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Playing to the gallery

Soumik Sen | May 08, 2004

Annu Lulla entered the gallery business opening Gallerina in Worli, Mumbai, about eight years ago. As it happened, her timing was almost perfect.

The art mart was about to boom and new Indian artists were in the process of being discovered. As a result she clocked up a steady Rs 100,000 per month turnover, even in her inaugural year. Her earnings have grown several-fold in the last eight years.

I have always been interested in art. This was both in my undergrad days at the J J School of Art, where I studied textiles and at our family boutique Guys and Dolls in Mumbai, where I helped my sister Ritika design apparel.

But after spending a lot of time designing fabrics and catering to all sorts of tastes and waistlines, I finally surrendered to my passion and ventured into art as a business.

With my partner Ritu Prakash, I set up Galleria at a property we owned in Worli in Mumbai in 1996 with just a few lakhs as seed capital.

Obviously that kind of money did not allow us to stack up expensive Hussains and Bhattacharyas, but the art boom was just beginning to happen. We started off by selling old books, paintings by lesser known artists and lithographs, which became quite a rage.

Galleria, was positioned as an unpretentious place, so as not to overawe people with snobbish exclusivity. We had to grow the market.

Although selling initially was tough, it turned out that our timing was perfect. Auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's had already made a splash and were demanding paintings by Indian artists and consequently prices were on the upswing. NRI interest levels just zoomed and even the prices of lesser known artists climbed.

While a Hussain at Rs 200,000 in 1996, has gone up seven and a half times, a Ram Kumar which would have cost Rs 300,000 three years ago has trebled.

And all this is largely due to the increasing demand for art. Unfortunately, while it is good for business, the flip side is that lesser known artists are losing out as the demand is only for the so called brands, as people are looking at art purely as a medium term investment.

Indian art itself has miles to go in the country, with only Mumbai and Kolkata as the two places where the awareness is reasonably high not of the artists but the art. The Capital is largely dominated by signature hunters. However, it enjoys a lower tax (8 per cent) as compared to Mumbai (15 per cent).

However, Indian art has a huge way to go like Latin art, which has made it big on the world stage.

But awareness is increasing and in our very small way we try to hold between three and four exhibitions a year. We started overseas auctions in 1996-97, when at a series of shows in Hong Kong and Singapore, we sold around 50 paintings in around three days. Since then Galleria has held exhibitions in New York, Jakarta and London.

The way the exhibitions work is through our overseas partner galleries, who have shows and bring on collections from across the world on one stage.

On the home front, we have just opened a gallery in the Capital to promote West Indian artists like Bua Shetty (whose paintings have doubled in value in three years), Nitin Ghangrekar and Sujata Achrekar, names that are still not national.

We intend to start an e-commerce portal to sell paintings online. Currently, our tie-up with website, takes care of half our monthly sales (20 paintings per month), and I hope to expand the online arm of the business aggressively.

I also intend to invest into sculpture and spread the awareness of the art form apart from seeing a healthy growth for the business.

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