The Gallerist

Peter Nagy and the rise of contemporary Indian art

The recently opened Nature Morte in The Oberoi, Gurgaon.
01 December, 2011

YOU NEED THREE THINGS to run an art gallery successfully—the knowledge of art, knowledge of the history of art and how to talk the talk,” I was told by Peter Nagy who runs the Gallery Nature Morte in Delhi, Gurgaon and Berlin. Anyone who knows him even casually will agree he is not lacking in the third quality.

On a pleasant early-November Sunday evening, the gallery in Delhi was hosting an annual fundraiser for KHOJ—a nonprofit organisation that has been promoting alternative and experimental art, mostly in Delhi, since it was established, like Nature Morte, in 1997. The evening had just begun—the first guests were trickling in and finishing touches were still being put to the paintings, photos and sculptures on display that had been donated by the artists.The occasion was a little more special than a regular show opening for the gallery and there were additional flourishes—soothing ambient music filled the space as classical guitarist Shyamant Behal warmed up for his recital; and a very well-lit and large temporary bar sponsored by a fashionable gin brand, stood on the gallery’s back lawn.

I was in the lawn with a friend, a young textile designer associated with KHOJ, who saw Nagy and called out to him. Dressed in trousers with bold stripes and a brown denim jacket, Nagy came over and joined us. With the preparations completed, he finally looked relaxed. As always, his brown hair was stylishly set, and he was sporting his greying stubble and his round wire-frame Gandhi glasses. He checked the time on his mobile phone and said he wanted to join us for a drink, but would wait for another 11 minutes until it was six o’ clock. My friend suggested a cocktail from the glowing bar behind us but Nagy made a face. “I don’t drink gin,” he declared. “I have some very good wine inside.”

The two broke into an easy conversation and Nagy complimented my friend on the shirt he was wearing, appreciating its oversized collar. He in turn offered to make a similar shirt for Nagy as a present, and they continued talking about clothes and tailored clothing until Nagy held up his mobile, looked at it and turned its screen towards us. It was six o’ clock. “Ring, ring! Time for a drink,” he said, and disappeared.

Nagy can be very expressive when he talks, often with a touch of drama. When he concentrates on what he is saying, which is quite often, he wears an intense expression, speaks quickly and his eyebrows bob up and down with almost every word he utters. After he has made his point, he visibly relaxes and often slips into a deliberately jovial sing-song style of talking, modulating his voice and stretching his words.

It is rare for an Indian to have the kind of command over the English language that an articulate American like Nagy has. In India, where how well you speak English determines your position in society, this can be a big plus. This is just one of the reasons why when Nagy talks, people listen. His employees quietly follow his instructions, and those connected with the art world pay attention because he runs Nature Morte which is among India’s most successful galleries that show contemporary art and which represents many of India’s most well known contemporary artists. When I was on the art and culture beat for Mint and used to call Nagy for input, I would get the distinct feeling that I was speaking with a busy man—he would reply to my queries quickly and to the point. Usually, what he said would become a key element in the story.

Subodh Gupta’s ‘Twins’ from his show Oil on Canvas at Nature Morte. COURTESY NATURE MORTE

In January this year, Subodh Gupta—Nature Morte’s superstar artist—displayed a bronze sculpture of kneaded dough sprinkled with real flour at his solo show at the gallery. The reviews were peppered with terms like “massive audacity” and “in your face”. Much of the Indian middle class and their wealthier counterparts cannot relate to this kind of art. The phrase used to describe an artwork that is nontraditional, and looks puzzling rather than attractive, is “modern art”, and plenty of contemporary art, a catchall phrase for a lot of art being produced in India since the mid-1980s, falls in this category.

Nevertheless, the visibility of contemporary art and artists, and its market, is growing, spurred by India’s embrace of neoliberal reforms in 1991, by the subsequent fast-paced economic growth, and by the winds of globalisation blowing across the country. Eighty-four galleries from 20 countries set up stalls at the third annual India Art Fair held in Delhi in January this year and 128,000 people came to see the art, most of it contemporary, on display. A new class of wealthy people in India and Non-Resident Indians in the US and Europe have begun collecting art, though, as Nagy points out, collectors’ tastes remain conservative and veer towards paintings. Works by the older established generation of artists, the Modernists and the Progressives, top the market—in 2005 Tyeb Mehta’s painting ‘Mahishasura’ became the first ever work by an Indian to sell for over a million dollars ($1.6 million), and in 2010 Syed Haider Raza’s ‘Saurashtrafetched $3.4 million at an auction.

