Call it a new fad, the lure of big bucks, or perhaps both, but Indian contemporary art, an insignificant genre outside the subcontinent until recently, is suddenly hot in the global art world.
Indian contemporary art is gathering record crowds at global auctions, and valuations and volumes have soared to levels that have forced major buyers to pay more attention to the Indian market.
The Sotheby's auction house, which closed its Indian office in the early 1990s, recently entered into an alliance with an art gallery based in Bombay "to build a bigger client base in India"; rival Christie's is reportedly returning to open an advisory office there, it says, to "develop the market's vast potential" just three years after shutting down its own Indian office.
That's not all: after a drought of about 25 years, Venice Biennale, one of the world's most prestigious art exhibitions, is showcasing Indian art in its forthcoming show through a dedicated exhibition called "iCon: Indian Contemporary."
"The market for Indian contemporary art is turning bullish and aggressive," says Anuradha Mazumdar of Sotheby's. "India is now recognized as a major growth market, forcing international auction houses to pay more attention to it."
Indeed, over the past two to three years, both the volumes and prices of Indian art on world markets have soared dramatically. Indian art has been offered in British and European auctions for years, but pieces often fetched very little money or recognition. Only recently has Indian contemporary art begun appearing in the US.
"The general rise in affluence amongst Indians and nonresident Indians over the past few years has allowed such collectors to spend part of their disposable income on art," says Yamini Mehta, head of modern and contemporary Indian art at Christie's. "There has been a marked growth in the number of collectors, thereby creating a greater demand for works while the supply remains limited."
Mehta says that ever since September 2002 - when Christie's sold an Indian triptych titled "Celebration" for $317,000 - Indian art has attracted the attention of the global art buyers.
"That painting achieved a milestone by becoming the first work to sell over $100,000 and setting an auction record for the highest price achieved by a modern Indian work," says Mehta. "Collectors as well as the media took notice and from then on the art market has received much more coverage and attention than ever before."
But the demand for Indian art is not just limited to collectors of Indian origin. According to auctioneers, around 15 percent of the buyers at any Indian art auction today are international, and Indian contemporary art is now being nabbed by new buyers from France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and the Middle East.
Lately, art investors have become strategic about the genre.
"Indian art is good quality, and despite the spiraling prices in recent times, it is still not yet on par with prices that works of Western artists fetch," says an art industry expert.
Other parts of Asia have also seen greater demand for art and rising values. For instance, while the average price of modern Indian paintings still hovers around $50,000 to $70,000 globally, Chinese and Indonesian paintings have already reached average prices of $400,000. And that, according to Mazumdar of Sotheby's, "has increased the confidence in Indian contemporary art as a reliable investment that has made the market buoyant."
Nevertheless, experts say that the maximum demand of Indian art is still centered on senior Indian artists like Francis Newton Souza, Maqbool Fida Husain, Syed Haider Raza, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar, and Vasudeo Gaitonde.
Works by slightly younger artists, such as Jagdish Swaminathan, Bhupen Khakar and Arpita Singh, however, have also reached impressive levels.
"The Indian art market is maturing," says Mazumdar, "and that bodes well for other upcoming artists too."