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Sundaram Tagore and South Asian Art

Published by Forbes on 2007-01-09

The sky-rocketing prices for antiquities and antique art from South Asia - 11th century bronzes, miniatures paintings from the era of the Great Moghuls - have fetched stunning headlines in recent years. Now it's works by contemporary painters and sculptors. Their output has become so popular in America and elsewhere in the West - not to mention in Asia itself - that artists such as M. F. Husain and Raza are commanding a million dollars and above. This year, the market for South Asian art will rise beyond $1 billion globally.

If there's one curator and gallery owner who could be said to be responsible for the dramatic popularization of South Asian contemporary art in America, it is Sundaram Tagore, a descendant of the influential Indian poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore. His eponymous gallery in Manhattan's SoHo district is renowned for its multicultural and multidisciplinary events. Tagore was previously a director at PaceWildenstein in New York. He has advised many international organizations including The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the United Nations; and the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. He has published articles in ARTNews, Art & Antiques, Asian Art News, Arts Asia Pacific, Rave, and the Times of India. He recently co-produced "The Goddess," a tribute to the late filmmaker Ismail Merchant, at the Rubin Museum of Art in New. The following are excerpts from an interview with Forbes:

Forbes: To what would you attribute the rapidly rising popularity -- and prices -- of South Asian art?

Sundaram Tagore: Much like the similar situations with Chinese and Russian art, South Asian art has been growing in popularity and commanding higher prices due to a booming domestic economy. In addition, there is a keen interest among the Indian Diaspora, who are educated and affluent, for homegrown artistic products.

Forbes: Does homesickness explain this interest?

Sundaram Tagore: Many of these people moved abroad in the 1960s and early 1970s and never lost their yearning for India and Indian culture. Indian art offered an opportunity to reconnect with their roots.

Forbes: But back in India, contemporary art also seems to be catching on. Why?

Sundaram Tagore: In India, a large number of highly influential people are becoming more involved in the promotion of art--from movie stars, to industrialists, to cultural figures. Some of them view art as a means of social advancement. And, of course, there's a lot of money in India these days as the economy keeps powering up.

Forbes: Who are the artists currently en vogue, and why?

Sundaram Tagore: The first phase sprung from the Bengal School, which were essentially the nationalist artists who were fighting for Indian aesthetic independence at the same time the country itself was moving toward freedom. These artists - among them, Rabindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose - were supplanted by the Bombay Progressive Group (which included Husain and Reza), who were the second-generation post-Independence modern artists. Works by these two historic groups command high prices. Regional groups, including the Baroda Group, artists from Shantiniketan, and Delhi schools, are also appreciating in value. It's the artists who have reflected India's own struggles for identity who are among the most coveted.

Forbes: Who is buying their art?

Sundaram Tagore: Both native Indians and those of the non-resident Indians (NRI) communities in Europe and the United States who have had success in business, particularly in IT, have been big buyers. People in the financial markets, a traditional mainstay in the art world, have also driven the market. In India right now, art has more or less become a calling card for those who have arrived, both socially and economically. Once people have acquired a certain amount of disposable income and satisfied their basic needs, they want to move into the realm of culture. Art is satisfying on many levels--it's soothing to soul, it enhances one's environment, it reinforces one's social position, and for many, it represents a financial investment.

Forbes: How would you link the popularity of South Asian art to the fact that India is "hot" these days?

Sundaram Tagore: Of course, the economy has a big role to play in the explosion of the art market. The interest in Indian art started primarily with NRIs who were at first nostalgic about Indian art and then began to recognize it as a potential investment.

Forbes: Are non-Indians buying Soth-Asian art?

Sundaram Tagore: Interestingly, we're now seeing an increasing number of Western faces in the Indian galleries and in the auction houses in New York and London. This is an indicator of the broadening of the field and of Western buyers embracing a once-indigenous market. In my experience alone, I have seen companies such as Lehman Brothers, Target, and Morgan Stanley, buying Indian art for both their domestic and international offices. Right now, art is continually changing hands; it's viewed primarily as an investment. As the market matures, a greater appreciation will develop and collectors will see the value in getting works into museums and permanent collections.

Forbes: What trends do you see? And where are the newer artists coming from?

Sundaram Tagore: In this post-modern age, art of all shapes, sizes, forms, and styles is relevant. Hybridism, pluralism, and both abstraction and figuration are being produced and consumed. In addition, Indian artists have moved into digital art, video, and technology-based art in a powerful way. This is the area to watch.

Forbes: What about other parts of Asia?

Sundaram Tagore: There has also been artistic movement of note in other regions of Asia, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. I would image new forms of artwork emerging from the Himalayas, from Bhutan and Nepal. It is a question of opportunity. The moment an artist or a movement is identified and shown in one of the art centers--for the most part London or New York--the equation changes.

Forbes: Do you see South Asian art as part of major collections displayed by established institutions such as the Met, etc.?

Sundaram Tagore: As South Asia continues to expand its position as a player in global economics and politics, its art will become increasingly sought after. South Asian art is already exhibited in major collections across the Western world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Classical Subcontinental art has been collected by major Western institutions for more than a hundred years.

Forbes: But not necessarily contemporary art from South Asia?

Sundaram Tagore: What these institutions have yet to focus on is contemporary South Asian art. However, it will undoubtedly be shown in the near future as India becomes more powerful.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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