“The late 1990s to the later part of the next decade is when the party began and lasted,” says Delhi-based artist Anita Dube who has worked with Nagy since 1997. The contemporary Indian art market grew, fuelled in part by demand overseas, and a new generation of talented artists—Subodh Gupta, Sudarshan Shetty, Jitish Kallat, Bose Krishnamachari and Bharti Kher, among others. The absolute boom years—when art buying turned into a mania, both globally and in India—lasted from 2005 until September 2008, when the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed in the US and triggered the economic recession in the West. The art market bubble burst in India too, and hasn’t quite recovered. Reliable figures for the size of the contemporary Indian art market are hard to come by, but according to Arun Vadehra of Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, the annual art business turnover in India is estimated at $300-400 million.

Subodh Gupta is one of the top contemporary artists who Nature Morte represents. BIPLAB MUZIBAR RAHAMAN / DELHI PRESS IMAGES

Nagy’s arrival on the scene from the US in 1992 coincided with the beginning of these developments, though his commitment to contemporary art began when not many cared for it in India. Since he set up Nature Morte (a phrase that translates from the French to ‘Still Life’), he has turned it into one of India’s most successful art galleries, representing many of the best-selling current contemporary artists and introducing them to the international art world. Besides Subodh Gupta, the heavyweights include Bharti Kher (Gupta’s wife), Dayanita Singh, the artist team (Jiten) Thukral & (Sumir) Tagra, Mithu Sen, Jitish Kallat, Jagannath Panda, Raqs Media Collective, Bharat Sikka and Anita Dube. In a typical season, which lasts from August to April, the gallery hosts eight shows in Delhi, almost all of them solo exhibitions of new works. The gallery in Berlin, which he opened in 2008, also hosts eight shows a year, featuring a mix of Indian and international artists.

“I used to show with [Gallery Espace in Delhi] but when I changed my work in 1995-96 and began doing different kinds of work—installations and object-based work—no one was supporting me here,” Subodh Gupta told me. “Peter was showing my kind of art. He took that risk.”

Gupta grew up in a small town outside Patna and graduated from the Patna University’s College of Arts and Crafts. He first gained recognition in Europe in the early 1990s for his installations made of everyday stainless steel and copper utensils found in any kitchen in India—thali, lota, tiffin carriers. Nagy told me that currently the price of a painting by Gupta starts at `15 million.

“When I first started working with him ... we couldn’t sell his work anywhere,” Nagy told a television reporter from CNN who had come to the gallery in New Delhi to interview him for a film on Gupta. “Maybe some people were buying some paintings, but certainly not the sculptures—the pots and pans. People thought I was nuts showing these things.”

Peter Nagy at Gallery Nature Morte in Niti Bagh. BIPLAB MUZIBAR RAHAMAN / DELHI PRESS IMAGES

Nagy made it clear however that he did not make Gupta’s career—in India or in Europe. He said it was entirely because of Gupta’s determination, extreme hard work and his wife Bharti Kher’s guidance that he has made it this big. (“He works like a fucking dog,” Nagy later told the reporter, off camera.)

This January, Subodh Gupta gave a guided tour of his ongoing show at Nature Morte. Nagy addressed the assembled guests before the tour began, and if anyone thought he would yield the floor to Gupta after saying just a few words, they were mistaken. What followed was an extended and lucid description of Gupta’s own line of thinking and his discussions with Nagy before he began making the sculptures and installations for the show. Nagy candidly mentioned how artists, Gupta included, often come to him with what they think is a very novel idea for making new works, but which is in fact a predictable next step for them. On display as part of the new show were two marble tiffin carriers, the classic emblem of middle class India that Gupta has repeatedly used in his work.

Nagy has made India his home, and has carved a successful career selling contemporary Indian art, but he is the first to admit that he mostly sells to buyers outside India. In the process, he has raised the profile of contemporary Indian art internationally. (With the grim outlook for the economy in Europe, he is now selling three-quarters of his works in India.) “[Peter] knew what the West was looking for. He was at the right place at the right time,” says curator Alka Pande.

When Nagy—who grew up in the suburbs of New York and graduated from the prestigious Parsons School of Design in the city—wants to explain why his gallery finds fewer buyers in India, he tends to refer to Marcel Duchamp. In New York in 1917, Duchamp bought a urinal, the kind found in public bathrooms for men, flipped it on its back by 90 degrees, called it Fountain and submitted it as a work of art for an exhibition. At the time, the show’s organisers refused to display it, but today Fountain is acknowledged as one of the most influential works of art of the 20th century.

