The news of an art fair was in the air by the end of 2011. After the success of India Art Summit, which later became India Art Fair, had brought in a lot of hope in the recession hit art market and in many other cities other art players and entrepreneurs were also planning to start other art fairs. In Mumbai, Rajendra Patil, the secretary of the Bombay Art Society and the editor of Contemporary Art Journal, had already gone ahead in establishing India Art Festival. Though it was moderate compared to the scale, visibility and access of India Art Fair, India Art Festival also had made its mark at least creating a mixed buzz in the market. While India Art Fair catered to the well established galleries from India and abroad, its Mumbai counterpart was, though aim for the same, catering to the small galleries and individual artists who could shell out money to participate in the fair. Both the fairs, like all the other fairs take place all over the world, were based on the same concept of space selling. They create a great platform with state of the art infrastructural facilities for showcasing the works of art and galleries could hire space paying a good amount of money to the organizers. India Art Fair had its first three editions at Pragati Maidan, the industrial expo halls, in Delhi and later it moved on to a ground owned by the Small Scale Industries Department, Government of India, near Okhla industrial area. India Art Fair in Mumbai also followed the suit by moving from the Nehru Centre to a ground in the Bandra-Kurla industrial area. While India Art Fair struck gold with this change in location, India Art Festival in Mumbai is reportedly suffered financially by the similar move.
Against this backdrop, the news of having one more art fair was received by the art people by a mixed response. Personally speaking I was not at all interested in the news for the simple reason that I had no connections with art fairs. The only connection I had, if I could say it was a connection per se, was with the India Art Festival in Mumbai where they had invited me as one of the speakers in a seminar. I was by default one of the jury members to adjudge the best artists amongst the fair participants, along with Nanak Ganguly and Seema Kohli, who had helped the fair in instituting a Rs.One lakh worth of price for the best emerging artist. From a huge variety of average works it was difficult to select one artist as the creator of the best works. My mind was on the works of a young artist Sasikant Dhotre, who does his works using colour pencils and crayons on paper in order to create highly finished illusionistic paintings of the rural household women in Kolhapur in Maharashtra. I judged him as the best and the other jury members also did not have any other artist to consider. Dhotre was declared the winner and today, he is one of the highly sought after artist in the parallel art market in Mumbai. The mainstream galleries have not yet shown any interest in his works.
Besides, I had my own reasons to be away from the news of a new art fair in Delhi or rather there were other reasons for me not showing any excitement about it. I was editing the Art and Deal Magazine at that time. Though it was not a fulltime occupation, my mind was all bend on making that magazine better than what it was. The office of the magazine was at Haus Khaz village in South Delhi. Though, Siddharth Tagore, the owner and publisher of the magazine arranged an office room for me inside his Art Konsult gallery, I was not so keen to go there every day. I was mainly operating from Musui Art Foundation, where I have a wonderful studio space and a growing archive of books and research materials. I was extremely happy in that space and I hardly ventured out of that space, except for seeing exhibitions. The second reason was that I had been assisting the senior sculptor, K.S.Radhakrishnan in curating his mega project on Ram Kinkar Baij. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) the Ram Kinkar Baij Retrospective was a thoroughly researched and well mounted exhibition for which K.S.Radhakrishnan spent almost four years in researching and documenting. It was wonderful working with him and I could learn a lot from travelling with him to the places where Baij’s works were located. We also did a documentary with a group of film and photography enthusiasts in Kolkata. The third reason was a bit more exciting and depressing at the same time. The recession hit Indian art market, as aforementioned was anxiously looking forward to the fourth edition of the India Art Fair and the already announced Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
Kochi-Muziris Biennale, from the very beginning was mired in controversies. The idea was mooted sometime in June 2010 and the funds were given by the state government of Kerala to the organizers of the then proposed Biennale. Some of the artists and activists in Kerala took objection to this transferring of funds citing the lack of transparency. I too was keenly following the developments happening around Kochi-Muziris Biennale and once it was formally declared in Kochi in 2011, Kerala art scene was vertically divided into two; one half supported the Biennale and the other half opposed it. Sitting in Delhi, I preferred to join the opposition. The organizers were my friends and it was painful to go against them. However, I thought that if art could not set an example of transparency what else could do that for the world? Thinking in those lines, I engaged myself in creating a public debate around the proposed Biennale and the concept of Biennale in general. It soon became one of the major controversies in Indian art scene. In the beginning, as the opposition was happening in Kerala and the medium of communication was Malayalam, it was absolutely a Mallu-centric issue and many in other parts of India did not even come to know that there were problems brewing up in the organization of this Biennale. However, once I started articulating the issues in the medium of English, through my blog and facebook, more and more people came to know about it. Crisis is always a best opportunity to recognize the real friends; it was applicable for the Biennale organizers as well as for me. There was a huge polarization in Indian art scene, in which the majority went in support of the Biennale.
