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Let art define your wealth

Only a few billionaires collect art with understanding, or passion. But it is only a matter of time before mediocrity of opinion in art is replaced by informed opinion

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

What do the rich do when they're not making money? Most of us would like to believe they're living the la dolce vita. But the lives of the rich and famous can be monotonous too, subject more to hyperbole than reality. They might acquire bigger and faster cars but remain stuck in the same traffic jams as you and I. Private jets and yachts bring attendant headaches of maintenance, regulations and paperwork. You can only have so much caviar without calling for a bowl of simple dal. Between Hugo Boss and bespoke tailoring is a need to blend in rather than stick out: Narendra Modi has received more flak than appreciation for the personalised fabric he flaunted recently. Actors and models may wear dazzling outfits on the red carpet, but can you think of one flamboyant Indian businessman apres Vijay Mallya who makes a similar entry? Too many of them are vegetarian, prefer dosas for lunch, and spend their free time watching TV with the family.

Yes, they have spending power - but how many more shoes, bags, ties and monogrammed shirts can you buy? You can have one or several houses but where are you most likely to feel at home? The finest whisky in your cellar might be 51 years old, but do you have friends who can tell the difference?

Which is why the biggest differentiator in the billionaire world continues to be art. You can own a Husain, but no two Husains are alike. Anyone with a bit of money can acquire a Raza, but finding the one that nobody else has is a high that no branded luxury product can provide. And if you can commission an artist to create a work specially for you, if you can outbid a competitor in an auction room irrespective of its value, if you can create conversations around art, you would have taken on the mantle not just of patronage but of a cultural legacy that stretches all the way back to the stirrings of the Indic civilisation as we know it.

It is this that hardens prices. Popular artists are sought for their recognisability. In the 1970s and '80s, you were considered wealthy and a connoisseur if you had a couple of Husains hanging on your living room walls. Today, there are more people who want a similar degree of acknowledgement and the bar has slid lower to include the middle class. Discernment sometimes follows, whether within the same artists' oeuvre, or from a growing understanding of the universe of art. The paintings and sculptures we live with not only have a longevity beyond our lives, they also become markers of society that reflects its zeitgeist. A work of art is circumscribed by history and geography, by popular culture, current events and trends, fashion, economy, prevalent moods and modes. In decades to come, scholars can swot over books to try and understand the times, or study art and find in it reflections and responses that hold up a mirror to those times.

Many of India's billionaires have only a passing interest in art, something they acquiesce to on the recommendation of their interior designer, or because it is seen as desirable. Only a few collect art with understanding, or passion. But it is only a matter of time before mediocrity of opinion in art is replaced by informed opinion. When that happens, Indian art will have come of age - not for the prices it represents, for that is a mere collateral to its larger picture - but for its ability to stir imagination, spur discussions, and create a legacy that no amount of Diors and LVs can recreate, though they might rule the billionaire roost today.

Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic.

These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated

First Published: Sat, February 14 2015. 00:07 IST