In the time that I spent with him at his gallery in Delhi and its brand new counterpart, the Nature Morte gallery in Gurgaon, I heard him mention Duchamp at least three times. Once, it was to the CNN television reporter, also an American. He was explaining to her why conservative Indian collectors might consider buying Gupta’s paintings but not his installation work. He told her—as he had told me some days earlier—that Indians are largely unaware of Duchamp and some other key 20th-century trends in art such Pop Art and Surrealism.

In a jokey vein, he added that he had little patience with them when they come to the gallery. “I go, you don’t like Marcel Duchamp? Okay, bye!” he said, breaking into sing-song and stretching the ‘bye’. “And they [the prospective buyers] look at me, and they say ‘uh – huh’. And they leave [thinking], ‘This guy is weird!’”

I asked him if he ever tried to educate such visitors. He said that he did not have the patience. “I tell them to look at our website,” he said.

Swapan Seth, who runs an advertising agency in Delhi, has bought works by Dube, Mithu Sen, Seher Shah and Abhishek Hazra from Nature Morte and has known Nagy for 10 years. “He is called arrogant and rude by many, but he would like to deal with collectors who are like him,” he says about Nagy. Seth also values the fact that Nagy never imposes anything on buyers, and that he doesn’t wear his knowledge of art on his sleeve. “From him it is never a push, more of a nudge,” he says.

The Nature Morte website lists 37 affiliated artists, but Nagy told me that the gallery’s level of involvement with each artist varies, as does the domain of representation. For instance, he represents Gupta and Kher in India only; he has never been involved with their dealings in Europe, the biggest market for their works. On the other hand, he represents Atul and Anju Dodiya outside India only. He is actively working with 12-15 artists and that is all he can handle. He says he can’t take on any new artist regardless of how good he or she is.

In 2006, Nature Morte became the first Indian gallery to have a presence at the prestigious Art Basel international contemporary art fair; and until this year it remained the only Indian gallery to have a booth in the fair’s main section. The gallery also has a booth at the FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain) fair in Paris every year.

Nagy claims he has no idea of how much money Nature Morte makes. “I am so bad at business!” he says. But he does quote figures when he starts talking about how bad business has been after the market crash of September 2008, and how “all the money in the bank is gone”. To have a booth at an art fair in Europe costs ¤60,000-70,000, he says, talking about booth costs, shipping costs, hotels, meals and plane tickets like a savvy veteran. The returns post-crash have often been paltry according to him. At the Paris Photo fair in November 2008 he sold only one photo, by Dayanita Singh for ¤6,000. “I made ¤2,500,” he says. The lowest point came in November 2008, when Nature Morte mounted what remains its most ambitious exhibition, showcasing works by 13 of its artists, at the Phillips de Pury & Company auction house in London. It was a big flop—both in terms of attendance and sales.

Original works of art, even those made by new artists who are not famous, cost a lot of money—a painting priced at, say, `50,000 is considered cheap. Appropriately, perhaps, the recently opened Nature Morte gallery space in Gurgaon is housed in the luxury hotel The Oberoi.  The gallery is at one end of a long hall that has a few boutiques of international ‘fashion houses’ that sell very highly-priced women’s footwear, ‘bespoke’ men’s suits and other articles of clothing. (“This costs two lakh rupees,” Nagy had told me, pointing at a suit in one of the shop windows.)

The space is meant to house an assortment of artwork made by different artists that will rotate from time to time. Prices of the current lot are listed from `300,000 to `9.9 million. Buying a work usually involves bargaining, and the artist keeps two-thirds of the revenue and the gallery holds on to one-third.  When I asked Nagy what he was willing to say on record about the use of black money in the art business, he made big eyes, broke into a smile and replied, “Nothing.” (The other thing he declined to talk about on record was his personal life; he is 53 years old and un-married.)

Aditya Pande’s digital print ‘ You are Here’ is currently on display at Nature Morte in Gurgaon. COURTESY NATURE MORTE

A good sample of contemporary Indian art is on display at the Gurgaon gallery. There is a digital print by Aditya Pande titled ‘You are Here’ that features a wild mishmash of ultrafine lines that look like computer generated doodles, large, coloured patches and a partly obscured sketch of a naked man and woman, which has been copied from the plaque affixed on the Pioneer 10 and 11 space exploration missions that were launched in the early 1970s. The work,  priced at `1 million, seems to dare you to make sense of it, much like Pande’s other two prints on display.