For me it was an eye opener. Most of the people thought that my objection to the Biennale came from a sort of rejection. They believed that the organizers did not invite me to be a part of the Biennale so I was hell bent on tarnishing it. Only those people who keenly followed the controversy could understand the nuances of the allegations raised by the opposition. Rest of the people believed that it was the usual case of ‘sour grape.’ The artists’ community behaved really strange at that time. The organizers had not yet declared the possible participants from India. Each one who had made some name in the scene hoped that they would be invited to be a part of the Biennale. Hence, even the closest friends started dissociating with me, thinking that any kind of affiliation with me would have marred their chances of getting represented in the Biennale. But I held my fort intact along with a few real activists in Kerala. It was winter 2011. The studio used to be really cold. After posting each blog against biennale, after commenting and replying each abusive comment that I got in facebook publicly, I used to sit alone and literally shiver out of dread and out of the enormity of hatred that people had developed for me. I should say that I recognized my real friends then. They stood with me even if it was not so much in open. In the meanwhile, I received a Rs.250 Crore defamation slapped on me by one of the Biennale organisers. I was almost mentally preparing myself to go behind bars.
How could I have thought of a new art fair at that time? I had not even thought of it. My mind was preoccupied with the Biennale controversy, Ram Kinkar Baij Retrospective and Art and Deal magazine editing, really in that order. There were pressures on the people who had accommodated me in various capacities in certain places to remove me and divest me of all chances in the art field. However, they stood with me and they were my real anchors at that time. Even if I had not taken any interest in the new art fair, even if I did not enquire who were behind it and what was its name, as an art person news travel unto you whether you want it or not. In February 2012 on the day Ram Kinkar Baij Restropsective opened at the NGMA in Delhi, as I was hanging out there in the gallery, obviously with a sense of elation for having assisted KSR in such a mega project, an acquaintance from the art scene approached me with another man and told me that he would like to introduce the other man to me. We were introduced each other and this person whom I knew told me that the other man was the ‘person’ behind the new art fair. I looked at him and searched my memory whether I had seen him anywhere in the art scene. I could not locate him. His name was Annurag Sharma and he told me that he would change the art scene in India. May be he wanted to meet me again.
I was not new to such situations. Over the last twenty years in my active career as an art critic and curator, so many people with fat purses and good business background have come to me with magnificent ideas. This had become a regular feature especially during the boom years. They all wanted to make a ‘difference’ to the art scene India. They all wanted to ‘promote’ young artists. They all wanted to set up feasible parallel systems to the existing gallery practice. Their intentions, as I understood, were good. But the motive, as I realized equally, was to make quick money. While most of them knew that any business needed time to turn investment into profit, only when they came to the art scene, they thought that they could make quick money over night. Even several galleries sprang up during the boom years with the same idea in mind only to be closed by the time market boom took a bad bashing. I did not count Annurag Sharma, on my first introduction, much different than the usual lot that used to come to me seeking advice and support. My experience was so interesting with such people that I could not have taken even Annurag Sharma seriously. I smiled at him and went ahead with that evening’s business.
