As we board the private jet waiting for us at Luton airport, the little boy beside me beams with delight. Our host, Franco-Italian art dealer Enrico Navarra, settles us into our seats, placing me opposite India's most celebrated contemporary artist, Sub-odh Gupta, and delves inside the fridge for a bottle of champagne. He pours glasses for Gupta's artist wife, Bharti Kher, her mother (who lives in Surrey and has come along for the ride), Gupta and me. Navarra doesn't drink' instead, he retreats to the back of the plane to watch things unfold. The artist couple, sometimes referred to as the Tracey and Damien of south-east Asia, allow their over-excited children, Omi, 9, and Lola, 3, to sample the sweets and biscuits Navarra has piled in front of them. We begin our interview as the plane takes off, heading for the south of France where Navarra is organising his fifth summer exhibition of art placed along the five beaches of Ramatuelle (three kilometres of coastline next to St Tropez). Collectively entitled Art on the Beach ("L'art a la plage"), previous exhibitions have included a group show of work by artists such as Jean Dubuffet, NikM de Saint Phalle, Robert Indiana, Ju Ming and Marina Abramovic, a solo show of Keith Haring sculptures and an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, Made by Chinese. This year, the Art on the Beach subtitle is Made by Indians.
Success, Navarra explained to me on the way to the airport, is not just about talent but timing. One of the earliest and most prolific buyers of Jean-Michel Basquiat in the Eighties and the first European dealer to explore the Hong Kong, Chinese and Korean art markets in the Nineties, Enrico Navarra knows a strong emerging market when he sees one. "The art scene in India is exploding but this has only happened very recently," says Kher as we sip our champagne. "We were all struggling to make ends meet until 2004. There has been a vibrant art scene in India for the last 20 years - especially for painting - and there's a very supportive community of Indian collectors, but now the art is finally being seen abroad. Saffronart (the on-line contemporary art auction house based in Mumbai) is selling pieces at well over the $1m and there is a new generation of young Indian artists attracting the big international collectors. The art world is so small that once the first dealer buys, everyone else wants to get in on the act."
Instrumental in the exposure of these artists has been Gupta's Delhi-based dealer, Peter Nagy, a former artist from New York's East Village, whose gallery, Nature Morte, was the first on the sub continent to show conceptual art. Nagy gave Gupta the inaugural show when Nature Morte's 4,000 square feet of Le Corbusier-style space opened in 2003' he then took him to Basle, the world's premier art fair, in June 2006, which was the first time an Indian artist had shown there. "My work sold out," says Gupta, "just as it did the year before at Frieze [London's international contemporary art fair]." Nagy also supported an Indian entry at last year's Venice Biennale, with the help of his American partner, the gallery Bose Pacier Modern, which was described by one critic as "...by far the most enticing collection at the Biennale...[contemporary Indian art] suits Venice which understands how great art can emerge from great mystery." "There's installation everywhere in India," Kher points out. "They have a philosophy, a spirituality that encompasses the idea of abstraction: everyone in India understands the abstract - they believe in an object and in a conceptual idea of it, that it says something else."
This sensibility translates well into contemporary art's preoccupation with ready-made and found objects as well as into sculpture and photography and there are around 20 highly-collected working artists in India, a handful of which sell to an increasingly avid international market. Made by Indians showcases work by 15 artists, some on the brink of international renown, such as Kher, and several of India's established stars including Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Atul Dodiya and Ravinder Reddy. …