There are two prints, each listed for `750,000, by the US-based artist Chitra Ganesh who copies the format of panels from Amar Chitra Katha children’s comic books, which were first published in 1967 and feature historical and mythological stories. The similarity ends there, for these prints depict bizarre, nude, vaguely erotic female figures floating in a surreal psychedelic dreamscape—one has a split-open body and a plant stalk coming out from her mouth, and another doesn’t have a head.

Much more straightforward by comparison is Ravinder Reddy’s life-size gold-leaf covered fibreglass sculpture of a nude woman with a realistic middle-aged body and a folk-art inspired head. Listed at `9.9 million, it is the most expensive item on display here.

Like elsewhere, contemporary art in India has been influenced by everything that precedes it. It is inspired by, borrows from and reinvents diverse Indian and foreign artistic traditions. The evolution of art and aesthetics in India over the past couple of centuries has been marked by the strong influence of European or Western art, which it came into contact with when the British established their rule here. In the 18th and the 19th centuries, the so-called Company School of art emerged, marked by an objective and realistic depiction of life and nature, but one which also tended to romanticise and idealise the Indian reality. In what can be seen as a response, the Bengal School of Art developed in the early 1900s, and turned its back on Western influences. Led by Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and others, it was strongly influenced by the Swadeshi movement of the time and drew inspiration from ancient and medieval Indian paintings while borrowing techniques from other Asian cultures such as Japan.

By the time India attained independence from colonial rule in 1947, there were already many art colleges in the country, and many artists felt the need to create art that was not only ‘Indian’ but also ‘Modern’. Artists like MF Husain, FN Souza and SH Raza established the influential Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947 with a stated desire to break free from received artistic traditions and were heavily influenced by the European styles such as Abstract Expressionism and Post-Impressionism.

“Modernism had a dual mandate in a post-colonial society,” says poet, art critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote. “To participate in the international language of the time, while staying faithful to the post-Independence spirit of forging a new identity that was rooted in the Indian reality.” This tension between Indian and Western had lessened by the 1970s, when the Post-Modernist style emerged in Indian art. The contemporary art era began in the mid-1980s and the early 1990s—globalisation was the new buzzword, and by then the anxiety over Western influence on Indian art had largely faded away.

NAGY CAME TO INDIA in November 1992 with the intention of spending a year here; and at the end of one year he decided to stay on. At the time, he was a successful artist and had had solo shows in galleries in Italy and Switzerland. He came as a practising artist, chose Delhi as his base, and attended artist residencies in Baroda and Ahmedabad. He had first come in 1990 as a tourist and came back because, as he said in an interview, he had “become infatuated with [India] at many levels”.

Nagy has spoken about his past in many interviews; from the beginning, he seems to have pursued a two-track career—that of an art gallery owner and an artist. After he graduated from Parsons with a degree in Communication Design—which involved taking courses in graphic design and advertising—Nagy and a friend opened Gallery Nature Morte in 1982 in New York’s East Village. A year later, he started showing his own art in other galleries in New York.

“Peter was one of the most intellectual figures of the East Village—which was the centre of the art world in the 1980s. But unlike other intellectuals, he could actually talk art history and theory, while still remaining very down to earth about the realities of art and other artists’ work,” writes Richard Milazzo, a curator and critic, and a friend of Nagy’s, in an email.

In the 1980s, Nagy was at the centre of a thriving art scene in New York, showing artists who made neo-conceptual and appropriation art in his gallery. By 1988 he had become a successful artist and decided to close Nature Morte. He describes his own art as an evolution of 1960s pop art in the altered context of the 1980s. As he has explained in past interviews, the art scene was shifting from the East Village to the other parts of the city and rather than follow that trend and “take the gallery to the next level”, he decided to focus on making art himself.

This he continued doing until after he had shifted to India. “Life takes you in directions and there is only so much you can do,” he told me when I asked him why he had stopped being a fulltime artist. In 1991, he was showing his art at two galleries, one in New York and one in Cologne, Germany. Both gallery owners were supportive of his one-year stint in India, agreeing that it would be good for his art. During his first year in India, 1992-93, he made a body of work that he showed in 1993 at a gallery in Milan and in Venice. He spent 1994-95 travelling around India, which is when he says he realised that he would stay here. This time the reaction of the galleries was different. “They said, ‘Don’t do this. We will not be able to work with you. You are just too far away,’” Nagy told me. “The Cologne guy specifically says, ‘Go to Rome. Go to Paris. But do not go back to India.’” Nagy told them he was going anyway. According to Milazzo, his friends and family were “very much astonished by both decisions: to leave the US and to live and work in India”.

