I was at my friendly neighbourhood art gallery this week where I have been dropping in for years. It is a place of quiet repose with endlessly patient old-world staff.
A new exhibition had opened by Rajnish Kaur, a 38-year-old artist from Delhi, and I was entranced by her vividly coloured and finely executed canvases and pastels.
An abstract alluringly called "Housing Society in Gurgaon" caught my attention, though I must admit there seemed a big hiatus between its title and subject matter -- a forest of pointillist strokes in flaming pink.
I asked nice Mrs N, who has been handling front office for ever, for a price list. She came up apologetically, nervously twirling her sari palla into shreds. "All gone," she whispered. "We're completely sold out."
Sold out? Eleven large canvases, priced at Rs 320,000 each, and 17 pastel drawings, at Rs 45,000 a piece, all gone? In a week? Lucky Rajnish Kaur, I thought, however talented and hard-working, she must stand up and be counted among the coolest of new millionaires.
If that's the news from New Delhi, here's the latest update on prices for modern Indian art from the salerooms of New York: at Sotheby's six pictures by top grosser -- Husain, Souza, Raza, Tyeb Mehta and Ram Kumar -- crossed all records, fetching a collective Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million).
At Christie's on September 21, a single large canvas by Tyeb Mehta titled Mahisasura, an image of the goddess grappling with the bull in monochromatic colours, went for an astonishing Rs 7 crore (Rs 70 million); that's double its upper estimate of $800,000 (Rs 3.52 crore).
Husain came second with a monumental canvas, Trial, circa 1969, in unusual muted greys and browns, at Rs 2.15 crore (Rs 21.5 million). Works by Akbar Padamsee and Ram Kumar were neck-to-neck at third place, going for Rs 1.85 crore (Rs 18.5 million) and Rs 1.70 crore (Rs 17 million), respectively but far exceeding their reserve prices.
Frankly, for Rs 2-7 crore (Rs 20-70 million) you could buy a comfortable flat and live happily ever after or make a killing on the stock market. But it still begs the question as to why Indian art is so unbeatable.
After all, works by many of these out-priced artists were easily available for between Rs 50,000 and Rs 150,000 eight or ten years ago. How did art buyers become art millionaires in less than a decade? How can you become one now?
Therein lies the rub. Many of the artists mentioned above never thought they would end up as millionaires. Souza was such an acrimonious man that he died virtually broke. Ram Kumar, a quiet artist, can't be bothered to sell -- he now paints only for himself.
M F Husain, who celebrated his 90th birthday recently, can't be bothered at all. When I went to see Tyeb Mehta not long ago in his flat in Mumbai, he said what he wished for most was the company of friends and good chat. Sadly, millionaire bankers or New York auction houses don't supply that.
Younger Indian artists are doing as well in sales and prices -- Atul Dodiya, Jitesh Kallat, Anjum Singh, and Surendran Nair, to name just a few. They are more au courant with the enclosed network of collectors, gallery owners and dealers, which often operates a cartel. (Cartels can push up prices -- an old racket at auctions is to put in your art and buy it back.)
A vast number of websites are putting new art buyers with full wallets and empty wall spaces in touch with dealers. But the crucial space of the interested onlooker forging a direct link with the artist is missing. Surely to like, even desire, a piece of art is to match an understanding of the artist's reality with your own?At my neighbourhood gallery, they told me that viewers now come with calculators -- to invest in art. Watch that wall space closely. If you're one of those, you could end up as an art pauper.