results do not tell the  whole story. In any case, you cannot create anything good if you are only thinking of money and auction results. And if you are talking about galleries, there is a lot of difference between West and here. Most galleries there are institutions with people who have been involved in the field for generations. They know a-b-c of art and aesthetics. Here the dealers, I am afraid,  know little about aesthetics, classical art or anything of that kind. They only try to sell art works. I think only in India can you find a person in coffee business opening a gallery; an accountant becoming a dealer; a framer, a watch dealer, a furniturewalah, a garment fellow… all these guys who have no clue about art becoming national celebrities. So, when the bubble burst, they naturally started pulling down the shutters without any care or remorse. This does not happen in the West.”   

So, who is responsible for this mess? “We are all collectively responsible. Anyone with common sense should have known that this hype was too good to last. When artists were knocking out paintings in dozens, and when dealers with absolutely no ethics were ruling and ruining the art scene, they should have been questioned.”

Where do we go from here? “Fortunately, there is no dearth of artistic talent in this country. I hope the artists will start channelising their energy by working sincerely.”

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