His New York gallery didn’t drop him, but, as Nagy put it, it was “very much, [a case of] out of sight out of mind”. He has continued to make art on the side and even had a show at the Chemould Prescott Road gallery in Mumbai in 2004. “[Shireen Gandhy of Chemould] was a good friend,” he says. “She liked my paintings, she wasn’t embarrassed by them.” Nagy made eight paintings for the show. “She sold three paintings and sent [the rest] back to me, because she wasn’t even trying to represent me.” He says he has half-done works lying in his house, but never has the time to look at them. In New York in the coming year, he will show two works, one new and one old, at a retrospective show of East Village artists from the 1980s.

After his second year in India, Nagy decided to start his own gallery here, having met many artists who he felt he would be able to work with. Among them was Anita Dube. Trained as an art historian and critic, Dube had become an artist herself; she makes what are known as ‘sculptural fragments’ out of everyday material such as foam, glass eyes, human bones and velvet. It all must have seemed very radical in the late-1990s. “The other galleries were not responsive to what we were showing. They liked to show Manjit Bawa and Arpita Kaur,” Dube says. But it was just the kind of thing that would appeal to Nagy. “There was a show in the lobby of Kamani sometime in 1995-96, where I saw Anita Dube’s work,” he recalls. “It was very radical—installations, sculptures using found objects. I was impressed.”

Nagy set up Nature Morte again in 1997, but this time in Delhi—for the first few years of its second life, the gallery did not have a fixed venue. The first season of shows, from November 1997 to March 1998, was held at New Delhi’s newly set-up cultural space, the India Habitat Centre. The first show, called Nirguna/Saguna, had four Indian and four international artists including Dube, Vivan Sundaram and Nagy’s friend, Joseph Kosuth, who is considered the father of conceptual art. Dube recalls being thrilled to be shown alongside international artists such as Kosuth and established ones like Sundaram. “He broke down these hierarchies. That was a great start,” she says.

The show featured a video, sculpture, installation and a neon piece—all very radical for the time. “The high society crowd walked in, expecting the usual,” says Nagy. “And it blew them away.” They found the show “shocking”. The art crowd was more accepting. For that season, he stuck to the formula of mixing Indian and foreign artists, and of showing “a complicated mix” of artworks. He had no money then, certainly no money to fly in foreign artists. He would often request friends to bring their works in their suitcases.

For the next season, the gallery moved to the Qutub Colonnade, a boutique and restaurant complex near the Qutub Minar. They stayed open longer on Thursday nights because of a weekly late night party at the venue next door with Page 3 personalities in attendance. That season ended on one such Thursday in April 1999, when the model Jessica Lall was shot dead there. For the next season they shifted to the Lokayata Mulk Raj Anand Centre situated in Hauz Khas Village.

According to Dube, before Nagy arrived on the scene all the galleries were showing works by Modernists. “He gave us a sense of breaking through—otherwise it had been insular,” she recalls. “It was liberating.”

Among Nature Morte’s early patrons were the collectors Lekha and Anupam Poddar, and Nitin Bhayana. In the meantime, Nagy had met Arani Bose and Steven Pacia, two New York-based neurologists and avid art collectors. In 1994, they had opened a gallery in New York, Bose Pacia, that showed contemporary Indian art, and Nagy began working for them while based in New Delhi. He was writing catalogue essays for their shows and helping them organise group shows in New York. In 2003, Bose became a partner in Nature Morte with a 51 percent stake and Nagy finally had the money to get a permanent gallery space, which it still occupies in Neeti Bagh in New Delhi. As per Indian law, Nagy, being a foreigner, cannot own a majority stake in the gallery; he is residing here on a 10-year business visa.

Nagy also partnered with them to open the Bose Pacia gallery in Kolkata in 2007, but they had to leave that space after a devastating fire broke out in the building in 2010. They decided not to reopen the gallery. “It was fun. The space was great. But in three years we never sold a single piece of work to someone who lived in Calcutta,” Nagy says. Another space in which Nagy is a partner, the Bose Pacia gallery in New York, will stop functioning commercially at the end of this month.

Nagy says that with the US now facing a prolonged recession, his friends in New York compliment him on his foresight in moving to India. But naturally, at the time he had no clue that globalisation and the Internet were round the corner. As in every other business, the Net has changed the landscape of the art world—Nature Morte now sells three-quarters of its art through the Internet.

“The contemporary art gallery is a modern practice that comes from the West,” says Alka Pande, who has worked with Nagy on many occasions and has been associated with the world of Indian art as a teacher, curator and writer for many years. “Art buying and collecting [has] also come from the West. In India you used to have artists on your payroll.”

