Catch new episodes of The inCulture Room on Spotify!

The Space That Art and its Market Occupy in Indian Society – Part 2

With the artistic revolution of 20th Century India, the floodgates of passion and innovation opened and flooded the sub-continent with their enthralling beauty. Despite holding invaluable cultural importance, Indian artwork in the 1900s was considered ‘decorative’ and ‘derivative’ by historians worldwide, partially due to the colonial factors and agenda influencing and downplaying the importance of such artwork in our freedom struggle. In the 1990s, a shift took place. Born in 1995, the commercial market for Indian Art has seen climbs and falls, persevering, catering to its collectors and artists for the last twenty-five years. Since the turn of the millennium, the industry has led to the establishment of norms and unsaid courtesies which lovers of art – artists, collectors, galleries, and auction houses alike – must follow to maintain the decorum and sanctity of their passion.

Birth and Evolution

Pre-1990, the market for Indian artwork on a domestic and international scale was virtually non-existent. Art historians and critics considered the work to be derivative. Artwork influenced by mythologies and traditional influences were deemed to be parochial and out of touch. Those that attempted to combine Western techniques and styles were accused of sacrificing their traditional identities, in turn establishing that India’s art history ended with the beginning of its colonisation in the 20th century. Critics labelled all art post-1900 as ‘decorative’.

The birth of the industry began in the 1990s with a reconceptualisation of 20th-century Indian art. Terming it ‘modernist’, art historians and critics recanted their previous characterisations of Indian art as ‘provincial’ and ‘derivative’, stating that such judgements rose from a restrictive Western definition of ‘modernism’. Going on to say that Indian Modernism was a unique artistic movement due to its combination of traditional Indian elements and international influences, they further stipulated that the art was also economically undervalued. It was accordingly reclassified as ‘fine art’, leading to an increased perception of it being aesthetically and financially more valuable. 

Taking advantage of the movement, auction houses such as Saffronart, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, and Bonhams translated the reclassification and the changing attitude of academics into simpler points. This relabelling enabled a wider audience – artists, galleries, and buyers – to understand modern Indian art, its finer points, and what made it valuable thus creating an environment for the stable market exchange of the art.

Mukti Khaire and R. Daniel Wadhwani in their paper say that:

“Unlike the previous mixed auctions held by Sotheby’s and Christie’s from 1995 to 2000, Saffronart’s exhibitions and auctions attempted to explain 20th-century Indian art as a category to prospective collectors. As one reporter described a Saffronart exhibition, the show “examines various aspects of the development of contemporary Indian art, in terms of the aesthetics, the development of particular artists, their thematic threads, and the rise of a modernist movement that coincided with the independence of India in 1947″ (Datta, 2002). Such explanations helped collectors and other observers understand both the identity of the category and the relative position and value of particular artworks and artists within it (Caves, 2000). Starting in 2002–03, Sotheby’s and Christie’s too began publishing descriptions and explanations of the aesthetic significance of 20th-century Indian artworks that referred to their positions within the emerging category.”

How it works: post-1995 and the current scenario

It was fascinating to hear the gavel in the movies where members of high society gathered to bid on pieces of art. To understand the seemingly exorbitant price paid to paintings, we must first look at how the market works. 

The art industry comprises a primary and secondary market. Shown in the figure below, the primary market deals with transactions artist have directly or indirectly with buyers. These transactions deal with the first sale of the artwork in question and do not diverge from there. 

The secondary market deals with the resale of artwork and deals with transactions from buyer to buyer or from buyer to gallery/auction house/dealer.

In 1995, collectors who had bought Indian modernist art at the low prices of decorative pieces suddenly had the opportunity to liquidate their art assets and receive a higher turnover in profit if sold to auction houses. The option of selling to auction houses also opened up many avenues of profitable business for Indian collectors rather than procuring/selling to or through galleries.There is, therefore, greater value in the secondary market in terms of currency spent on artwork its valuation. If we were to compare the priorities of the primary and secondary market, we would find some stark differences. Namely, the primary market focuses on advertising and promoting the artist and their art, helping the artist gain traction in the industry. The secondary market capitalises on the reputation and value of the artwork of well-known artists. It aims to increase the value of artwork, feeding the profit-incentives of auction houses and dealers. In these cases, sellers take the public price of a particular piece as a benchmark. Depending on the buyer’s desire to purchase, they can increase the valuation.

The existence of public prices comes with its own pros and cons. It is highly beneficial for collectors of art who have artworks of artists no longer living. In cases where the artist is well renowned, the collector can sell the artwork for the most recent public price or for an even higher amount, depending on the artwork. Concurrently, it is highly problematic for art galleries of contemporary artists. As contemporary art is relatively new, its artists are not well established in the many circles of the art world, leading to variable price fluctuations.

Often, the value of art depends not on the reputation of the artist but the emotional response of the audience. The success of the sale depends on the right kind of marketing. Furthermore, the relatively small size of the art market in India – a maximum population of 2000 people – means that the value of art lies in the secondary market. 

With such a selected population comprising the art market, the dynamics of relationships and commercial deals are consistently variable, taking on forms completely different from the norm. In Part 3, I shall explore the many stakeholders that populate the commercial world of Indian Art.

Credit to Keshav Mahendru & Shaleen Wadhwana for their help in conceptualising the piece

Experience Further: The song with tumultuous crescendos and vivid emotion elicit the same passion and fury with which the Indian Art Market made its mark on the modern world. The fast-paced progressions of beat and melody lead to a joyous celebration of the raag, a movement mimicked by the rises and falls of the Indian Art Market over the last two decades, finally concluding with a diminuendo capturing the moment of rejuvenation for Indian art in the time of the pandemic.

About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.


All views and opinions expressed in the articles, videos are personal to the Author/Editor(s) and don’t mean to offend any individuals, organisations, institutions or communities.

More Stories
Finding Home in Music – Uncovering Moments of Magic in Hindustani Classical and Jazz