The controversy around Biennale did not die out and I was getting really disappointed by the art community. Hence in March 2012 I declared in facebook that I would not express my opinion about the proposed Biennale any more in public as the art community, instead of entering into a healthy debate, indulged in mudslinging and name calling. It was so depressing to see your name tarnished and abused every morning in facebook. In Delhi the cold days continued. It was when I got a call from the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademy Chairman, Diwan Manna, inviting me to be a part of one seminar organized by the academy. The theme was ‘landscape’. I was happy to accept the invitation because I wanted a break from the ongoing controversy. The program was supposed to be by the end of April 2012 and I readily agreed. In one of those days, while I was preparing for the seminar and researching the aspect of landscape in Indian contemporary art, I received a call, again from the same art scene acquaintance who had introduced me to Annurag Sharma on the opening day of Ram Kinkar Baij Retrospective. I had even forgotten that chance meeting. Now what he wanted was a formal meeting between Annurag Sharma and myself. I thought of it and agreed but I was reluctant to call them to the Musui Art Foundation. Instead I decided to meet them outside.
The meeting took place sometime in late April 2012 at the Cafe Coffee Day in New Friends Colony, Delhi. I chose this place for meeting because since 2009 I was making all my meetings in that coffee shop. In 2009, my studio, kindly arranged for me by KSR and Badal ji, a senior Bengali theatre activist, at Chittaranjan was demolished for redevelopment. I was sitting at home for almost two years as there was no place to go. Hence I fixed up all my meetings at this Cafe Coffee Day. On that day my acquaintance and Annurag Sharma reached the place sharp on time. For the first time I saw my acquaintance behaving like a secretary to Annurag Sharma. This young man whom I knew took out a note pad and pen and kept on the table and then ordered coffee. Annurag Sharma came to the point directly. He wanted me to be on board in whatever capacity. The art fair that he was going to organize was called ‘United Art Fair.’ I laughed. He was puzzled. I asked him whether he was meeting the right person or not. He looked at me curiously with his big eyes from behind the glasses. I told him clearly that I did not have any prior experience in organizing mega projects. Moreover I was a very bad at selling things. I could produce a wonderful show and I always believed that selling should be done by someone who was good at client relations. Galleries were doing it efficiently. I had more than enough opportunities to develop my marketing skills. Over a period of twenty years, as many did, I could have engaged in selling activities and worked on commission basis. But I have never yielded to the allure of that kind of money. It is not because that I hate money or I do not like making money. But I strongly feel that if you critically write about an artist and then try to take commission from arranging certain sales, it is absolutely wrong. I had done a lot of sales during the initial years of the market boom. But I have given the whole money to the artist, whether you believe it or not. Even now desperate artists call me to sell their works and take my commission. I do not practice it.
“This is also my first art fair,” Annurag Sharma told me. He was countering me with my own argument. I was sceptical about the proposal so I asked him when it was going to take place. He said 27th September 2012. I was shocked and I did not know how they were going to do it five month’s time. “We have done the basic works, so you just need to take over it and continue,” he assured. I played with the spoon in the cup and looked him. He just got up and walked out. I turned my attention to the young man who had brought him to me. I asked him whether this Annurag Sharma was serious at all about this fair. He told me that he was serious and he was ready to put in any kind of money. But only thing he lacked was the right person at its helms. Why couldn’t he find another person in the market? I queried. The young man smiled. I knew that great organizers and great marketing personalities were there in the art scene and if he had money he could have hired anybody. Why me? Annurag Sharma came back. I had seen him standing there and smoking, through the glass wall of the shop. His body language showed a bit of impatience. He seemed to want my answer then and there, and also he was not going to take a NO from me. Did you think about it, he asked. I smiled at him again. I told him that I was going to Chandigarh for three days and once I am back I would give him an answer. He said he was positive about me in joining him. I did not give any answer but I told him that we would meet again at the Musui Foundation once I was back from Chandigarh. The meeting was over. They left. I came out and my mind was not divided. I focused on the theme, ‘landscape in Indian contemporary art’ and in a few days time I was in Chandigarh. I had forgotten Annurag Sharma and the United Art Fair.