In Pande’s opinion, the art world in India is still “grey”—it is largely run informally and lacks “maturity”. According to her, one telling symptom of this state of affairs is the number of “rich housewives” who have set up art galleries here. They can do it, she says, because, “you need a large space in a trendy area, you need money and real estate to install shows.” But, she points out, putting up an art show also involves things such as signing contracts, a formal division of work and preparing quality art catalogues. “There is a narrative to hanging a show,” she says. “Housewives can’t do that.”

“[Peter] has deep amounts of professionalism, commitment and integrity. He is very hardworking,” she says. “He has knowledge and a great eye. He understands the international market better. He understands the avant garde and the experimental, [though] not the traditional [Indian] art practices.”

Hoskote also acknowledges Nagy’s skills in running an art gallery: “He brought the committed gallery practice that one finds in the US, France and Germany, where one works over a sustained period of time with an artist. It marked a shift that is still not visible to everyone.” He notes how being an artist himself has helped Nagy. “There are two kinds of gallery practices,” he says. “One kind, which is what we have had here, begins with commercial assumptions and then will evolve into something more. [Here] the gallerist brings his expertise as a dealer. The other kind starts with the gallerist as a co-participant in a subculture—as an artist or as a friend of the artist. Peter belongs to the second kind.”

India has had art galleries at least since the late 1940s; and fifty Indian galleries set up booths at the India Art Fair last January. But Nature Morte broke new ground. As Hoskote points out, Nagy came to India without any preconceptions; he established a connection with the young emerging artists and worked with them. “Peter was able to identify artists who at the time had few opportunities, and was able to provide them with an amplified sense of what was possible in their practice and career,” he says. For him, Nagy’s professional approach is nothing short of a “paradigm shift—his sustaining their art with critical feedback, response and international opportunities”.

Arun Vadehra inside his office at the Vadehra Gallery. BIPLAB MUZIBAR RAHAMAN / DELHI PRESS IMAGES

Two galleries that offered Nagy serious competition when he opened Nature Morte in 1997 were Gallery Espace, run by Renu Modi, and the Vadehra Art Gallery run by Arun Vadehra. Today, these two, along with Nature Morte, remain the preeminent galleries in Delhi. Vadehra set up his gallery in 1987 and—along with works by big ticket Modernist artists like MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta and SH Raza, as well as younger Modernists such as Arpita Singh and Ganesh Pyne—he represents upcoming and established contemporary artists such as Atul and Anju Dodiya (in India), Shilpa Gupta, Hema Upadhyay and Sumedh Rajendran.

Vadehra pays handsome compliments to Nature Morte for what it has achieved, but is emphatic that Nagy was not a pioneer who singlehandedly built a market for contemporary art in India. “I wouldn’t go that far,” he says. “A lot of us have been doing contemporary art. We gave Subodh Gupta the first prize in a talent competition in 1994. We have been showing Atul and Anju Dodiya since 1992.” Vadehra backs his claim with the common-sense logic that it would be myopic for any business to neglect future sources of income. “Sure, Moderns provide the necessary revenue stream, but Contemporary are the future,” he says. “We are all aware that we have to look for new talent. Chemould and Sakshi [in Mumbai] have been showing [contemporary art] for ages and ages.”

Besides, there is the inevitable generational shift in preferences to consider. “[Those] above fifty [years old] buy Moderns, and [those] under forty buy Contemporary only ... [The younger set] can’t afford Moderns and their tastes are different,” he says, offering as proof a look at the walls in his house and those in his daughter’s who lives across the road from him.

Peter Nagy helps with the hanging of an exhibition at the Anant Art Gallery in October 2008. TOM PIETRASIK / GETY IMAGES

Nagy does not collect any art himself, except very occasionally for a fundraiser. He says he is not into acquiring things, pointing out that he prefers to pay rent for all his gallery and office spaces, as well as for his house in Delhi where he has lived for the past 15 years. He is, he says, “into experiences, not possessions”—he likes to wear nice clothes, always flies business class, stays in high-end hotels and takes vacations to Italy and Greece.

