Saturday, 21 April 2012

Photography: Tasveer ~ Collecting fragments of captive time

Abhishek Poddar at Tasveer
(Written in 2006)

DOES the Indian market recognise photography as an art form? The opening of Tasveer ~ a four-city gallery dedicated to photography ~ takes a wide-angle look at future prospects.

Launched in October 2006, Tasveer links Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore through a network of gallerists committed to showcasing the work of contemporary Indian photographers. Its mission statement is clear: “To encourage the buying and selling of photographs, of tasveers, as collector’s items, as art, as fragments of ‘captive’ time, of memory. To be cherished. Shared with others. Revisited ~ both privately and publicly, again and again.”

This ambitious venture opens against the backdrop of an Indian contemporary art market that often sweeps media headlines. Such as when the Swarup Group bought 125 of M.F. Husain’s work for Rs. 100 crore in 2004. Or when Tyeb Mehta’s ‘Gesture’ sold for Rs. 31 million at a December 2005 Osian’s auction in Mumbai.

In the international market, photography has long been part of the art mainstream. For instance, French master Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 11 x 14 in. prints sell for over $12,500. Prices for LIFE magazine stalwart Alfred Eisenstaedt’s signed prints are sky-high, while Andreas Feininger’s ‘Route 66’ prints have shot up from $10,000 to 35,000 within two years. A Margaret Bourke-White print could touch $21,000. A rare Ansel Adams ‘Moonrise’ print sold for $609,600 in October 2006.

Where does Tasveer fit into this overview? Its opening season from October 2006 to July 2007 has six photographers in focus: Raghu Rai, Shahid Datawala, Ryan Paul Lobo, Fawzan Husain, Saibal Das and Annu Mathew. While some of their work has been celebrated as photojournalism, is the market ready for prints in limited editions of between seven and 15, priced from Rs. 15,000 to 1 lakh, within a form where replication is the norm?

Bangalore-based Abhishek Poddar, art collector and co-initiator of the 1999-launched Cinnamon lifestyle store, is one of the brains behind Tasveer. The store, challenging traditional galleries, exhibited photography by Ketaki Sheth,  Navroze Contractor, Dayanita Singh and Naveen Kishore, though these expositions did not pan out commercially.  

Cues to Poddar’s passion for photography crop up throughout his stunning office space. His walls share images by Dayanita, Ketaki, T.S. Nagarajan, and Pamela Singh. En route to his personal workspace, you come across celebrated Canadian Yousuf Karsh’s unforgettable portraits of Winston Churchill, Nehru, Ernest Hemingway, even cellist Pablo Casals.  

What do each of the gallerists bring to Tasveer? Poddar took to collecting photography seriously about four years ago when, entranced by Dayanita’s work, he sponsored a project she was keen on. Later, when Poddar bought one of her prints, she exclaimed, “You’re the first Indian who’s ever bought my work.”  He adds, “I actually became unpopular in art circles at that time because I began taking down paintings in my house, putting up photographs instead.”

While co-gallerists Vivek and Shalini Gupta of New Delhi are dedicated collectors, Kolkata-based Kishore of the Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre has been a brilliant photographer for over 35 years. In Mumbai, Matthieu Foss and Ader Gandi will expand Tasveer’s reach through displays at the National Centre for the Performing Arts.

Signals from abroad show that Indian photography may be on a roll. Dayanita’s images have been exhibited in New York, Prabuddha Das Gupta’s in Italy, Bharat Sikka’s in Paris.

Poddar muses, “There’s some amazing work happening in India. So, I felt it’s time somebody started showing photography seriously.”

Kishore seconds that over email, “We started Tasveer with the instinct, even the hope, that this is the time to begin showing these images. The market will gradually respond. People will need to see much more over a sustained period of time before deciding that this too is ‘buyable.’ It will be a slow process, but one we are committed to. I’d say: give it ten years.”

Can Tasveer be a viable commercial proposition? Perhaps. Considering that the opening shows of  Rai’s ‘Rocks, Clouds and Nudes’ at Bangalore and New Delhi sold over 22 prints, while Datawala’s dramatic black-and-white photographs of old cinema halls seething with cultural resonances have already found 20-plus buyers in Mumbai.

More drama waits in the wings: US-based Annu Mathew’s explorations of the Indian ‘other,’ Saibal Das’s ‘Circus Life,’ Fawzan Husain’s tongue-in-cheek Bollywood, and Ryan Paul Lobo’s individualistic wedding images.

What’s Tasveer’s USP? Impeccable gallery presentations. Large-format catalogues, each with an in-depth artist interview. Dialogues with the photographer. Intelligence on how to care for vintage prints, investment potential, the import of an edition. Perhaps future engagements with images from the Lala Deen Dayal era or the Lafayette studio, even extending to video works or photographs with challenging  interventions.

Poddar explains, “Traditional art has become crazily unaffordable today. Perhaps people might shift their gaze to photography, another form of art. The best of Indian photography is still very affordable, compared to overseas prices. What we’re showing differs from the usual street urchins or village India or the Banaras ghats.”

He adds, “According to Forbes and Fortune, the photography market has recently gained more ground than the traditional arts.”

What criteria should guide a collector of this long-undervalued art? “You should buy it because you can’t live without it. Aesthetic appreciation is the only criterion I’d advocate,” Poddar says. “We’re looking at people coming for every show, buying an odd picture every now and then. As a community, this needs to grow, instead of having just five big buyers for photography.”

Within a larger framework, Tasveer promises in-depth documention and a digital archive through its galleries and future website. It also aims to help individuals, museums and corporate bodies to invest in photography and build up collections.

Will Tasveer’s act of faith redefine Indian photography by making it commercially viable for practitioners? Will it lead to a collective opening of the Indian eye? Will this gentle zoom lead to a market boom? No instamatic answers can possibly suffice.

(Tasveer can be reached at: Mumbai - 93249-16509)/ New Delhi - 26830629/ Kolkata 24556942/ Bangalore – 22128190)

(The Week, 2006)

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