Even through the haze of shimmering heat and thick Delhi dust, the mural is impossible to miss. Pinks, blues, greens and yellows pop off the wall, coming together to form a utopian scene of equality, and splashed across the middle is emblazoned a slogan designed to challenge India’s male-dominated society. “The future is femme,” it declares.
The artwork stands at the entrance of this year’s India art fair, the country’s largest event showcasing Indian artists and galleries, which opens in Delhi this weekend after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.
Its presence is significant. Aravani art collective, the artists behind the work, have never showcased in a major gallery, nor do they see themselves as a part of the money-driven art market, which exists mainly within the confines of white gallery walls.
Aravani are India’s only trans art collective, encompassing about 40 trans people – mainly women but some men – from cities across the country, who paint murals and artworks across public spaces. Metro stations, schools, universities, flyovers and carparks have been transformed by their artworks depicting scenes of inclusion and gender fluidity. The murals have brought visibility and empowerment to the trans community, who are still largely shunned and stigmatised in India and often forced to live on the fringes of society.
“In this mural we wanted to celebrate the intersectionality and inclusivity that has always existed within the trans community but is rarely visible in our society,” said Poornima Sukumar, who founded the collective in 2016.
The decision to take part in the art fair was not an entirely comfortable one, said Sukumar, but one that she hoped would help shift perceptions and give them a platform to depict the multi-faceted nature of their collective and the trans community at large.
“It’s important in our work to challenge that perception that everyone in the trans community is the same,” she said. “Yes many have run away from home because of the pressures and have ended up doing begging or sex work because that was the only viable source of money, but within those experiences there are so many individual journeys.”
For Mayuri Pujari, who has been part of the collective since 2017, the impact of her involvement has been profound. “The visibility is empowering,” she said. “People see the trans community as professionals making art, not just begging on the roads.”
Among the new generation of young artists being showcased at this year’s fair, which plays a pivotal role in India’s flourishing art market, many have used their works to push boundaries around sexuality, gender and queer stories. In a specially commissioned performance piece for example, Gurjeet Singh, a celebrated young Sikh artist from a small village on the border with Pakistan, delicately questions and inverts traditional gender roles in families and in the home.
For Jaya Asokan, director of the fair, the “diversity and inclusion” widening India’s art landscape, as well as growing international interest in the Indian art market, meant the fair was taking place at “a turning point for Indian and south Asia art.”
“A lot of our artists have had regional appeal for a while but the narrative is shifting and now they are in demand internationally,” said Asokan.
Certainly from a commercial side, things have never looked so good for the Indian modern art market. The pandemic provided an unexpected boost to sales and over the past two years; there whave been at least three record-setting sales of modern Indian art, including Amrita Sher-Gil’s 1938 painting In the Ladies’ Enclosure for $5.14m, the second-highest amount ever paid for a modern Indian artwork.
“I haven’t seen a market as strong as this one since 2006, which lasted for a few years before the financial crisis,” said Dinesh Vazirani, the chief executive of Indian art auction house Saffronart. He credited the boom to a multitude of factors, including lockdowns giving people a greater desire for beautiful objects in their homes and growing income among people in the world of Indian tech and pharmaceuticals, with newly minted businessmen and entrepreneurs wanting to invest in art as something “aspirational”.
“We are seeing a whole new type of collector, young people in their 30s and 40s, entering the Indian market with a completely new mindset,” said Vazirani. “Art now has a societal standing and there’s almost a social pressure to buy art and buy the best. So people who were entering the market at $100,000 are now willing to go up to half a million. At every auction we have seen records broken, one after the other.”
Yet the shifts within the market are not solely within the sphere of Indian modern and contemporary art. For the first time, this year’s art fair is showcasing rare items of Indian folk art, some dating back 100 years, illustrating changing perceptions towards older indigenous art within the Indian market, which has always been focused on the modern and contemporary. Among the works on show are a series of bronze mukhalingam sculptures, a representation of the Hindu god Shiva, which have never been seen in public before.
“Our folk culture has been much more popular overseas in the last four decades than it has on the Indian domestic market,” said Amit Jain, who curated the folk art booths at this year’s fair. “I’m used to this art and these artists being seen as on the peripheries so it’s amazing to see India’s full history brought into this contemporary space. It’s high time that museums in India look at art laterally and not compartmentalised into modern and folk.”
The fair will also address the darker side of the Indian art market, particularly when it comes to antiquities. Collectors and viewers have been invited to a tour of a Museum of Confiscated Antiquities in Purana Quila, an old fort in Delhi, where the objects on show will be those recently returned to India after being stolen and sold to wealthy collectors or displayed in the world’s famed galleries. The museum features items reclaimed from high-profile looters now in jail but also institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“India is one of the biggest victims of illicit trafficking of antiquities, it’s a black market that’s as big as drugs and ammunitions and we still have a lot of looting going on,” said Anica Mann, the curator of the young collectors programme at the fair who has curated and will lead the tour. “Antiquities are a very important cog in the entire roster of south Asian art so it’s about time we talked about ethical collecting.”