Hyderabad's Art Missing Scene

Art auctioneers have made quite a killing during the lockdown. Sotheby’s sold a triptych by Francis Bacon for US$84.6 Million in June. That’s the third-highest price achieved by the artist ever, and possibly the most valued work of art sold at auction this year. The company’s star auctioneer, Oliver Barker spent several hours that evening, in an empty salesroom at Sotheby’s headquarters in London, where he was streamed LIVE around the world. No preview, no exchanging well-printed catalogues, no numbered paddles, no rubbing shoulders with enigmatic art buyers in a closed auction room… but SALE, nonetheless, Sotheby’s did achieve! In what was only a ten-minute battle, the late work by Bacon was picked up by a party in New York who jousted with a Chinese buyer before reaching the winning bid.

All this, while the globe was effectively under a worldwide lockdown, makes one wonder how the art scene is internationally surviving, perhaps even thriving, COVID or no COVID. In comparison, the Indian art world can be considered to be in a slumber. Slowly awakening but certainly nowhere as active as it is beyond our shores. There has been an evolution of sorts thanks to the viral plague we are currently experiencing, where auctions have effectively moved online. While this may not be a permanent change in the art world, it’s a notably significant change in how art is procured. Auction houses in Mumbai, in particular, have adapted to this model rather successfully. They send e-catalogues via Email and WhatsApp, their representatives call potential buyers and sellers on the phone and harrow them to participate.  

One auctioneer recently troubled me for the numbers of a few friends who could participate in their upcoming Husain auction; another troubled me to log into their charity auction group. What one can make out from all this is that there are players out there who want to liquidate and have cash on hand instead of a multi-crore artwork on their walls. And while this makes sense, it’s a great opportunity for buyers to pick up valuable works for a fraction of what they would have otherwise costed in an inflated market.

It was with all this in the back of my head that I turned my attention to the local art market we have here in Hyderabad, or lack thereof. Truth be told, there are only a handful of families in the city who indulge in art. There are the old Marwari families, the younger Reddy’s and a group of tech and pharma barons, who’ve come up astronomically fast, who indulge in art here. The Marwaris are typically buyers of the older artists; they like their Husains, Razas, Souzas, Manjit Bawas and Gujrals, which they’ve painstakingly collected over the last few decades. Many old Marwari families have been avid collectors of local artists as well – Thota Viakuntam, Ravinder Reddy and Lakshma Goud. The younger Reddy’s, on the other hand, have branched out, investing lesser amounts, but on newer artists – Valay Shende, Jitish Kalat, Thukral and Tagra. They are open to not just acquiring canvases but also mixed media works, sculptures and installations. When it comes to the tech and pharma millionaires, their artistic tastes are all over the place. Advised by interior designers and other aesthetes, they’ve amassed collections based on the likes and dislikes of those men and women who’ve helped them put their new villas and mansions in Jubilee and Banjara Hills together. This lot have the dosh but aren’t all that posh… just yet.

Apart from the three main groups mentioned earlier, there really isn’t much more of a market here in the city. Sure there’s a need for art… newer homes are being built all over the place, freshly minted billionaires need the stuff to hang up on their newly varnished walls, and yes, there’s an affluent group of people who want to broaden their taste further. But Hyderabad is still a languidly nascent market. Buyers predominantly buy their works from galleries and artists in Mumbai or Delhi. They’d rather make the trip to the artist’s studios there and haggle with their agencies outside of the city. One can hardly blame them, though. Save for maybe one significant art gallery; there really aren’t any others in Hyderabad who could procure or cater to the small market here. A market which will remain to stay small if there isn’t a vibrant art scene in the city. It’s a catch 22 of sorts.

In many ways, Hyderabad’s art scene is cursed thanks to the city’s rich Nizami Heritage and Asaf Jahi past. Our museums are dedicated to antiques, our markets are known for age-old objects that were once owned by the Nizam’s or Paigah’s and our city is celebrated for being the playground for antique dealers. The Hyderabad Art Society, founded in 1941, too has seen its heyday. They host exhibitions of upcoming artists at the Exhibition Grounds in Nampally, hardly the right venue where potential buyers and connoisseurs of art would like to trek to in their Maybachs and Bentleys. We don’t have the infrastructure required to showcase budding artists, no NCPA, no NGMA or for that matter, an art district with a collection of galleries. What’s worse is that the generation of art patrons our city once had have neared retirement, giving up on frivolities like paintings in the face of ageing gracefully. 

Just today, I was asked by a local artist to give a video testimonial to his work. Having commissioned a few paintings by him, I felt obliged to do so. While the pleasant lady who was his chosen interviewer asked me questions about his art, somewhere inside I realized that this man would never get the sort of appreciation here that he would, let’s say, in a city like Mumbai or Kolkata. And while I tried my best to stay as upbeat as I could, my subconscious was almost willing the man to shift base and make a name for himself elsewhere, as so many others of his ilk have done in the past.       -- Vishwaveer