She Doesn’t Know Anything About Art. And She Won’t Tell You What She Likes

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Why Neha Kirpal, founder of the India Art Fair, is Delhi’s stealthiest diplomat

By Nisha Susan

The judgement of Delhi In 2011, the India Art Summit had 1,28,000 visitors
The judgement of Delhi: In 2011, the India Art Summit had 1,28,000 visitors

AT THE 2011 Art Summit, when photographer Ram Rahman introduced Ebrahim Alkazi to Neha Kirpal, the 86-year-old collector made a production of falling at Neha’s feet. Other people may express their admiration in more restrained ways, but Kirpal is one of the most well-liked people in the Indian art world. What makes it rather extraordinary is that she says (without any trace of defensiveness or inverted snobbery) to anyone who asks that she knows nothing about art. But this 30-year-old has been responsible for the single biggest shot of energy that the Indian art world has ever received.

In 2008, Kirpal had just returned from a stint in London, studying management. She was working with the public relations (PR) company Hanmer MS&L. Though she had worked in PR and event management before, London, its 9,000 galleries and feverish art scene had left her with a desire to do something more ambitious. “I do have a streak of patriotism and didn’t understand why we didn’t have a world-class art event in India. Indians travelling abroad make it a point to go to museums and galleries. It’s part of the culture, it’s on the map, it’s on everyone’s itinerary. You can’t come back from Paris and say you didn’t see the art. We just needed the infrastructure here,” she says. She began doing the research, sounding people out, crunching numbers. Kirpal concluded that the size and extent of the Indian art market was sadly underestimated. The country was full of people who’d buy art if only they could start somewhere non-threatening.

Photo: Garima Jain

Sitting in an aeroplane, one afternoon in 2008, it all came together. Kirpal wrote the business plan on the back of an airsickness bag, got off the plane and convinced her employers to loan her Rs 1 crore to create the Art Summit. Having got the miraculous finances, she then took a month off to get married. Back at work, she organised the first edition of the Art Summit in four months flat.

Four years down the line, the summit has been formally rechristened an Art Fair (to mark its about-to-break-even and commercially viable status). The 2012 edition will feature 91 exhibitors, a phalanx of a 1,000 contemporary artists from 20 countries (including Damien Hirst from White Cube and Marina Abramović from Lisson Gallery). From mid-January, every gallery in Delhi is dizzy planning either a cocktail party, power breakfasts, a grand launch or a visit to a studio — apart from their booths at the Art Fair itself, which runs from 25-29 January at NSIC Exhibition Grounds in New Delhi.

Latitude 28’s Bhavna Kakar pretends to moan that January is the month of big bills. On a similarly world-weary note, Peter Nagy of Nature Morte, says, “It’s all a bit much, from my perspective as a home-town gallery.” The complaining is ironic. The Art Fair is the single biggest platform for India’s art community and is galloping into hugeness. And neither Kakar nor Nagy (who has been on the selection committee from the first year) are exempt from the dizziness.

Kirpal wrote the business plan on an air-sickness bag, got off the plane and convinced her employers to loan her Rs 1 crore for the art fair

Galleries speak fondly of that first summit as a small affair. The truth is that in 2008, the summit, with 30-odd galleries in Pragati Maidan, had the quality of an enormous object suddenly descending from outer space. (Mumbai galleries balked en masse and said that it was too short notice for them to participate that first year; ask them about it now and they pretend it never happened.) Today Kirpal says it was not easy convincing people to take stalls that first year. Gallery owners Parul Vadehra of Vadehra Art Gallery and Shefali Somani of Shrine Empire Gallery remember it differently. They, like others, talk of the magical confidence and self-assurance with which Kirpal and her colleague Amrita Kaur approached them in 2008. “They had done all their homework. They had done their research,” says Vadehra. Adds Somani, “We took a leap of faith and never regretted it.”

The decision to call it a summit then was also a studied act of inclusion — one among many. Kirpal, Kaur and the rest of the team were not sure there was a full-fledged market in 2008. They did not expect to break even for a few years yet. Using the word ‘summit’, ensuring the programme was packed with lectures and seminars would send out the right signals, they thought. Kirpal was sure she wanted art scholars to be as involved as dyed-in-the-wool dealers and gallery owners. She was sure she wanted everyone. The fair’s outreach has been awe-inspiring from the first year. From networks of women professionals to school students, the art fair team contacted every person in the country who either had an existing interest in art or showed some potential interest. In that first year, they wondered if they would have 100 visitors. They had 10,000. The footfall has grown in three years from 10,000 to 1,28,000 visitors. A number that Kirpal approves of: “I have never wanted this to be a destination fair like Art Basel. I want this fair to build the domestic market.”

