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Indian art fair draws big names to Delhi

Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley among those seeking a slice of the still booming Indian market

Outside was India: a snarl of traffic, screaming horns, hustling taxi drivers and a single forlorn cow. Inside was calm: glasses of white wine, canapés and, for the first time in the country, the giants of the contemporary art world.

"We've brought Damien [Hirst], Tracey [Emin], Gary [Hume], Mark [Quinn] and Antony [Gormley]," said Graham Steele, director of the London-based White Cube gallery, as he watched a who's who of the south Asian art world file into the first India Art Fair on Wednesday. The event opens to the public on Thursday.

Previously known as the India Art Summit, the fair's new name reflects its growing commercial importance. Ninety-one exhibitors from 20 countries are showing work by more than 1,000 artists, and tens of thousands of visitors are expected.

The event in Delhi has attracted a slew of international artists and dealers, all keen to get a slice of the still booming Indian market. This is the first time White Cube and the Zurich and London-based dealers Hauser & Wirth, as well as Damien Hirst's own Other Criteria gallery, have travelled to Delhi.

Suhel Seth, a Delhi-based analyst and lobbyist, said their presence reflected the growing importance of the Indian market. "This whole fair shows how the best galleries from across the world are making directly for India. The fair is running like clockwork and I've never seen so many chairmen of auction houses," said Seth, who had just paid more than £10,000 for a Hirst print.

Charlotte Nunn, manager of Other Criteria, said India was "relatively unexplored". Prices for Hirst's work on show at the fair ranged from £2,100 to £38,100. Many items featured bright colours – pinks and yellows – and glittering "diamond glass", and had in part had been selected to please Indian tastes, Nunn said.

Experts say art prices in India, as in China, have declined recently after surging through the last decade, but demand remains strong. "There is a serious interest in more cutting-edge Indian contemporary art for the first time," said Abhay Maskara, a dealer based in Mumbai, India's commercial capital. "The big museums are all sending teams. They are actively thinking that they need some Indian element in their collections and that is very new."

One problem remains India's notorious bureaucracy. Many exhibitors had brought works only to show rather than sell, to avoid risk paying punitive duties. Others complained that works had been damaged by customs officers. "It will get better as the art market develops but now you get the feeling there's no concept of 'fragile'," one said.

Beyond the international artists and dealers is a thriving experimental art scene in most major cities. Maskara represents Shine Shivan, from Kerala, in the south of India, who has created a series of vast works out of deer and cow dung.

Shivan, 28, who has exhibited at the Tate Modern as part of a group show in 2010, also works with birds nests, human hair and dentures. "It's the first day and so I'm waiting to see if I will sell. My work is very challenging though. My cow dung sculptures are 15 feet high and cost 600,000 rupees (£7,800)," Shivan said.

Not far from the fair's site in the urban sprawl of Delhi is the Khog International Artists Association, an independent non-profit group founded in 1997 to encouraging avant-garde activities,. where many of India's most famous current contemporary artists started. Pooja Sood, director of the group, said the booming market had advantages and disadvantages. "It was a very impoverished scene before … though when it becomes only about the market I have my reservations," she said. "[However] it's a very exciting time for India artistically and very good to be a part of it." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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