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How DAG's Ashish Anand is making modern art accessible to all

The CEO of DAG wants to make 18th-20th century art accessible through museum collaborations, publications in Indian languages and auctions of works at lower price points

Today, under Ashish Anand's leadership, DAG has galleries in Delhi, Mumbai and New York, a robust publications division and numerous museum collaborations. Illustration: Priya Kuriyan
Today, under Ashish Anand's leadership, DAG has galleries in Delhi, Mumbai and New York, a robust publications division and numerous museum collaborations. Illustration: Priya Kuriyan

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In March, Ashish Anand, CEO and managing director of DAG, put together one of his most ambitious exhibitions yet. Titled Iconic Masterpieces Of Indian Modern Art, the show, held in the gallery’s two new spaces at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Mumbai, featured 50 rare works by 50 artists over a span of 200 years. It offered a series of firsts. It was the first time, for instance, that Western Orientalists such as Marius Bauer shared space with Indian masters such as F.N. Souza and Ramkinkar Baij. On display were masterpieces such as a Company painting from 1805 of the Agra Fort; The Poet, a cement sculpture by Baij hailed as the first modern Indian sculpture; and Souza’s Seated Nude On A Blue Armchair.

Anand had been on the lookout for a new space after the lease of the Kala Ghoda gallery ended in 2020. “We searched for a long time. However, we were unable to find as good a space as the Delhi ones in The Claridges and Janpath. For works by great masters, you need great locations. And the Taj Mahal Palace offered exactly that,” says Anand, 51.

The roots of DAG were sown in the 1980s, when Anand’s family shifted from Amritsar, Punjab, to Delhi during that state’s militancy phase. His mother, Rama, who had a keen interest in the arts, opened the gallery—then called the Delhi Art Gallery— in Hauz Khas village in 1993. Anand, who had dropped out of high school and was in the ready-made garments business, took over in 1996. Today, the arts organisation—rebranded as DAG—has galleries in Delhi, Mumbai and New York, a robust publications division, numerous museum collaborations and a recently concluded public-private partnership in the form of the Drishyakala museum at Red Fort, Delhi.

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The initial years were challenging for Anand, who had no previous experience of dealing in the arts. A 2018 GQ article notes that he realised soon enough that while the wealthy wanted art, there was no infrastructure to cater to that demand. Bridging this gap wasn’t easy, however. Anand had to train his own eye first. “The early years were exciting. I travelled the length and breadth of the country, building the collection. It might sound clichéd that I led a nomadic life but that is what it was—travelling about 25 days in a month,” he reminisces.

His plan, even in the early days, was to focus on the under-represented—the masters of modern Indian art—who, for a variety of reasons, had not got their due. “I systematically set forth to seek and collect them with an eye on creating the long overdue market for them,” says Anand. While buying the work of lesser-known artists has become a common business practice for galleries today, it wasn’t so when Anand started.

At the time, the market was limited, and only 10-15 artists were spoken about. His focus continues to be the under-represented artist; he buys the work of those he believes contributed to Indian modernism in a big way but were not promoted. His first purchase was a “delightful” watercolour by Ramkinkar Baij in 1996. So excited was he at the time that he boarded a train from Puri, Odisha, to Howrah station in Kolkata, with the work under his arm, to celebrate. At another time, he finalised a deal for a few Asit Haldar works though he was suffering from high fever at the time.

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“From the very outset, I decided never to take works on consignment, which, in 1996, was the norm. Friends and family warned me of the risk but I was convinced not only about the depth of the Indian market but also of DAG’s ability to build a qualitative collection,” says Anand.

Over the years, he has acquired rare Chittaprosad works as well as the studio of film-maker Nemai Ghosh, while building a sizeable Nandalal Bose collection. He feels proud at having brought masters such as Chittaprosad and Rabin Mondal to the fore through large-scale retrospectives and in-depth publications. “M.V. Dhurandhar is another such example. We displayed our collection at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, in 2018 when the artist was little known. 

An analysis of the values that the artist commands today in the auction market will tell you how well Dhurandhar is recognised today,” he adds. This has also contributed to international recognition of some of these artists. For instance, Chittaprosad, who documented the Great Bengal Famine of 1943-44 in heart-wrenching sketches and drawings, was exhibited at the documenta, Berlin, and Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in the US. Mondal opened to rave reviews in Shanghai, China.

