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Originally published in nytimes.com, September 4, 2009.

After a Slow Beginning, Asian Interest in Indian Art Grows

Sakshi Gallery, one of the largest private art spaces in Mumbai, is planning to lead a group of Taiwanese collectors on a contemporary art tour through India in December after opening a Taipei branch in February — the first Indian gallery to set up in Taiwan.

Sakshi Gallery, one of the largest private art spaces in Mumbai, is planning to lead a group of Taiwanese collectors on a contemporary art tour through India in December after opening a Taipei branch in February — the first Indian gallery to set up in Taiwan.

“We were starting to sell works of contemporary Indian art to Taiwanese collectors over the Internet,” said Geetha Mehra, director of Sakshi. “I thought, if I’m doing business with a few buyers, there must be more. And indeed there were.”

While the Indian market is still overwhelmingly driven by domestic buyers, contemporary Indian artists are starting to gain a foothold in East Asia as a result of increasing exposure at exhibitions, art fairs and biennials. Taiwan, which has a long history of investing in cultural commodities, is acting, with Hong Kong, as a regional entry point for contemporary Indian art, including into mainland China.

“When I first made the trip over to Taiwan,” Ms. Mehra said, “I realized that there’s a collector base there that’s very well informed, very liberal.” A Taiwanese client recently paid $50,000 for a work by Sunil Gawde, one of four Indian artists represented in the international exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

International interest in Indian contemporary art has risen fast, from small beginnings. When Christie’s first offered modern and contemporary Indian art as a single sale category in London in 1995, the sale took in just £390,482, or $613,837 at the exchange rate then. Last year, with sales in London, New York and Hong Kong, the category took in about $45.3 million.

Chinese buyers have shown particular interest since 2006, when the auction house started to include top pieces from Indian artists alongside work from their contemporaries across Asia, said Ingrid Dudek, senior specialist in Asian contemporary art at Christie’s Hong Kong. “Over the last several seasons, we’ve seen an increasing amount of cross-fertilization and pan-Asian bidding and buying,” she said.

East Asian collectors have paid record auction prices for contemporary Indian artists including Subodh Gupta, T.V. Santosh, N.S. Harsha and Thukral and Tagra, said Yamini Mehta, Christie’s senior specialist in South Asian modern and contemporary art in London.

At Christie’s Hong Kong sales of Asian contemporary art on May 24-25, the Indian financial daily Business Standard reported that a Chinese collector bought Mr. Santosh’s “Hundred Square Feet of Curses,” which refers to the aftermath of the 2002 riots in Gujarat, for $95,914. Another bought a work by Jitish Kallat, “Universal Recipient 1,” a large portrait of a security guard, for $111,467.

“We’ve noticed an increasing interest from buyers all over Asia, and particularly in China, who are looking at Indian art as a diversified avenue for collection and investment,” said Tushar Sethi, director of the Institute of Contemporary Indian Art in Mumbai.

The I.C.I.A. was one of two Indian galleries that recently helped organize the first large-scale, public exhibition of contemporary Indian art in China, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai. The show, called “India Xianzai,” or “India Now,” was a testament to the growing presence of Indian art in the country, displaying more than 60 works by 21 artists, including wall-sized installations, photography and video, spread over two floors of the museum.

By the time it closed last month, no fewer than eight private Chinese galleries had made approaches to express interest in teaming up with the I.C.I.A. to hold contemporary Indian shows in Shanghai next year, Mr. Sethi said.

For all that, “the Indian-Chinese relationship has not been the most open or dynamic,” remarked Neville Tuli, chairman of Osian’s, the biggest auction house in India. “Two of the so-called emerging super powers of the world are just not engaging in enough dialogue.”

Still, that is changing. Arario Beijing, the first commercial gallery in China to hold a substantial group show for contemporary Indian artists — “Hungry God” in 2006 — said that in the wake of that show it had seen increasing demand for Indian works from clients in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

During the group show it sold three works to Beijing collectors for a total of $200,000. But in 2007 and 2008, in three solo shows for Mr. Kallat, Mr. Gupta and the Karachi-born artist Nalini Malani, it sold 30 works to Chinese buyers for a total of $2.5 million.

“For Chinese collectors,” Ms. Dudek said, “contemporary Indian art may hold a particular draw due to the comparable circumstances facing Chinese and Indian artists today — a long and powerful cultural and aesthetic history, the rapid drive to modernization, the transformation of everyday life under globalization and the search for a distinct artistic vision and identity within that world.”

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