IN THEIR East of Kailash office, Kirpal and the rest of the team are dressed in plain Delhi winter gear. They are dressed for comfort and long hours. Kirpal has a meditative calm about her and a force-field of confidence. There are no raised voices, no oddly- shaped hipster glasses, no Prada footwear anywhere in sight. The low hum of activity in the office is deceptive. This group of young women works year round to make the fair happen. Currently, they are galvanising the transformation of NSIC Grounds from the mud up into a stylish venue. The good thing about the new venue is that it is tabula rasa and gallery owners are not restricted by the rules of Pragati Maidan. The bad thing about the new venue is that it is tabula rasa and the team has to ensure the installation of every faucet, the reinforcing of every stall floor, the insulation of every wire in the 12,000-square metre space. Not that they have a choice. No single venue in India has the readymade infrastructure for the particular needs of an international art fair: temperature control, humidity control, lighting, easy access, flair. Not to mention the odd 600-kg art object that requires a booth to be built around it.

Does she sleep with Georgia O’ Keefe prints over her wall? Does she have a secret thing for Ravinder Reddy heads? Only the Shadow knows

Fair manager Kaur says they have driven their vendors to the precipice and back with their eye for tiny detail and extremely strict deadlines. “But now I think they are also beginning to enjoy it. Today, one of our vendors arrived with a 3D demo of the registration stall he is creating and we were in shock. But he was very enthu about showing us the demo.”

A good experience at the venue is the single biggest factor that the art fair managers need to ensure and Kirpal’s team are characterised by their refusal to relax their high expectations. Falter and they will pick you up but you better want to keep up. The collective professionalism and ambition to meet global standards is perhaps the biggest impact that the art fair has had on the larger art scene. Every gallery that wishes to participate has to submit a weighty and elaborate application. A rotating committee scans the applications to keep the quality of work showing in the fair high. Kishore Singh, Delhi Art Gallery’s (DAG) affable and obsessive director of exhibitions, says, “What they have brought is not a mindset that we have seen earlier. Usually, we start something small, there are a few skirmishes and fights, and it dies. Here they have steadily scaled up. I can imagine the 40th edition or the 60th edition and people looking back fondly at where it started.”

This year, Kirpal has divested a 49 percent stake in the art fair to two stakeholders, Sandy Angus and Will Ramsey, co-founders of the Hong Kong Art Fair, to create a larger network. The India Art Fair is the entity that Neha Kirpal wants out there, not herself.

Kirpal, who grew up in Delhi, the middle-class daughter of a businessman and a housewife, says she had no exposure to the arts while growing up. She studied music as a child, was a junior-terrifying sports captain, had a good head for numbers, went to Lady Shri Ram College and that was that. Today, it’s unlikely that Kirpal knows as little about art as she says she does. Prod her and she admits that “one has been exposed after so many years at art fairs around the world”. But that is all you ever find out. Does she sleep with Georgia O’ Keefe prints over her wall? Does Koons make her giggle? Does she have a secret thing for Ravinder Reddy heads? Only the Shadow knows. And that’s how it’ll stay if she intends to keep her Switzerland-like position. DAG’s Singh says, “The art industry needed someone like Neha, someone from outside the fraternity to resolve the complicity within the fraternity, who is interested only in the business of fairs and not playing up to fashions.”

More is afoot in Kirpal’s den. The Affordable Art Fair is coming in a few months. The Collectors’ Circle is taking off wherein first-time collectors (including those from small cities like Ludhiana and Aligarh, says Kirpal) can subscribe to a programme in which they receive guidance from those with museum-worthy collections. Does she never have sleepless nights? Didn’t she have one with that Rs 1 crore loan? She smiles in a saintly way and says something astonishing. “Not because of anxiety. I don’t worry,” adding, “If I am sleepless, it is because I’m making lists of tasks for the next day.”

The truth is that Neha Kirpal is the rare and formidable creature who craves and enjoys organisational challenges, the way a certain kind of medieval knight heard the call for bloody crusade in his head. With her characteristically gentle smile, she says, “I knew I couldn’t live in London. Everything there has already been done before. I had to come to India. I wanted to build something from scratch, do something that no one has done before.”

Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka.
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