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Data about the size of the Indian market remains poor, perhaps because it is still so small in comparison to the more mature art ecosystems in the US, UK and China. However, it’s full of opportunities waiting to be realised. “In this space, we feel that DAG has become associated with quality and value. As a result, our buyers can be found anywhere in the world, sometimes in the most surprising of places. Though in India most of them tend to be located in the metros, some come from small provincial parts as well,” he says.

Internationally, New York remains an important outpost, with buyers also based out of London, Hong Kong, Dubai and other places with a strong Indian diaspora. “DAG has been growing steadily in the past few years, with the gallery showing a robust growth of 35% compounded in the last two years,” adds Anand. Focused interest comes from a mature age group, between 45-65 years, but there has been a stable trend of millennials entering the market. This augurs well for the art industry as a whole. Anand calls DAG a “very large company in terms of people”, with over 160 employees. “That’s a lot for an art institution. At the pace we are growing, we will be a 450-person company by the end of next year,” he says.

In the space DAG works in, the Progressives—Souza, S.H. Raza, M.F. Husain as the primary members and associated artists such as Tyeb Mehta, V.S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar and Krishen Khanna—command the highest market share. “While they have commanded the highest prices, and continue to do so, we are now seeing a significant interest in what have been called the ‘second’ tier artists, such as M.V. Dhurandhar, G.R. Santosh, Avinash Chandra, K.S. Kulkarni. There has also been a resurgence of the pre-moderns, such as Jamini Roy, Raja Ravi Varma, early Bengal School, all of whom are now becoming market leaders,” says Anand.

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Though the gallery has focused on 20th century Indian art since its inception, this is beginning to change. Over the past five years, DAG has been highlighting 18th and 19th century art—including works by visiting European artists and Company paintings—which has not got its due. “While doing this, our vision for 20th century art will not get compromised in any way,” he says. Some of the recent exhibitions on art from this period focused, for instance, on the works of Balthazar Solvyns and on Company paintings of the birds of India. One can see a clear demarcation at the galleries itself, with the one at Claridges focusing on this period.

Anand now wants to create heightened engagement and take art to more people. The museum projects are a step in this direction. Take, for instance, India’s first public–private collaboration in the arts space, which began in January 2019 with the Drishyakala museum. Located in the precincts of Red Fort—a Unesco World Heritage monument—the project was a partnership between the Archaeological Survey of India and DAG.

Drishyakala, which closed down on 13 April, had four exhibitions on display that included a comprehensive overview of India’s nine National Treasure artists as well as the first viewing of the complete 144 works of the 18th century aquatints of Thomas Daniell and William Daniell. “I would call it the most successful public-private partnership in the art and culture space. People from all walks of life have visited Drishyakala and been blown away by it. Before covid-19, we got 4,000 people daily on an average,” says Anand.

In 2019, DAG entered into a partnership with the Union ministry of textiles to create a museum just outside Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. The revolving exhibition was titled Eternal Banaras. In 2020, it organised Ghare Baire, multiple exhibitions on 19th and 20th century art from Bengal, in the renovated Currency Building in Kolkata. It took a break in November 2021, hoping to return with new perspectives. Anand hopes for partnerships in tier 2 cities, not just for DAG but for other private art institutions.

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“DAG’s long-term perspective of democratisation of art will remain at the forefront of its activities, whether it’s historical curatorial exercises, its education initiatives for school and college students, its tactile programming for the non-sighted, its publishing and film-making programmes, lively programming of talks and curated walks, and its relationship building with institutions and museums around the world,” says Anand.

Over the past five years, he has tried to balance the commercial with non-commercial ventures, such as museum collaborations and charity auctions. “Having the commercial arm subsidise the non-commercial is a vision DAG is headed towards,” he adds. Over the past year, the DAG team has been working on a new website that will host not just content but also online auctions. With this, DAG’s auction arm hopes to get into 20th century art at lower price points, pegged at a lakh upwards. “That will take this period of art to a larger audience. We did a couple of such sales during the pandemic which were a huge success,” says Anand.

In-depth publications are also a focus area. These have been in English but the plan is to venture into Indian languages as well. Workshops are being planned to use art as therapy for the elderly, defence personnel, sex workers. “These are not typical buyers. For them, we want to use art to heal. We will be doing this a lot more aggressively going forward,” he says.

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