Even as the global economy grinds backwards into recession and Covid-19 rampages across India to devastating effect, the apex of the country’s art marketplace continues to set new records.

On September 3, Pundole, the home-grown Mumbai-based auctioneers sold Vasudeo Gaitonde’s untitled 1974 oil-on-canvas for Rs 32 crore, just over $4.35 million. The muted, moody, green-grey-white abstract painting is now the most expensive Indian artwork ever.

These kinds of prices were unthinkable in Gaitonde’s lifetime. When the artist died in New Delhi in 2001, no painting by an Indian had sold for even Rs 1 crore .

In 2002, that benchmark was surmounted at Christie’s auction house in New York, when Tyeb Mehta’s 1995 tryptich Celebration sold for $300,000. Five years later, the same artist’s iconic 1997 Mahisasura crested past another milestone when it sold for $1.5 million.

Now, many other important 20th-century Indian painters have joined the “million-dollar club” including Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, Bhupen Khakhar, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar, Maqbool Fida Husain, Syed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza. At Pundole’s last week, Jagdish Swaminathan became the latest entrant when his 1993 oil on canvas sold for Rs 9.5 crores (just under $1.3 million).

Untitled by Vasudeo Gaitonde, 1974. Credit: Pundole Art Gallery.

The global market

Against the backdrop of comparable art marketplaces around the world, it would appear there’s room for Indian prices to grow. Last year, the 2000 canvas Knife Behind Back by Yoshitomo Mara became the most expensive Japanese painting at $25 million, and China’s prices are even more astronomical: Qi Baishi’s 1940 Eagle on Pine Tree’s sold for $55 million, and Qi Bashi’s 1925 set of ink-wash landscapes, Twelve Landscape Screens achieved an eye-watering $140.8 million at auction in Beijing in 2017.

The truly significant difference between those art markets and ours isn’t at the top, however, but in what’s arrayed beneath. Yoshitomo Mara is 60, and still painting steadily. His fellow Japanese art stars Takashi Murakami (58) and Yayoi Kusama (91) – whose artworks also sell for millions of dollars – similarly remain active.

Meanwhile, many living Chinese artists sell works for over $1 million: Cui Ruzhuo, Zeng Fanzhi, Zhon Chunya, Zhang Xiaogang, Fan Zeng, Lin Wei, Huang Yongyu, Luo Zhongli, He Jiaying, Liu Xiaodong, and Ai Weiwei, the biggest international art star of our times.

There’s nothing like that in India, although a few works by British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor and Delhi-based installation specialist Subodh Gupta have reached past the million-dollar mark at auction. In addition, there’s the curious case of Kashmiri artist Raqib Shaw, who moved to the UK in 1998 to attend Central Saint Martins School of Art, and never left, whose Bosch-inspired Garden of Earthly Delights III sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2007 for what was then over $5 million.

Paradise Lost, 2001-2011, Raqib Shaw / CC BY-SA

A crash

Aside from those outliers and the handful of 20th-century “masters”, there’s troublingly dwindling life in the Indian art marketplace. The boom that buoyed the first decade of the 21st century quickly plummeted to crash. An entire cohort of ambitious talent – the Generation X demographic – has suffered the mortal taint of watching their prices decline. There has been no recovery. New money now only enters the system to chase the same old names: Gaitonde, Souza, Mehta, Raza, again and again, ad infinitum.

A couple of years ago, when we were discussing an unfortunate corollary of this monomaniacal marketplace fixation – the vast proliferation of fakes – the critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote told me, “One of the worst things that could have happened to the Indian art world is the celebration of a handful of artists as representative of some of the most lively and active decades in postcolonial Indian art [which has] provided the basis for a process of canon-formation led and driven by the upsurge of auction-house activity around modern Indian art.”

The result, Hoskote said, “is an excessive desire for the work of a few artists. Since most of them are, rather disobligingly, no longer with us, the demand for their art is met by other means. This explains the alarming increase in fakes attributed to Souza, and some of his peers. The market in modern Indian art simply must liberate itself from its obsession with the cult of a few über-artists and open itself up to a far wider array of practitioners.”

Artwork by Francis Newton Souza. Credit: Pundole Art Gallery.

Dubious slant

Perhaps even worse, and certainly more damaging to its development, is the Indian art world’s shocking paucity of scholarship and documentation about its own most valuable assets. There are many million-dollar paintings, but not even a paltry handful of decent books: zero on Souza, zero on Raza (a catalogue raisonné is underway), zero on Tyeb Mehta, and only Yashodhara Dalmia’s landmark 2001 The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives on the movement that spawned them.

This disgraceful situation breeds danger, including open season for anyone to say anything about these artists. One example came last week, when “a Delhi-based curator” was prominently quoted about Gaitonde’s record-breaking painting – by an artist who spent decades deeply immersed in Zen, and regarded it “the central point of my activity” – that it was “a testimony to the fact that true Hinduism is a way of life”.

Far more consequential was the deeply dubious slant given to Gaitonde’s first-ever retrospective, which occurred with high pomp and justifiable elation at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2014-’15. Here, without any justification whatsoever, the artist was shoehorned into the category of sui generis, and implausibly presented as overshadowing his lifelong peers, most notably the (as yet relatively unsung) genius abstractionist Ram Kumar.

In an odd feature story at the time, the New York Times said the exhibition curator Sandhini Poddar, “seemed confident about Gaitonde’s stature as a world-class painter, but when the topic turned to India’s place in the history of modern art, she became a bit less certain. Asked who stood on the same rung as Gaitonde, she hesitated. ‘I think he is rather exceptional,’ she said.”

An air of mystery

The same interviewer asked Rashmi Poddar, who is the curator’s mother but also described as “an art historian and philosopher of aesthetics [and] part of the prominent Marwari business clan” whether any other artists besides Gaitonde were likely to achieve “comparable status.” She told him no. “Much of it is derivative. In Indian art, we’ve always had this love of embellishment and the decorative. Indian art has never been abstract.”

The veteran New York Times art critic of many decades, Holland Cotter, had a different opinion. In his review, he wrote, “With images that look specifically ‘Indian’ all but left out, we have an artist who fits smoothly into a streamlined picture of Modernism that the Guggenheim likes to project. In addition, by presenting Mr. Gaitonde’s mature art shorn of an evolutionary context, the show unhelpfully enhances an air of mystery that has gathered around the artist and has made him seem like an isolated phenomenon within South Asian culture, a solitary genius.”

In fact, said Cotter, Gaitonde “learned to use colour as an independent expressive element and to break representational forms down to their abstract core. In doing so, he revealed an important historical truth: Indian painting had always been, fundamentally, about abstraction, an aesthetic mode that Western Modernism often claims as its own innovation.”

Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.