Sonal Singh is Head of Department for South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art in Mumbai. In December 2013, Christie’s first auction in India realised a total of INR96,59,37,500 (US$15,455,000), doubling pre-sale estimates. Sonal is now looking forward to 11 December 2014, when Christie’s returns to the Taj Mahal Palace for its second sale of Indian art.
The first auction in India illustrated that Christie’s as an international auction house can and should be a successful and active player in the international and domestic Indian art markets. It has been a busy year for Sonal and the Mumbai office on the ground in India, looking at art and witnessing what is happening on the contemporary Indian art scene. Now that the catalogue for the December sale is complete, Sonal takes stock.
How did you come to join Christie’s?
It has been seven wonderful years since I joined the Mumbai office back in 2007, following my time as Director of Bodhi Art. In terms of my background and academic grounding, I actually started off with a broad, eclectic range of training. I studied design at Central Saint Martin’s College, and Modern and then Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s Education, before completing a Master’s degree in Art Business with Sotheby’s Institute of Art for which my dissertation focus was the Indian art market.
What has been your greatest discovery as a specialist?
To be able to handle the art first-hand is really the most thrilling experience. What I love most about my role, as I am sure is the same with all specialists here at Christie’s, is the privileged access I enjoy, being invited into people’s homes and discovering unseen works of art and learning first-hand the stories behind them. Being on the ground in India, I frequently travel all over the country finding myself in new places and seeing collections and hidden wonders where I least expect to find them. Last year’s cover lot, the Gaitonde, for example, came to us quite by chance and went on to break world records for modern Indian art. A different kind of discovery has been meeting and working with an incredible team, both here in Mumbai and internationally with colleagues based in New York and London.
What are your highlights from The India Sale?
This year’s sale comprises 80 lots, featuring both modern and contemporary works from various owners. The idea is to showcase the growth of South Asian art across the subcontinent from the Bengal School and the Bombay Progressives to the Baroda School and contemporary art. We have two wonderful Tyeb Mehta canvases. Girl in Love is a rare tender example of the artist’s early work dating from 1957, while our cover lot Untitled (Falling Bull) is a quintessential and monumental example of Tyeb’s most iconic motifs: bull, falling figure and rickshaw. I am also particularly excited by the Nasreen Mohammedi works on canvas and paper which show her signature disciplined minimalist style at its best.
This year we will also feature ten lots donated by a celebrated contemporary artist and offered to benefit Khoj International Artist’s Association. Khoj has been fundamental in supporting today’s superstars of contemporary art such as Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher and Atul Dodiya, helping to ensure the continuation of a rich and exciting artistic tradition.
What is the appeal of Indian art for you?
Indian art and culture, both past and present, fills me with pride, and is an endless source of inspiration. As our office is located in Colaba, the arts district of Mumbai, we are surrounded by galleries, museums and theatres, allowing us to be a central part of the art world here. There is a fantastically rich visual culture, both classical and contemporary. With our plans to include antiquities going forward, this will open up new and exciting forums and frontiers for us to explore and new discoveries to make. Desire, demand and engagement with the arts in India, from paintings and sculpture to writing and music, is growing and evolving; and contributing to and participating in that movement is an incredible feeling. Every painting has a story, a discovery to be made and shared. Working closely with artists over the course of my career has given me a much deeper understanding and appreciation of each individual artist’s work, and as such, every artist I have worked with has become special to me.
Which contemporary artists have you got your eye on?
I am delighted that the sale this year will offer a curated selection of more contemporary Indian art. For Christie’s in India this is new territory and we have chosen artists that enjoy international exposure but whose careers will surely grow exponentially. The self-portrait fibreglass sculpture by Balasubramaniam is an exciting and interesting piece from an artist who is always pushing boundaries. The portfolio of 36 works on paper by Zarina is her largest and most significant to date and shows the full range of her skills as a printmaker. Having already exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York and represented India in their first pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, she is an artist whose reputation continues to soar. I am also very excited that the extremely talented photographer Dayanita Singh has offered a commission work for the Khoj selection. I am intrigued to know how the final photograph will look for the lucky successful bidder who will have a bespoke family portrait taken at their home by Singh. Khoj has been critical in the role it has played in supporting young contemporary artists and I am sure that this nurturing will help unearth the next generation of great artists.