India’s Art World Has Suffered, and Thrived, in the Pandemic

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Despite the obstacles to viewing works, galleries combined their efforts and interest from collectors grew.

An installation view of paintings by Fiza Khatri that were shown at Sonam Kapoor Ahuja’s London office in July.
Credit...via Jhaveri Contemporary

Oct. 9, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

LONDON — Amrita Jhaveri gently jokes that she was rescued by a Bollywood star. When the actress Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, a client of Ms. Jhaveri’s art gallery, approached her in the summer of 2020 to ask if she would like to use Ms. Kapoor Ahuja’s London office as something of an exhibition space, Ms. Jhaveri was intrigued.

“She said, ‘I have this space, you can use the walls as you like,’” said Ms. Jhaveri, who is based in London but who, like Ms. Kapoor Ahuja, used to travel back to India frequently (she and her sister own Jhaveri Contemporary, in Mumbai).

The three-floor office, recently featured on the cover of Architectural Digest India, is now adorned with the works of artists represented by the gallery, which will have a booth at Frieze London this week and will take part in “Unworlding,” a curated section at the fair.

It works as a private viewing room where Ms. Jhaveri can display works for clients — one recent afternoon she hung pieces by Lubna Chowdhary for a collector — and she has used it as an exhibition space.

In July, works by the Karachi-based painter Fiza Khatri, who is currently in New Haven, Conn., working on a master’s degree at Yale, were featured in both the gallery’s online viewing rooms and in the London space. “I asked her to ship everything here,” Ms. Jhaveri said. “I had people from everywhere, including curators, come.”

That is just one way business has changed for Ms. Jhaveri and her gallery since the pandemic hit, and the refrain is similar for other Indian gallerists, curators, artists and museum directors.

The pandemic — which struck India hard with internal-migration crises both after lockdown was imposed in March 2020 and in April of this year, when the Delta variant swept the country — has forced the art scene to rethink and recalibrate everything from gallery openings and fairs to how artists create their works.

A new crop of collectors has sprung up, and sales of Indian modern and contemporary art have set records at auction in the last 18 months.

The pandemic also made clear in the Indian art world, as it has elsewhere, how important the digital space has become.

“I think people did have to be a little bit more enterprising in the manner in which they engage with the public,” said Rob Dean, a Mumbai-based British art consultant and a co-founder of the Indian auction house Pundole’s. “So whether you are a private institution, a contemporary art gallery or an auction house, we had to keep dialogues open.”

Before the pandemic hit India, the annual India Art Fair took place in Delhi. “We were at an all-time high,” said its director, Jaya Asokan, adding that the fair had one of its best years. But just weeks later, everything ground to a halt.

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Credit...Jitish Kallat and Nature Morte, New Delhi

“One could say that we were all in the same storm but we were not in the same boat,” said the artist Jitish Kallat, whose project “Integer Study,” created under lockdown, will be shown at Frieze by the gallery Nature Morte. “Some were on a cruise ship while others were holding onto a raft.” He added that while his works were not directly influenced by the pandemic, “at the same time, if it wasn’t for this moment, maybe these works would not have appeared.”

Some artists did also directly tackle the subject of Covid. Sudhir Patwardhan, for example, created a number of powerhouse paintings of migrants who were leaving urban centers.

Many artists, unable to work in studios where they often produced large pieces, were forced to adjust. “We saw a lot of smaller format works coming to life,” said Aparajita Jain, the co-director at Nature Morte.

“Artists started playing around with different mediums: with smaller canvases, papier-mâché, sculpture, photography. There were no art fairs, there was no glamour, and we were reduced to the most important part of the art world, the act of making the art.”

Galleries, of course, were also trying to figure out how to stay afloat and relevant. When it became obvious that the pandemic was going to last much longer than first expected, gallerists and curators began working on collaborative programming.

Online shows like In Touch, in April 2020 included a number of galleries from India (and Dubai), while On Site, an in-person mini art fair of four of India’s leading galleries, was held at Bikaner House in New Delhi in March 2021.

“Contemporary galleries really came together in solidarity, starting many collaborative initiatives and group shows, and this was something new for us,” Ms. Asokan said. “It was not just the galleries, but with the artists themselves to help the next generation.”

And collectors certainly were up for buying art. Mumbai Gallery Weekend in January 2021, for example, was a great success. “I don’t think we have ever had a show like that,” said Ms. Jhaveri, adding that works her gallery showed were sold within the week. “It wasn’t just our experience; all our colleagues had the same. There was just an enthusiasm to get out and shop.”

In addition, new collectors entered the market for the first time during lockdown. Roshini Vadehra of Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi, said these “were people who never thought of collecting seriously but now had the time and the bandwidth.” Being stuck inside, she said, “they felt the need to upgrade their homes.”

These new collectors discovered galleries and artists in part through online connections, with many galleries updating their websites, offering digital exhibitions and opening up online viewing rooms.

Galleries set up video calls between collectors and artists, and virtual visits to artists’ studios also became commonplace. “Everyone upped their game on how they were operating in the virtual space,” said Ms. Vadehra, who added that her gallery opened an online shop with lower prices for things like limited-edition prints, allowing access to a new audience.

In addition, Vadehra will have a booth at Frieze and one at Frieze Masters showing the works of the Indian painter A. Ramachandran.

Bangalore’s Museum of Art and Photography was unable to open its physical doors in December 2020 after the lockdown halted construction. Instead, it held a successful digital opening that same month.

Abhishek Poddar, the museum’s founder, said the changes, which have postponed the physical opening indefinitely, forced him to reconsider the role of at least one staff member. “I used to joke that my chief technology officer had his room in the basement, and now he’s got the corner office, because nothing happens without him.”

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