India Art Fair: How It All Came To Be

30/01/2015 2:35 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
CHANDAN KHANNA via Getty Images
In this photograph taken on January 29, 2015 an Indian woman looks on during the India Art Fair in New Delhi. For years, its been Indias grand art festival but this year more than ever, India Art Fair is raking more eyes balls by bringing a gamut of modern and contemporary works from across the world to satiate the growing art appetite of the metropolis - Delhi. AFP PHOTO / CHANDAN KHANNA (Photo credit should read Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a four-day event a year in the planning. The India Art Fair is in its seventh edition, and I've been to six of those. When Neha Kirpal first mooted the idea of a fair called the India Art Summit, few insiders gave her much chance of making it a success. Sure, art fairs had become central to the trade across the globe in the course of the previous decade, but nobody had mastered the format in India. What hope did a twenty-eight-year-old who knew little about art have? The Summit began as a relatively small affair in Pragati Maidan. It was taken more seriously in its second year. By the third, no major Indian gallery could afford to ignore it.

It used to be held in August, a bad month with respect to the weather and to attracting international interest. Rain flooded the approach road one year, forcing socialites to wade through knee-deep water, stilettos in hands. A widely circulated picture of a pigeon roosting on an Anish Kapoor disc suggested Pragati Maidan wasn't the best place to display valuable pieces of easily damaged art. The fair's schedule, location, and even its name were changed. It was now the India Art Fair, held towards the end of January in massive tents at the NSIC ground in Okhla, a venue made easily accessible by Delhi's new Metro. An ecosystem of happenings developed around it as it gained prominence. Museums scheduled major exhibition openings; private galleries mounted shows by blue chip artists; art prizes, lavish dinners and after-parties added to the buzz, making a Delhi trip obligatory for the art crowd during what had come to be known as India Art Fair week.

Over the past few months, I've observed IAF from the inside, and the secret of its success has become clear: Neha Kirpal is a natural leader, savvy, single-minded, inspirational. She's groomed an incredibly committed core team whose members work with virtually no sleep for days on end to turn a shabby patch of open ground into a suitable temporary home for thousands of delicate artworks. Neha carries in her mind all the threads woven into the event: galleries, sponsors, designs, publications, eating places, partner organisations, VIP outreach, contractors, the works. Walking through the site with the team during build-up days, her attention to detail is astonishing to behold. She picks out each misaligned wall, tripping hazard, and badly placed signboard, trying to ensure everything enhances the viewer experience rather than being detrimental to it. Art is just the tip of the iceberg in a successful art fair. I am responsible for a chunk of that tip.

On the eve of the preview, it all seems to have come together almost perfectly. We've passed relatively unscathed through Barack Obama's Republic Day visit which threatened all delivery schedules, and are ready to welcome exhibitors who will have a mere day-and-a-half to install their wares. There's always something unexpected or unpreventable to mar things slightly, though: A sudden temperature drop at night creates condensation on metal rafters, which threatens to drip into booths. A truck cuts through a leased line installed to compensate for bad connectivity in the area. Despite these glitches, the mood's unmistakably upbeat as booths and corridors fill up at the VIP preview. There's plenty of good art on view, and enough variety to suit most tastes.

The food options, always better at IAF than most international fairs, where the choice is usually a selection of rubbery, extortionately priced, baguette sandwiches, has been improved further. There's funky furniture placed in front of the red tents, where visitors can laze between intense bouts of art viewing. The afternoon is sunny and bright, and the coming days promise more of the same. I'm very happy with the way the special art projects, which I curated, have turned out. The other section for which I'm responsible, a conference that begins the day after the preview, promises to offer engaging presentations and discussions over its three days. Everybody else has done their job so well; I hope I can deliver from my side.

The fair's final day is Sunday. If you're in the neighbourhood, and have any interest in art, do drop in.

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