MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
In India, the super-rich have more money than in any other country in Asia, at least according to the people who track that sort of thing at Forbes magazine. Well, India's wealthy are doing what the rich have done for centuries all over the world. They are collecting art. But beauty has its price, and in India, that price is rising.
And NPR's Laura Sydell reports that higher prices don't necessarily mean better quality.
LAURA SYDELL: Mukeeta Jhaveri has a large apartment by Indian standards. Almost every inch is covered with art. There's painting on the walls, sculptures on the chairs and tables, ceramics, wood carvings, textiles.
MUKEETA JHAVERI: This is a historically important work by an artist who was very close to Gandhi in the freedom struggle, (unintelligible) from the Bengal School.
SYDELL: There's also a huge triptych with a bright yellow background that depicts a round primitivistic woman in her home as riots against the Sikhs take place outside her window.
Yet increasingly, Jhaveri and her husband, who's an investment banker, are drawn to art with themes that are even more contemporary.
JHAVERI: The importance of the stock market, and market capitalization, and technology, and media and real-time information - these are things that hallmark the times I live in. And if my artist friends are able to capture that, that rocks my socks.
SYDELL: Art has now become the obsession of young, affluent Indian professionals.
JHAVERI: You know, lawyer friends who collect. I have chemical-dealer friends who collect. You're at parties, the discussion is more based on contemporary art than it is on contemporary cinema. And I can see that very, very confidently.
SYDELL: One might find some of those young professionals here amidst the clinking wine glasses, hors d'oeuvres and whitewashed walls of Chemould Gallery in Mumbai. This could be an opening in New York City, but the saris and melodic accents make the scene unmistakably Indian. Chemould is one of the country's oldest showcases for contemporary Indian art.
SHIREEN GANDHY: A lot of the artists that I was working with were really becoming big in thought, big in ambition.
SYDELL: And their art was getting bigger says Shireen Gandhy, director of Chemould. So in February, she moved into a larger gallery.
GANDHY: There's no question that India is booming. There is money in the market. Stock market is going up. And naturally, everything has been, you know, there is ripple effect. And art became like the victim.
SYDELL: Work that's sold in the late 1980s for $2500 can now fetch over a million. That's quite a premium in a country where the average wage is around $800 a year.
46-year-old artist Sudarshan Shetty has gone from living a lean existence to having two studios.
SUDARSHAN SHETTY: There are many more galleries. There are many more artists as opposed to when I started out. You know, it was like, impossible to get a gallery to work with.
SYDELL: Much of Shetty's work is large and sculptural. In a recent exhibition called "Love," one of the pieces is a huge, mechanical dinosaur skeleton with audible moving parts, making love to a sports car. It's a symbol of the old falling in love with the new and a comment on how the market can distort human interaction.
SHETTY: Love, as a word, is something that begin with a basic human emotion. And at the other - end of the spectrum, it's also a marketable phenomenon.
SYDELL: Some artists are beginning to feel like market commodities. Baiju Parthan culture. His painting, "Brahma's Homepage," evokes a computer portal. Images from Hindu mythology float on canvas as if in virtual space. In an online version, viewers can click on it and discover more imagery. He wants to force viewers to pause in times when everything is moving at lightning speed.
BAIJU PARTHAN: The art market is beginning to sort of resemble or reflect the stock market. It's almost like people betting on you, kind of a, or, and like a horserace where this particular one will maybe finish first, so let us put all our money on him or her.
SYDELL: In India today, there are investment funds set up to make money off the nation's artists. Ranjit Hoskote, a prominent Indian critic, says many artists are producing quickly to make money while the market is hot. But much of the work isn't very good.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: The downside of this very optimistic story of the boom in the art market in India is that artists really don't have time or repose now to work at their art. It's become a bit of an assembly line.
SYDELL: This kind of heated art market may be new to India, but it's certainly not new in the West. In New York in the 1980s, young artists became flash-in- the-pan hits. Their work brought in big bucks for a few years, but eventually ended up in some unfortunate collector's basement. Many collectors are starting to realize the need to preserve and support Indian art. But Mukeeta Jhaveri says it's not easy.
JHAVERI: Making philanthropy tax-efficient - that whole culture hasn't come here yet and we've already begun to clamor for it. A lot of wealth doesn't get disseminated in the form of philanthropy, whether it's museums, hospitals, charitable trusts.
SYDELL: Right now, most of the collectors buying contemporary Indian art are Indians who live in or outside the country. In Mumbai, new galleries are being built above a filthy street covered with layers and layers of trash. Potential art buyers must walk past beggars.
Mort Chatterjee runs one of the newest spaces. Chatterjee and Lal. He's seeing collectors start to balk at the high prices.
MORT CHATTERJEE: We have evolved an art scene, which has been primarily driven by money, but which we are now seeing, in a sense becoming a little more full and interesting in terms of the by-products, which that brings with it.
SYDELL: In a way, says Chatterjee, India is where the U.S. was in the early 20th century, when new wealth began buying art, building museums and turning the U.S. into the world's cultural powerhouse. Now, he says, it's India's turn.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.
BLOCK: And you can browse through a few examples of the pieces Laura Sydell saw in Mumbai without leaving your desk. They're at npr.org.