By NILANJANA S. ROY
NEW DELHI — At the India Art Fair, a mammoth annual event here that drew crowds of artists, curators, buyers and gawkers this year, it was clear where women belonged: on an equal platform with the men, often running the show. But their visibility also raised an old and tricky question: Why haven’t female artists caught up with the men when it comes to pricing?
The answer to that question isn’t obvious. At the Art Fair, as in the broader realm of Indian art, there seemed to be two levels at which women participated and were accorded respect. The works of women like the sculptor Hemi Bawa and the photographer Dayanita Singh drew as much attention as the works of men like Jitesh Kallat or Subodh Gupta. And the Indian art world is a hospitable environment for women in other roles — as gallery owners, art fund managers, curators and auction house managers.
Back in the 1940s, there was little room for female artists. Amrita Shergil was one of the few of that era to make her mark, but the advance of modernists in India was dominated by men for the next few decades. It was in the 1970s, the art historian and critic Gayatri Sinha recalls, that the floodgates opened for female artists. But while women have enjoyed equal gallery space and critical praise, their works haven’t commanded the same prices, and women don’t rank among India’s top five artists measured by the admittedly blunt instrument of sales figures.
“The difference in pricing is not a conscious gender divide,” said the art critic Deepanjana Pal, who is based in Mumbai. “Despite the fact that we have so many women gallerists and artists, the ones who are taken more seriously are the men. As a society, we take women less seriously. When you look at artist couples — Atul and Anju Dodiya, Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta — both might be taken equally seriously by critics, but for a long time, the pricing was completely different. It’s an unconscious bias.”
In 2010, there were a few signs that things might change. “Wish Dream,” a multipaneled canvas by Arpita Singh, an artist based in Delhi, sold at the Saffronart auction for $2.24 million — the highest price ever achieved for a work by an Indian woman at auction. (The highest price fetched by any Indian artist in recent times was $3.4 million, for “Saurashtra,” a painting by S.H. Raza, which sold the same year at Christie’s in London.)
One of Ms. Kher’s signature sculptures, a life-size elephant slumped on the floor, its skin marked with hundreds of bindis — the forehead decoration of many Indian women — sold at Sotheby’s, also in London in 2010, for a record $1.5 million, placing the artist in ninth position on a list of India’s 10 top-selling artists compiled by an art gallery in Delhi.
Opinion in the art world is divided on the question of whether these women are outliers, or indicators that women in general might be catching up with men in terms of pricing parity.
Anjali Purohit, an artist based in Mumbai whose career spans three decades, suggests that pricing is only one way to look at differences between the sexes in the arts, here and elsewhere.
“The situation in India reflects the status of women artists everywhere in the world,” she said. “How many women artists have gained prominence in the wider world? In India, if you look at why the work women artists produce is not taken seriously, start with their early careers. Men are seen as professional from the moment they start working as artists. Women have to prove their credentials, because they’re seen to have other competing priorities — children, the family. A gallery thinks before investing in a woman artist: How seriously does this woman take her art? Will she last?”
The same questions, Ms. Purohit and many female artists say, don’t apply to men.
Some women do break through, says Ms. Pal, the art critic, cautioning that there is a difference between “appreciation and valuation.” Kishore Singh, a former art critic who heads the Delhi Art Gallery, would agree, and he has a nuanced perspective to offer.
“We mustn’t forget that the contemporary Indian art scene started with about four women artists to 70 male artists, roughly, and it’s improved since then,” he said. The discrepancy in pricing is not conscious or obvious, he added, given that the market is driven by female artists, gallery owners and buyers — to a much greater extent than several other art markets.
He said he had noticed a pattern at his gallery that may be of some significance. As with many other buying experiences in India, from cars to household goods, he noted, women tend to do the browsing and selecting, but men tend to make the final decision. Mr. Singh’s observation is corroborated by many other art dealers, who say that women tend to be more curious, but men tend to control the checkbooks.
“When you look at the distance we’ve come over the last few decades,” Mr. Singh said, “you might argue that the art world has been getting more equal, on all fronts. Even with pricing, perhaps it’s catching up. Eventually it has to happen, as art becomes more democratized and as people concentrate less on the signature and more on the artwork.”
And perhaps, he said, the international art market might inadvertently contribute to gender-blind pricing in the Indian art world.
“A buyer or a collector abroad can’t tell from the names whether an artist is a man or a woman,” Mr. Singh said. “With Indian art becoming more international, that might actually work better for women.”
A version of this article appeared in print on February 1, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune.