In the 2000s, the Indian art market was in flux. After soaring for the better part of 15 years, prices crashed as the global financial crisis of 2008 hit. Rakhi Sarkar, founder of the Centre of International Modern Art in Kolkata, had already been thinking of ways to make art accessible again to the middle classes, who had been its chief supporters in the 20th century, before rising prices forced them out of the market. Now, an art fair seemed to her like the perfect solution to two problems – making art accessible to the middle-classes and creating a new clientele for Indian art in a slowing market. Which is why Sarkar launched the CIMA Art Mela in 2008.

“We talk about affordable art today,” she said. “But [the word] mela has its own connotations.” Like the annual art fair Nandan Mela, at Santiniketan, CIMA Art Mela has an informal fair-like atmosphere. “You see something beautiful, you discuss it with friends, and you acquire it,” said Sarkar. “My job is to guarantee that it is good quality art, and that you get a bargain at the mela.”

Rakhi Sarkar.

New beginnings

Ten years on – and 25 years since CIMA was founded – the Art Mela is starting a new chapter. It will be held at Visual Art Gallery, New Delhi, from April 26 to April 30. “We’ve been meaning to organise the mela in cities other than Kolkata for a while,” said Sarkar. “We are starting with New Delhi because we feel that we know this city. The Kolkata event will be held every year. In addition, we will organise the mela in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities on rotation.”

The premise for the Delhi chapter is the same as the annual event in Kolkata – a mix of established and new artists, as well as practitioners of traditional arts like Patachitra and Kalighat painting, are contributing works that will be sold for anything between Rs 3,000 and Rs 75,000. “We also have a few works by miniaturists from Rajasthan this year,” said Sarkar. “The artists may not be well-known, but it is very fine work.”

Credit: Paresh Maity | Courtesy: CIMA Art Mela

Among the big-name artists whose works will be available at the Delhi mela are Manu Parekh – who had a retrospective of 150-plus works at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai earlier this year – and Arpita Singh, whose works are in the permanent collections of Victoria & Albert Museum in London and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi.

Art for all

For years, the Art Mela has convinced well-known artists to contribute works for a fraction of the price they could command in the market. For the Delhi chapter, it has a roster of 82 artists, including established names like Thota Vaikuntam, Paramjit Singh, Jayasri Burman, Thota Tharani, Lalu Prasad Shaw, Paresh Maity, Jogen Chowdhury, Ganesh Pyne, Rabin Mondal and Madhvi Parekh.

But it begs the question – what’s in it for the artists?

“Art should be available to all. The mela is for anybody and everybody,” said Paresh Maity, over the phone from Mumbai. He added that he has acquired works at previous editions of the mela, too. “Even though [artists like] Jogen Chowdhury and Ganesh Pyne are my friends, I have bought some of their works at the CIMA Art Mela.” Maity, who has been associated with the Art Mela for at least five years, has contributed six small-format works (around 6” x 6” and 6” x 8”) to the Delhi edition.

Credit: Avinash Manohar Motghare | Courtesy: CIMA Art Mela

All told, the Delhi edition of the Art Mela will offer nearly 1,500 works. “The established artists have contributed up to six works each,” said Sarkar. “I can’t ask for more because then it creates an imbalance in the market. Their works go for one-fourth or one-fifth the market price at the Mela.”

Informal and accessible

In terms of mediums and formats, visitors can expect short-format drawings and paintings. The works are mounted, but not framed. The display is more like stalls at a fair, allowing visitors to hold and touch the artworks, rather than the traditional format of an art exhibition. This is because, to Sarkar, a key part of the experience at Art Mela is the “typical mela feeling”.

For the first Delhi edition, she said there’s even more on her mind. “We approached senior artists from around the country this time. Naturally, we wanted more artists from Delhi-NCR, Mumbai and Chennai.”

Credit: Thota Vaikuntam | Courtesy: CIMA Art Mela

Over the years, she and her team have learnt to deal with the scale and expectations around the Art Mela. Like keeping not-genuine buyers at bay. (These are people looking to buy art only to turn around a quick profit.) “How do you design a system that is more or less secure?” asked Sarkar. “We try and check that no dealer comes in. We don’t give more than one work of a major artist to any one person.”

She added that the Art Mela has several ideas built in and the priority is to keep it informal. “There’s no risk entailed. Works are very reasonably priced. Second, we’ve selected all the works from the winners of CIMA Awards, Lalit Kala awardees and, of course, senior artists. And we have judged them very critically. At the same time, it is not high-high-high art. At the Art Mela, we don’t talk about art history or theoretical aspects – it’s sheer joy of seeing something beautiful and acquiring it.”

Credit: Chandan Panda | Courtesy: CIMA Art Mela

CIMA Art Mela will be held from April 26 to April 30, 10 am-8 pm, at the Visual Art Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Delhi.