Sunday, February 1, 2004

Middle class puts art above the artist
Janaki Bhatt

Art is gaining polularity among all sections of society
Art is gaining popularity among all sections of society

Possessing art in India is no longer the privilege of the rich and famous. From the royalty and landed aristocracy, this indulgence percolated down to corporate moguls and film stars. Today, even that element of exclusivity has gone as the middle class has begun collecting art.

A series of dramatic developments coupled with some innovative promotional schemes devised by art dealers have brought about this change. From small-town traders and doctors to engineers, accountants and office managers, everybody seems to have at least one original work of a master hanging from their walls.

Never mind if Buta Singh from Ludhiana cannot distinguish between a Hussain and a Gaitonde. Never mind also, if Savitri Devi from Bulandshahar has no clue about brush strokes or colour schemes. Even the signature does not matter to a newly wed like Rashmi Kapoor, so long a painting matches her curtains.

"I always wanted yellow curtains for my new home," narrates Kapoor, who recently acquired an Anjoli Ela Menon canvas as a wedding gift. "My husband knew this, and before I could even select the fabric for the furnishing, he brought home this orange and red painting. It matches perfectly with the interiors."

For Buta Singh, a rastauranteur, it is Feng Shui that took him on a shopping spree for contemporary art. He was advised to put up paintings of flowers and birds in his restaurant. Without realising it, he had acquired about 20 paintings on different birds and flowers, worth Rs 1.2 million.

Significantly, it is not with the hope of recovery that he had made the investment. "Quite frankly, I do not understand art," he confesses. "Anything that brings me luck, I will go for it. Ever since I put up the paintings, the place has brightened up and customers are pouring into my restaurant."

The visual appeal is a strong factor that determines middle class art buying. "I simply wanted to wake up to something beautiful every morning," narrates Savitri Devi. "So I found this painting of Radha-Krishna by an artist called Chitrak. I believe he does paintings of only gods and goddesses."

"Most people buy what they like," says Aporajita Pal Mukherji, who runs a virtual gallery on the Net. So there is a big shift from signature buying. Since they are mostly first-time buyers, they have no qualms about asking for advice and are eager to learn, acquire knowledge on art."

"These are exciting times," adds Kalyani Chawla, who recently opened a gallery, Montage Art. "People are not running after labels but want to buy works that give them a feeling of joy. Starting with smaller pieces, some start saving up for serious art."

Both Savitri Devi and Rashmi Kapoor confirm that they would go for any painting that is "visually delightful" and are equally dismissive about abstracts as they are "too complex to understand." Most importantly, the paintings should "blend well" with the interiors of their home.

Costs are clearly of no concern as these women are of affluent families. But for those who cannot afford the heavy price tags, gallery owners and art dealers are offering a variety of schemes, including the option of paying in instalments, to make the buying process easier.

"It is a matter of trust between gallery owners and clients," says Chawla. "This way people can buy good pieces without feeling the pinch. I bought my first painting on an instalment basis by issuing post-dated cheques. I could not afford to pay cash down."

"People are taking loans to pay for art," informs Mukherji. "They pay in instalments or with post-dated cheques. I have known people who simply book a painting, work hard for a couple of months and come back with the money to take painting."

Then there are dealers like Ashish Balram Nagpal in Mumbai who hold an annual 'art sale' with sets of 10 paintings in sealed packets priced at say Rs 25,000 each. Since buyers do not get to see the paintings, it is almost like potluck. But Nagpal guarantees that at least one painting in every packet bears the signature of a well-known master and more than makes up for the value of the package.

Then there are dealers like Uma Jain in Delhi, who are conducting workshops, guest lectures and guided tours of galleries to "educate" first-time buyers on contemporary art.

The idea is clearly to rope in the uninitiated. As Jain puts it. "We have tapped probably 10 per cent of this nascent market. Publicity and marketing will easily push up sales once the middle-class buyers realises that owning art does not need to be an expensive hobby." (MF)