Travelling is an integral part of his professional life, too. In September, he went to Tokyo for a Thukral & Tagra solo show, and then on to the Shanghai Art Fair, where Nature Morte had a booth. In mid-September, Nagy was in Rome where a group of his artists are currently showing at the Indian Highway exhibition at the year-old MAXXI museum. From there he went to Berlin to install a show by Jagannath Panda at the Nature Morte gallery there. On the way back to Delhi, he took a break in Istanbul to check out the art biennale there. He was back in Delhi the following week to install the Aditya Pande solo show at the new space in Gurgaon. After the Pande opening, he left for Mumbai for a couple of days to attend the Sheba Chhachhi show there, and was back in town to install the M Pravat show at the Delhi gallery. After that, he was in Berlin on business—he is looking for a new space for the gallery there and there was also the Schandra Singh show to install. Back in Delhi after a week, he had the KHOJ fundraiser to install at the Delhi gallery. That adds up to three shows in Delhi which he installed and two more in Berlin, in a span of six weeks. Many Delhi galleries average one show every two months.

When he is in town, his schedule can be as hectic. We went over his evening calendar for one week in October in Delhi: Monday was dinner at the German cultural attaché’s; Tuesday was an opening at the Triveni gallery; Wednesday was the Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh opening at the Lalit Kala Akademi; Thursday, a series of show openings at four galleries in Lado Sarai, followed by dinner at writer and curator Yashodhara Dalmia’s; Friday was the M Pravat opening at the Nature Morte gallery; and Saturday was the opening and dinner for the Delhi Photo Festival.

Gupta’s installation ‘Atta’ from the same exhibition. COURTESY NATURE MORTE

Nagy clearly enjoys company, and his genial social persona is integral to his professional success. But he admits that even after having lived in Delhi for so long his social life is limited to his contacts in the art world. He reminisces about the year he lived in Noida in 1992-93, and seems bemused recalling how his social interactions went nowhere. Apparently people would invite this firangi artist for a cup of tea, hear his story and that would be it. “Once they hear your story, now you are no longer a mystery. But they are really not interested in being your friend,” he says with a smile. “I didn’t know anybody and I was desperate for social contact and it didn’t happen.” Nagy finds people in Mumbai much more outgoing and sociable than in Delhi. “There are people I know in Delhi for almost 20 years and they are still kind of cold and standoffish,” he says.

I asked him if he sees himself as an ambassador of Indian art—with all the Indian art and artists he promotes at international venues. “Even when I came here first and I found these artists to work with, I kind of knew from the nature of their work that they were going to have more success outside of India than in India,” he replied. Then, fumbling for words because he did not want to appear to be praising himself, he pointed out that at the big show of contemporary Indian art at the Centre Pompidou in Paris this summer, there were nine Nature Morte artists. “So if it is any gallery that has the most artists in these shows it is me, because the European and American curators kind of have the same taste.”

His long personal and professional association with contemporary Indian art came out strongly when he was chatting with the CNN reporter and telling her how many people overseas don’t know much about it. Nagy acted out an impromptu skit about how unaware buyers at the Basel fair show up at the Nature Morte booth, and how he can read their minds.

“You take a work to Basel and [the foreign buyer] turns the corner. They see the [Indian] painting and they go, ‘Ha!’ They see the signs that it is from India, [and] they still think subconsciously that stuff from India is going to be cheap, and they go up. And you can see their eyes! –

[They are thinking] ‘I am going to get this fantastic painting for 5,000 euros!’

And then they are like, ‘How much is this [for]?’

And you go, ‘50,000 euros.’

And they go, ‘Fifteen?’

And you go, ‘No. Fifty.’

And they are crestfallen!”

By now Nagy’s eyes are lit up with glee. “About half of them walk away, [thinking], ‘We missed it.’ And the other half kind of hang out, [wondering], ‘Well, what the hell is going on?’ and look at the catalogue.”

If you ask him what it is that he likes about India, he says a bit blandly that it is the culture and the food. How he enjoys Carnatic music but doesn’t like Indian classical dance. It is, in a way, more instructive to hear about his ambivalent feelings towards Switzerland—home to Art Basel—which he makes out to be the antithesis of India.

“The Swiss do art like you cannot believe; just exquisite,” he says, as he unwinds with a glass of wine at the Delhi gallery in the evening. “They have only seven million people. Its nuts, they’ve got seven million people here in Saket [in South Delhi]! [Switzerland] has always been very wealthy. Isn’t that insane? It has always had lots of collectors and old museums. And the way they do their shows, just amazing. The presentation—you just cannot believe it.”

At which point the artist M Pravat, whose works were being hung at the gallery a day ahead of his solo show, mentioned how simple and polite the Swiss are, unlike Delhi folks, and how he spent three beautiful months there in an artist’s residency.

“It’s a bit nuts,” Nagy said in response. “It’s a bit neurotic.” He talked about how they dump pollutants in rivers flowing downstream into Italy and about the young heroin addicts he found in Zurich’s Platzspitz, or Needle Park when he first went there in 1987. “It’s got that dark underbelly, Switzerland. The Swiss can be really screwed up actually, which makes it kind of ... it’s not very relaxed. They make watches and it is all very super-efficient. And it is very wonderful to work there.”

