Indian Art in the Stratosphere


In December 2002, my wife and I went to a gallery in Calcutta which claimed to be selling affordable art. I was always interested in Indian art and I had some knowledge about a few painters. The proprietor of the gallery recommended an ink on paper by Shyamal Dutta Ray. I had not even heard of him.But the owner seemed genuine and the painting was aesthetically good. We bought it for fifteen thousand rupees.
The art market boom was in its incipient stages then. Neville Tuli was just beginning to get some media space and there was some talk about Indian artists generating excitement in western art markets.
Then the interest in India began. The westerners interested in India began to buy Indian art. The non-resident Indians with wealth and some aesthetic interests reached a critical mass. The rich domestic Indians also saw art as a great status symbol. The market exploded. The prices today have reached absurd levels.
I got mail today from a gallery about a self-portrait by Paritosh Sen for one lac rupees and I had seen this piece being tagged at twelve thousand rupees a year and a half back.
But does anybody understand art barring a few pundits ? I cannot claim to say that I can identify great art even after visiting countless exhibitions and galleries. Some art hits you immediately with its power and beauty. But many great art remain incomprehensible and silent in their impact. Mona Lisa in Louvre would have probably been missed by many as a smallish and non-descript painting without its fame. The Shyamal Dutta Ray painting has been hanging in my house for the last four years (now worth a few lacs) but nobody, repeat nobody, has so far cast a second glance at it.
So it is only a status symbol and no rich household is complete without a piece by a well-known painter. It stays there as does the latest B & O music system. Who cares whether it is great or simply average or even bad ?

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