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Indian art pushing boundaries

24 August 09 12:22 GMT

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

At Delhi's main venue for large trade exhibitions, Pragati Maidan, there's a buzz in the air.

Stylish young women flashing designer bags and sunglasses mingle with bearded artists and men wearing conservative business suits.

At the entrance, a group of schoolgirls file in, wearing crisp uniforms.

Welcome to the India Art Summit, the country's largest contemporary arts exhibition showcasing collections from 54 galleries from around the world.

But although there are works from several internationally renowned artists, including Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, the focus is unmistakeably on Indian art.

And there's a lot to see. Vast canvases of oil paintings from some of India's most renowned painters share space with a variety of art forms from younger, more contemporary artists including sculptures, video and digital art installations.

'Indian elements'

At the entrance is the showpiece - three giant sculptures by one of the country's leading contemporary artists, Subodh Gupta, depicting three monkeys made of bronze, steel and old utensils.

One of the artists exhibiting her work here is Arpana Caur. In her 50s, she's one of India's most celebrated painters and is often described as one of the "Great Indian Modernists".

She's displayed her work internationally and is currently exhibiting at the Bradford Museum in the UK, alongside David Hockney and Damien Hirst but believes that however contemporary Indian art may be, it must stay faithful to its roots.

"For instance, I was commissioned by the Hiroshima Museum of Modern Art for the 50th year of the bombing in 1995. That painting, Where Are All The Flowers Gone, is about violence and the need for peace.

But I've deliberately used some Indian elements, especially in the use of colour."

Over the past few years, the Indian art market has boomed.

Last year Christie's sold a painting by the Indian artist, Francis Newton Souza, for a record £1.2 million (about $2m).

New buyers

The country's growing economy has also thrown up new buyers which in turn has led to a mushrooming of art galleries.

Bang in the middle of a busy neighbourhood market in south Delhi, amidst fast-food restaurants and shops, is Gallery Espace.

It's one of the older ones, having been around for two decades, and has a reputation for promoting young artists often using unconventional forms and materials.

Inside its vast, minimalist space, many of the exhibits are strewn around. At the entrance is one of them, a giant sculpted head of a Hindu god lying on its side, next to an overturned television monitor.

"It's meant to represent the collapse of history," explains the gallery owner Renu Mody as she shows me around her gallery.

"Earlier there were traditional people buying art, collectors who were passionate about art," she says.

"But because of the market and investment possibilities, many speculators and professionals have begun buying art. Many of them are in their late 20s and early 30s and have the money to spare and believe investing in art is good value."

Back at the art summit, the crowds are still pouring in but there's also been some impressive buying and selling.

A piece by the British-Indian artist, Anish Kapoor, has sold for half a million pounds.

'Fantastic'

All this has brought a smile to the face of Maithili Parekh, deputy director of the British auction house, Sotheby's.

"It's fantastic, really. The Indian art market is quite young and new but it's very exciting and has really taken off. The art fair has seen immense sales in spite of recession which is really encouraging," she says.

But there are some shortcomings as well, she tells me.

"We're lacking enough curators and critics and art publications. We have very little institutional and museum collecting which can help make art much more accessible to the public," she says.

Over to one side of the convention hall, away from the main exhibits, is a darkened lounge displaying a video installation.

With electronic music in the background, it documents the rise of one of India's largest slums through the use of video footage, stills and graphics.

Indian art draws on a rich tradition that goes back thousands of years but what we are seeing here is its commercial and artistic evolution.

This summit was put together by people in their 20s and one of the art panels was curated by a young girl of 17.

So an entire new generation of artists and art lovers is driving Indian art and pushing its boundaries.

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