THE ART WORLD CRASH was preceded by a bubble that began in 2005 and saw artworks fetching stratospheric prices at auctions. The boom, Nagy says, saw many flippers arrive on the scene—those who were buying works only to ‘flip’ or sell them again a few months later at 200-400 percent profit. As an example of how not to run a gallery and how not to conduct business, Nagy cites the case of Amit Judge—the entrepreneur who started the Barista coffee chain and launched the Bodhi Art Gallery in Singapore in 2004. Judge, it appears, had money to burn and was not interested in discovering new talent; he started wooing established artists, flying them first-class across the world and promising to increase the market value of their works manifold. Many like Kher and Dayanita Singh resisted, but some such as Atul and Anju Dodiya decided to do business with him. At first Nagy and other gallery owners in Delhi and Mumbai were mystified by what was going on, but that soon turned into alarm. “He was a shark going after our artists and he was able to dangle giant golden carrots in front of them,” he recalls. “He was raising the prices too fast with a lot of good work and we were watching him do it, and [saying], ‘Don’t do it!’” The boom was at its peak, and the prices at art auctions were going through the roof. Many other galleries followed Judge’s lead and “naively”, according to Nagy, raised their prices too.

To convey how overheated the art market was at the time, he cites the example of two diptychs by Thukral & Tagra that he sold for $40,000 each. Six months later, both the works appeared at the auction market—each went for about $250,000. Most of the buyers at auctions, he says, were NRIs living in places like New Jersey, who did not have the time or inclination to establish a relationship with art galleries.

“You don’t take an artist from $5,000 to $200,000 in a space of six months,” says Nagy. “It is unethical and it is bad business practice ... You have got to look for longevity in an artist’s career. You can’t make that jump so fast.” Nagy said that the artists were naive about what was going on. “[But] you kind of can’t blame the artist. Everybody wants their painting to sell for a million dollars, you know.”

No sooner did the market go bust than Judge shut shop and liquidated the large number of works he had amassed for a third of what he had been asking for just two to three months earlier. “What are you saying about our business?” asks Nagy. “What are you saying about the value of these artworks? ... He made a fool of himself.” The Dodiyas, Nagy says, were embarrassed by the whole affair. Today, Atul Dodiya’s works sell for half of what Bodhi was asking for in 2007. They are established artists, who persisted with their work and survived but, as Nagy points out, in the aftermath of the collapse many younger artists’ careers have practically come to a standstill.

Judge told me over the phone that Bodhi was a closed chapter for him and he had no comments to offer. Atul Dodiya, commenting on his association with Judge, categorically said that he had no regrets. He said he still cherished the kind of opportunities Bodhi offered him and his wife, Anju Dodiya, including a memorably grand show of her works at the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara. The whole experience had been “exhilarating”, Dodiya said, adding that while he was sad Bodhi had to shut shop, he understood why they did it when faced with the economic downturn. In an email, Hoskote said about Judge: “I understand his position, and would remember him for the many good things he did in the art world, while being sorry that he could not weather the tough times.”

Nagy says that even though India’s economy was relatively unaffected by the financial crisis, Indian buyers, anxious about the inflated prices of artworks, just stopped coming to galleries. He has seen this before. “I went through this in 1990 in New York. It’s a correction, it’s a balance,” he says. The market for contemporary art is still depressed.

On a late October afternoon at the month-old Nature Morte at The Oberoi, the only people in the hotel’s shopping arcade seemed to be lone salespersons in the ultra-fancy boutiques. Nagy said that the gallery hadn’t had a single walk-in visitor since the morning. It is rare for a walk-in to actually buy art from a gallery; but they are a good sign of whether a gallery is being noticed or not. “I am not sure what is going to happen next. Ha! Ha! We are here for 18 months,” he said. He had mentioned earlier that he had opened this space because he got a very good deal on the rent.

The gallery had works from the Aditya Pande solo show on display at the time. The prices for the works ranged from `500,000 to `1.2 million; two weeks after the show had opened, Nagy had sold one work and two more were being held on reserve for an interested buyer. I asked him if he was happy with the sales so far. He gave a long, enigmatic reply, saying that he hadn’t recovered his costs on the space yet, that “other stuff out there” from the gallery was selling, but that he had these works with him forever now and no one could take them away from him. “But it is what it is,” he concluded. “The bottom line is that you have to be in it because you like art and you want to do the art shows.”