India is ready for change, but censorship, taxation and corruption plagued the Art Fair

About the author
Preti Taneja is a writer and filmmaker whose work concentrates on human rights issues. She has reported extensively on the plight of minorities in Iraq, and is a founder member of the collective ERA Films which uses video to promote social change.

The fourth annual India Art Fair (IAF), held earlier this year, was hailed by Indian and international media as proof of an art culture come of age. The private opening was packed with the art-hungry moneyed class from all over the world, not least among them Indian buyers with an eye on potential investments. In the last few years, Indian modern art has taken its place on the international stage, and buyers in India have benefited; but there is also a hunger to experience work by international artists. The public days saw schoolchildren, students, aspiring artists and other keen spectators bypassing work by Indian mega-artists Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher to take pictures of each other by Tracey Emin’s 2011 neon, Love is what you want. A group of young Indian women at the White Cube stand were struck by Damien Hurst’s 2008 White Lies: a bright gold cabinet displaying row upon row of glittering zirconias. “I take the piece to signify something about the lies all men tell women,” said one visitor, and her girlfriends all agreed.

Behind the scenes though, the IAF was showing symptoms of three maladies that are depressingly common in India. First, the curtailment of freedom of expression; second, prohibitive taxation; and finally a certain kind of black-market money-churning that makes it difficult for international gallerists to take part.

Censorship casts a long shadow over Indian cultural life. The IAF took place in the wake of the Jaipur Literary Festival, which saw Salman Rushdie prohibited from attending through a combination of right-wing Muslim outrage and the capitulation of Indian politicians. A more insidious form of this censorship affects Indian cultural life everyday: the exercising of an unwritten moral code that encourages the banning of all manner of artistic expression from the public’s delicate gaze.

At the Everard Read Gallery, visitors were able to enjoy astonishing work by South African artist Leigh Voigt, including a painting of two cockerels poised on a crumbling, whitewashed wall and facing off against each other like soldiers from opposite sides at the India-Pakistan border in Wagah. Given the political history between India and South Africa, a sculpture of Gandhi in his dhoti also attracted attention. But the crowd didn’t know what they weren’t shown: sculptures by internationally recognised artists Bryn Werth and Angus Taylor that were confiscated at the airport by Indian customs officials on the grounds that they were too ‘lewd.’ In the world’s largest democracy, cultural and moral policing comes as part of the job at customs.

A spokesperson for the gallery who did not wish to be named said, “We had a few problems as a few works were confiscated at the airport. We have been told they will be sent back with the rest when we leave.” She added, “They were not suggestive. There are plenty of other nudes at the show.” A flick through the catalogue reveals she is right. Visitors to the stand of New Delhi-based gallery, Wonderwall, could see a photograph by an Indian artist of four (headless) female nudes, made in clay; countless other pieces celebrating and questioning our relationship with our own bodies were in evidence at other stands. 

Lewdness’ is in the eye of the beholder, and is a favourite charge of the Indian censor. That the censor is so arbitrary makes its prurient attitude all the more difficult to swallow. When I asked the spokesperson if the Everard Read Gallery would be coming back next year she simply said, “We thought coming this year would be a great idea. About coming back – we haven’t thought that far ahead.” It would be a great shame if they didn’t. 

Laura Williams, of the Norwich based Art 18/21 gallery, highlighted the unique challenges presented by this particular event. “The first year was a massive eye-opener for me,” she said. “If you have no experience as an international gallery coming to India, it can be a steep learning curve. International galleries need to research the market and know how it works in that region. It’s not like showing in areas which have strong institutional support for art.”

 

She was full of praise for the IAF itself. “The organization of the fair and the enthusiasm of the visiting public is impressive,” she said, “but the bureaucracy is a nightmare.” This includes the heavy customs duty, which is levied based on the value of work being brought into the country. If the work is not sold, that money is returned. Needless to say, this process doesn’t always work in a smooth or timely manner. Williams said, “If you’re showing £3 million worth of work, it’s not feasible to pay that money up front.”

That the rules don’t seem to be fixed also causes problems. The morning before the show opened, Williams and other international galleries received emails from the government demanding more duty be paid. For smaller galleries such costs can be prohibitive and, again, limit what they can show. One Spanish gallery brought work to the fair on an ATA Carnet, an international customs bond that allows temporary imports without taxation. But if the Carnet holder sells any work it must be taken back to the original country and then reshipped, with all duties paid, to its final destination, which could be back in India. A spokesperson from a leading Indian gallery with links in London admitted, “If someone was undecided about buying a piece, the extra cost and wait might be a deterrent, particularly if you are used to buying large art works and having them delivered straight away.” 

Finally, what about the healthy black-market that India has always run on? When wealthy Indians need to avoid tax, they spend big, with a suitcase full of cash handed over in a private residence to a waiting dealer in exchange for the work. Receipts are not accepted. For a first-time international gallerist showing in India, this might come as a shock: rupees can’t be taken out of the country. A quick visit to a money launderer in a central Delhi location, currency stuffed down the underwear and in pockets of suitcases: the stuff of a Bollywood remake of the Thomas Crown Affair, surely? Not so. According to my sources, that’s pretty close to what happens.

Why is the paperwork so prohibitive? Of course art is a niche interest at the best of times. In India, it has not historically been given much emphasis in the school system, forget at undergraduate or postgraduate level. Indian secondary-school students in the 1970s, 80s and 90s were streamed into science or commerce strands and then encouraged into the family business or corporate jobs. But more insidious than this marginalisation is the attitude that art is subversive, a corrupting influence that must be circumscribed to avoid the erosion of society’s perceived moral and national values.

Perhaps the only thing that will change this attitude is the increasing financial value of modern art in India. Depressing though this is, the opening up of the market has seen the growth of the private gallery sector all over the country. This means people can now see work by a wide range of artists from the Modern Masters to contemporary international superstars. There is a burgeoning scene promoting the new generation – postmodernists with a sense of irony, a significant move away from the politically earnest nostalgia seen in Indian artists born in the 1970s. Last year, for the first time in history, India had a pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Within the country, the taste is for more than purely ‘Indian’ however, and not just among the elite. International artists show regularly at the private galleries in the metropolitan cities Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. To make the most of the international nature of the fair, and perhaps for lack of opportunity to visit such spaces, young people rub shoulders with megabucks collectors at the IAF. Tickets were reasonably priced. Williams underlines that it’s the presence of school visits and interested non-buyers which makes this fair so different from other international shows such as Basel, where it’s all about buying and selling. “The IAF has a unique energy,” she said. “The question I get asked the most is not ‘How much is it?’ but, ‘Can you tell me what this work is about?’” It’s a place where school girls in grey kilts, knee socks and maroon jumpers could be seen standing next to dealers, in front of a sculpture of a naked baby curled over next to a frog. All of them perhaps reflecting on their own origins, or perhaps just wondering whether they liked the work or not. Thank goodness the customs officials can’t censor that.

This year, around 128,000 visitors saw work at 84 galleries from across the globe, proving how much enthusiasm there is when work is made accessible to public viewing. These are impressive numbers that bode well for the future of the IAF. But behind the scenes, it is clear that the government needs to do more to support the event and others like it. Cultural life thrives on access to art from all parts of the globe, which in turn relies on freedom of expression. Without such exchange in an atmosphere free of corruption, the art-hungry public, the galleries coming with great excitement to India, dealers, buyers and the fair itself will continue to be sadly shortchanged.