Blending art and high living

The old stereotype of an artist starving in the proverbial garret is passe. Art is no longer the affliction of those assailed by dreams and visions and forced by fate to live in dire penury. As the art market in India booms with the mushrooming of art galleries and middle-class art collectors become more adventurous with taste as well as purse, the artist can now unfurl his creative visions while living in great luxury and style.

Artist Abani Sen, one of the earliest modern masters, was more popular as ‘mastermoshai’, or teacher, than as an artist. His home was crammed with students every morning and he also taught art at the Raisina School in Delhi. The money he made teaching art took care of his vocation and family.

That was the era when India was battling to shake off the British, the troubled years between 1930 and 1947 when several artists, known as the “progressive group”, were struggling to come into their own.

They could not survive on art alone though it was one of the most creatively productive eras in the history of Indian art.

Since then, artists have come a long way. Art is no longer a vocation. It is a full-time profession, one that gives artists enough money to buy private home-cum-studios in posh London districts, like M.F. Husain’s Fida Museum at Mayfair, swank cars and artistic retreats in the countryside. It also allows artists the freedom to follow their creative instincts without counting costs.

“I follow the weather when I paint,” says Kolkata-based Krishnendu Porel, a contemporary artist who has been in Delhi for the last 16 years.

A fulltime painter, Porel earns enough by selling his art to experiment with mediums. During winter, Porel toys with acrylic colours because oil paintings take longer to dry, in spring he switches to oil and during monsoon, his medium is water to match the rain outside. He has sold eight major works in shows this year.

Last year, he exhibited solo in the Frankfurt Museum in Germany. “It was a great exposure. India is now a global village and artists are connecting to buyers outside. Unlike yesteryears, artists do not have to depend on odd jobs. Money has brought an explosion of creativity.

Porel personally is not restricted by the dictates of the market. “But there is enough room for my kind of work. In terms of art, India is now very positive. Artists are rich now,” said the abstractionist, attired tastefully in a designer ensemble, twirling a glass of wine in his hand.

His paintings were on display at an exhibition, “Perfect Lines”, at the inaugural show of Easel Art Gallery in the capital, along with those of 30 top line modern masters and contemporary painters.

The trend has its roots in skyrocketing prices of Indian art, wider appreciation of artists and their creations, recognition of art as a career choice, mushrooming galleries and promotion of Indian art abroad by the spate of global exhibitions and auctions and increased purchasing power of the Indian middle and upper classes, who are now investing more in art as an important home accessory than in jewellery as was the trend 10 years ago.

Delhi-based artist Anu Naik becomes wistful while chronicling the journey of art in India. “My life is a reflection of the change,” she says.

Her late husband Murali Naik, also an artist, worked in the government press till 1985 to support the family, children and art. Anu taught in a school, they showed their work once every year.

“In the 1970s, there was hardly any money. But the number of collectors has grown now. It is easy, for prices have doubled,” she says. The artist, who has 55 shows to her credit, works full-time now.

The entry of multinational companies in India has given the country’s artistic fraternity a new genre of patrons. Companies promote art both as an investment and for its aesthetic value. Leading artists are more sought after than celebrities.

Prices play an important part in fostering confidence among artists. For instance, leading contemporary artist Subodh Gupta’s “Saat Samundar Paar VII”, a painting from the artist’s 2003 series, is priced at $700,000 at the Sotheby’s summer sale of Indian contemporary art in New York May 17-19. Such prices were unthinkable before.

Contemporary artists have contributed to pushing up the prices of Indian art – of both old timers and the new age artists – courtesy the kind of hype their work generates in international shows. There is a renewed demand for Indian art in both the domestic and global market, a trend that has proved to be a windfall for artists.

“I remember buying one of artist Sunil Das’ horses (the motifs for which the artist is famous) for Rs.5,000 in 1992,” says fashion designer Suneet Varma, owner of Easel Art Gallery. Das’ horses are difficult to come by and cost more than Rs.10 million now.

Varma, a skilled painter and sculptor himself, attributes the hike in prices to the economic buoyancy and a wider appreciation for Indian art and artists alike.

“People are willing to spend on art both as an investment and for the love of the medium. Then, there are people like me who just love art,” the designer said. Varma, a selective collector, bought two contemporary paintings from his own gallery at the inaugural show.

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