Indian art galleries join global frenzy for NFT artwork

Indian art galleries join global frenzy for NFT artwork with new blockchain ventures

Non-fungible token-based artworks are now a global craze, but a silent revolution to rewrite rules in India’s fledgling digital art market has already been underway. Several Indian artists have been dabbling in digital art for at least a decade.

When The Ritz-Carlton wanted to open its new hotel in Pune more than a year ago, the luxury hotel chain commissioned artist Ranbir Kaleka for a mural in the lobby. The work, which has won praise from celebrities like Shobhaa De and Kabir Bedi, interestingly hides the pictures of the hotel owners and that of the artist himself.

“The owners sent their photographs by email and I manipulated them digitally with thousands of photoshop layers to make the mural,” says Kaleka, one of India’s finest artists. The fantasy digital collage, printed on a large canvas, contains pictures of Pune’s architectural landmarks and one of the first ships to arrive in Mumbai from England reflecting Maharashtra’s history.

Artworks based on non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have exploded in popularity in recent months, selling for millions of dollars and opening lucrative opportunities for artists.  “Everydays – The First 5000 Days”, a digital work by American artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, sold for nearly $70 million at Christie’s last week, in the first ever sale by a major auction house of a piece of art that does not exist in physical form.

A Decade-Old Story

But in India, a silent revolution in the country’s digital art market has already been underway much earlier.

“For over a decade, my work has been mostly in the digital medium,” says Kaleka, who trained as a painter at the Chandigarh College of Art and the Royal College of Art, London. “For my ongoing shows in Taiwan and London, I just sent the digital files to the galleries. Even for a collector, I just have to send the digital file,” he adds.

The recent global buzz in digital art is expected to accelerate the interest in this type of work. Delhi-based Kaleka is one of the earliest known practitioners of digital art in India and his works like the Pune mural is  an example of digital artworks that have increasingly crept into catalogues of galleries across the country, altering market structures and strategies.

Galleries are cosying up to creating modern tools to cater to the market for digital art. At least two new blockchain ventures in Delhi alone are readying themselves to radically change the way digital art is bought.

Gigi Scaria, a participating artist at the Venice biennale in 2011, took a series of photographs of Old Delhi and digitally manipulated them to create Panic City, his 2007 video art that explored the uncertainty in a city that was undergoing changes ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. In Another, titled Who Deviated First (2010), Scaria showed Mahatma Gandhi’s followers walking in his opposite direction, digitally altering photographs of the famous Dandi March statue in Delhi.

Gigi Scaria's digital art, Who Deviated First, is a digital manipulation of photographs of the famous Dandi March statue in Delhi.Gigi Scaria’s digital art, Who Deviated First, is a digital manipulation of photographs of the famous Dandi March statue in Delhi.

“I travelled the same route Mahatma Gandhi walked for his Dandi March for Who Deviated First,” says Scaria, whose recent digital art is about a magician’s hat turning up different objects, such as a fake dead body, instead of rabbits and birds. “It is a connection to politics and contemporary society,” he adds.

Another digital work, which has turned heads, is Manjunath Kamath’s Pink elephant in bath tub (2015)The Delhi-based artist’s audacious work has a clutch of animals from monkeys to deer resting on a tiled room full of towering pillars and arched windows. Gallery Espace, which represents Kamath, has had a good year for the works of the Mangalore-born Kamath in the digital medium.

“We live in the digital times. Why must we not live with digital art?” says art collector Swapan Seth, whose acquisitions include digital artworks of Ayesha Singh, video art by Priyanka Dasgupta, sound work by Lala Rukh and Kiran Subbaiah’s. “Kiran Subbaiah’s computer-based work was the first digital art I brought over a decade ago from Chatterjee & Lal,” says Seth.

“Digital art offers a level playing field,” says Scaria. “The virtual world is the real world today. And the hard work of a digital artist doesn’t disappear because there is no physical existence. The uniqueness of the digital art is what fetches the money,” he adds, reflecting on the sensational sale of American digital artist Mike Winkelmann’s digital art for 69 million dollars last week.

The emphasis on uniqueness that Scaria notes is changing the way the digital market operates in the country.

The Value Of Blockchain In Art

Terrain.art, which promises to be the country’s first blockchain-powered online platform in the art market, is expected to go live by early April. “Nobody was paying attention to digital art earlier. Now, it has changed because of a lot of money, buoyancy and trade investment,” says Aparajita Jain, founder of Terrain.art, which will focus on contemporary art in South Asia and provide accessible educational resources on artistic practices.

Aparajita Jain, founder of Terrain.art, India's first blockchain-powered online platform in the art market, says India will see a great growth in the art market.Aparajita Jain, founder of Terrain.art, India’s first blockchain-powered online platform in the art market, says India will see a great growth in the art market.

The blockchain will certify the uniqueness and authenticity of a digital art, prone to fake deals. “Ours is a platform where artworks can be registered and assigned a digital token, and made available for sale on the marketplace, providing collectors a transparent, secure, and tamper-proof method of adding to their artwork collection,” says Jain.

“NFTs created using token standards enable users to link their collectibles, digital or physical, to a unique token, with ownership of that token residing with the person who mints or creates it. All of these transactions (minting and ownership transfer) happen on the blockchain network, which brings about transparency and the tamper-proof nature of blockchain ensures implicit trust in the system,” says Jain.

Another gallery, DAG, is also setting up a blockchain venture soon. Terrain.art is also relying on art galleries in the country to join the venture. “We are going to see a great growth in the Indian art market as tech money starts coming in,” says Jain. “Blockchain ventures mean those dealing with fakes will be afraid.”

Art collectors are excited at the new technological interventions in the digital art market. “I think blockchain and art are a marriage made in heaven,” says Seth. “It will also democratise art buying and get the younger, digital native art buyer in. Art urgently needs a transfusion of young collectors.”Many challenges, however, remain, especially convincing buyers more inclined to the traditional creation of art. “Your whole lifetime travels through your hand while making a brush stroke. The flourish, tremor of the hand, it is very humanised,” says Kaleka.

PUBLISHED BY– Moneycontrol

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