YOU know when an art market has made the big time when fakes on a grand scale start appearing on the international market. Last month, an art forger went to jail for faking the works of Indian artists.
This is nothing new: Even the family of Francis Newton Souza have turned their hand to this before. The novelty of the latest situation is that the forger was based in Sussex.
The English copyist’s efforts were not random borrowings from a diversity of works from around the world. William Mumford specialised in names such as F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain and Sayed Haider Raza. In other words, the pantheon of 20th Century Indian art. Mumford barely bothered with anything else.
Although Indian art has found a growing global audience over the past decade, it is still unknown to many. This is a field filled with paradoxes: At one extreme are some very high prices being paid, even for women artists such as Arpita Singh and the presence of what is probably the biggest online art auction in the world.
At the other extreme is the indifference that usually greets Indian art outside its homeland. When an Indian artist makes it in the larger world, the chances are he is no longer really Indian, as in the case of superstar Anish Kapoor — born in Bombay but a British citizen for many years.
Indian art has somehow failed to have that fashionable edginess that was so much in demand among collectors for whom the incomprehensible or reprehensible were the greatest aspirations until recently. Compared to contemporary Chinese art it seemed tame, accomplished and familiar.
Now that the word most closely associated with Chinese art is “bubble”, collectors are taking India more seriously.
Here, it’s easier to find Malaysians of Indian descent making an impression than to find fresh imports from the subcontinent. The Wei-Ling Gallery has given it a try and the Balai Seni Visual Negara is currently showing the works of Rabindranath Tagore. What is harder to find is art for buyers looking to start collecting in a field that is both huge and inaccessible.
At the Indian Cultural Centre, there is an exhibition with the enigmatic title, Indian Contemporary Art: Up And Emerging.
The first impression is of irrepressible energy. There are eight artists represented, all chosen for their different approach and all imbued with the dynamism that would be expected of talent looking for recognition outside their enormous home market.
None of the works is entirely predictable although some pay homage to the Indian greats of the past 50 years. There is a surprising freshness of approach and absence of the cliches that are generally associated with the subcontinent. There is no profusion of deities. Expressive things happening with hands are something of a recurring theme, however. Amit Dutt is the master of the moving digit, along with what appears to be a comprehensive variety of techniques, including ink, water, pastel, acrylic, oil and charcoal.
Some perhaps subconscious tributes to the surrealists are on view, including paintings by Anup Kumar Chand. According to a speech given at the launch, this artist is deeply inspired by the Pattachitra painting tradition of Orissa. He says: “I prefer my hands to be called the artistic slaves of my mind. I have always tried to maintain creative and aesthetic individualism in my paintings.”
Anup is talking the international language of artists here, something that is more easily understand by the eye than the mind.
There are surprises aplenty for visitors to the Indian Cultural Centre, which is in itself something of a revelation for those who haven’t been there before. Located in the heart of Cap Square, it is as friendly an art space as one is likely to find, especially in this corner of KL. The director, Rajesh Kapoor, is one of those quietly welcoming presences who can give art a good name.
For me, landscapes turned out to be an unexpected Indian treat. Saphal Mankapure is a watercolourist who offers a different view of the subcontinent. Snow is among his great enthusiasms and one can see why so many Scots in centuries past felt at home in the icy valleys of northern India.
The softness of watercolour contrasts with the vibrancy that is usually associated with Indian art. The lesson of this exhibition is that any country with traditions as long and varied as India’s is able to produce an astonishing diversity of works. There’s a lot to see, and not much time to do so. This exhibition, which began on June 7 will end on June 30.
It seems that more is on the way, though. At the same time as the opening of the show came the official launch of a venture called Artbiz. Committed to creating awareness of Indian contemporary art in Malaysia, Artbiz has a name that is faintly reminiscent of V.S. Naipul’s Mr Biswas, which can’t be a bad thing. Equally promising is the presence of artists whose works have yet to be faked.