Iranian art seems to be, if not the flavour of the event, at least a point of interest at the 2012 India Art Fair (IAF), where more than 1,000 art works from 91 galleries will be shown. Contemporary Iranian art from the Anupam and Lekha Poddar Collection will be unveiled at the fair's closing party on Sunday. Curated by the Tehran-based graphic designer and curator, Amirali Ghasemi, the invitation-only event, titled "The Elephant in the Dark", has already generated a buzz in Indian art circles, if only because Poddar is known for being a collector that is ahead of the curve.
Ghasemi, the curator of this exhibition, is himself one of the artists who is being shown at the fair by Dubai's 1x1 gallery, along with Alireza Fani, Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Nosratollah Moslemian and Pooya Aryanpour, who will be juxtaposed against five Indian artists: Rameshwar Broota, Ravinder Reddy, Chittouvanu Mazumdar, Simrin Mehran Agarwal and Biju Joze. "We have a huge captive audience in India as against, say Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai with smaller populations," says the owner of 1x1 gallery Malini Gulrajani, who has been showing at the IAF for the past four years. What draws Gulrajani, along with Abu Dhabi's Salwa Zeidan gallery and global heavyweights such as Hauser & Wirth, White Cube and Gallery Continua, are the swelling numbers of people who attend, relative to other Asian art fairs in Singapore and Dubai. Even the region's behemoth – the Hong Kong Art Fair – attracted 63,000 visitors in 2011 relative to India, which attracted 128,000 visitors last year. The hope is that a significant percentage of these visitors will convert into buyers.
"When we showcased in Art Stage in Singapore, we did a curated show. Here we have given our artists carte blanche because we expect a lot of sales," says Anahita Taneja, the owner of Shrine Empire gallery in New Delhi, who is showing four female artists in her booth. Three of them — Fariba Alam, Samantha Batra Mehta, and Priyanka Dasgupta — are based in New York, and one, Suchitra Gahlot, is based in New Delhi.
The mood on the ground is giddy as curators and gallerists put finishing touches on their booths. Bhavna Kakar, the brash, fast-talking owner of Latitude 28 gallery, likens it to a big fat Indian wedding. "You meet the same people at gallery openings and parties," she says. "The collateral events – Skoda, performance art – have become really huge. People talk about what you are wearing for this party and what about tomorrow for breakfast, particularly if you are staying at the same hotel. It's like an Indian wedding."
Pooja Sood, the co-founder of Khoj, an artists' association, collaborative space and incubator, is putting together an evening of performance art, something that is new in India. Featuring marquee Indian names such as Subodh Gupta, Vivan Sundaram, Pushpamala N and Mamta Sagar, Khoj has invited RoseLee Goldberg, an art historian and the founder of the unique and prestigious Performa Biennial in New York, to give an introductory talk at KhojLive12. "We are going nuts," says Sood. "Choosing Blue Frog (a nightclub) was revolutionary because we have diverse spaces to work with and are organising avante garde lighting."
Sood is also part of the five-person jury that will decide the Skoda Prize, Indian contemporary art's largest and most prestigious prize, at least in terms of monetary reward (Rs 1 million or Dh73,000). Three prominent Indian artists — Jitesh Kallat, LN Thallur and Navin Thomas — form the shortlist for the award, which will be announced on January 28 in a glittering ceremony at the Taj Palace hotel, where artists, collectors and curators will schmooze with each other. "A lot of the fun stuff happens outside the aegis of the art fair," says one art maven who has visited the art fair every year.
The founder of the Indian Art Fair, Neha Kirpal, 31, and her team of 11 people are working around the clock to get the venue ready, taking care of everything from "PR to maintaining toilets", as she says. Last year, weeks before the opening, one section of the roof leaked, causing them to waterproof 11,000 sq ft of roof virtually till opening day. "No other organisation would have done this because nobody shows art on such a scale in India," says Kirpal.
This year, a British production company (20-20 events), German tents and an Indian set designer (Sumant Jaikishan) have all come together to stage the fair, which charges galleries a fixed rate for exhibition space.
The organisers don't take a commission on any sale and remain resolutely non-aligned, claiming to be "equal promoters" of every gallery that makes it to the art fair. "We have never transacted on an art piece and we never will," says Kirpal. "We don't have opinions on the art scene. We are service providers and catalysts, that's all."
Critics say that over the years, the art fair has become too commercial, "very much a bazaar with no quality control", partly because the managing team has no arts expertise. Indeed, large banks such Deutsche Bank and UBS that support the Frieze and other arts fairs have so far not come forward to sponsor the Indian one. Kirpal responds that the art fair is a reflection of the Indian art market.
But for now, she has speakers to house, museum groups to schedule and room after room of art to oversee.
The India Art Fair will be held in New Delhi at the NSIC Exhibition Grounds, Okhla Industrial Estate, starting today and continuing until Sunday. For details, visit www.indiaartfair.in