Being an artist in India

The Indian art scene is articulated around major urban centres. Art initiatives, art practice and debate are at their liveliest in Mumbai and New Delhi which can count on a more developed and varied institutional and gallery base, followed by Bangalore, which has an exciting artists' community and Kolkata.

On the whole, if the artists' scene is extremely stimulating, the institutional landscape and network of support remains rather scanty. Artists particularly if working with installation, video, new media, performance, and also photography have often to rely on their own resources and foreign funding. Interest in these practices has however, been growing steadily and opportunities have started to be created if in recent years to consolidate experimentations in these areas. Since 2005 there has been definitely a shift in their reception, which has been more positive as attested by their increased presence in commercial galleries. Sources of funding, however, within the country remain few.

Right after Independence the government had begun to actively promote contemporary art establishing a number of state public institutions, museums and universities. However, since the 1980s its role has become more and more marginal with its art institutions lacking curatorial spark and initiative and universities hindered by lack of funds. The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) with branches in New Delhi (established in 1954), Mumbai (1996), and Bangalore (2008) has large exhibition spaces and if limited budget to collect. However, their curatorial propositions have hardly ever veered away from retrospectives of established senior masters and they have not collected aggressively. The Lalit Kala Akademi (established in 1954) still holds an important function as the agency that grants recognition to art institutions and associations and for the allocation of state funds. It provides cheap studio spaces to Indian artists, has an exhibition space, which is for rent, and runs a programme of events and talks. Its role and cultural relevance has, however, declined since the 1960s and 1970s.

In part as a way to compensate for lack of state support, privates whether collectors or commercial galleries have stepped in to fulfil this institutional vacuum. To give some examples: in 2000 the APJ Surrendra group, an industrial conglomerate, established a not-for-profit gallery entirely dedicated to new media, the first of the kind in the country; in 2008 collectors Lekha and Anupam Poddar founded the Devi Art Foundation and put their outstanding collection of contemporary art from the Subcontinent on public display; recently Vadehra Art Gallery has channelled part of their profits into FICA, a not-for-profit initiative and has plans for a small museum to be set up in the near future.

Despite these and other efforts, the withdrawal of the government as prime supporter of contemporary art has led, however, to an art ecology heavily conditioned by commercial imperatives. By the 1990s a market consolidated around modern paintings and a conspicuous number of private commercial galleries was established across India. This situation in part accounts for the lack of interest and almost no support for installation, performance, and video till very recently. Although artists in India had been engaging with these practices consistently since the 1990s their reception within the country has been till very recently rather poor. Even photography had not much of a presence within the art realm proper and most of Indian photographers worked on assignments in journalism or advertising.

Article by Elena Bernardini

This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material.
The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice.
Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.