Armed with his Crayola white chalk, Canadian actor, author, chalk artist and calligrapher Rajiv Surendra works with quiet confidence. He knows that if he doesn’t like what he is drawing on the wall, all he has to do is “just erase it”.
Surendra, who is equally at home carving and shaping his own cutting board from wood that he chopped down, weaving cloth from wool of sheep sheared by him, or even re-caning a wicker chair, is drawn to the ephemeral beauty of chalk.
Twenty-nine-year-old Bengaluru artist Harshit Agrawal, who became the first Indian artist to join the NFT art bandwagon, would understand this love for the ephemeral. As many as eight of his AI-generated artworks that can only be viewed in a digital medium were minted as NFTs. “NFT loosely means that it’s unique and can’t be replaced with something else. And this is the future,” he says simply.
Simply put, NFTs or non-fungible tokens are a unit of data stored on a digital ledger or blockchain. A unique system that has been in the making since 2012. May 2014 saw the creation of the first so-called NFT at the New Museum in New York by Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash 2021 gave it the much-needed fillip, especially in the art community.
Christies and Sotheby’s both entered the NFT market. While Christies spearheaded the trend by auctioning digital artist Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5,000 Days for a whopping USD 69.3 million, Sotheby’s followed up with digital artist Pak’s works bringing in USD 16.8 million.
Of course, the pandemic served as the right moment. Physical art venues were shut and artists -especially digital artists – realised that here was a worthy platform to market their efforts.
“Digital art has long been around, but never quite entered the mainstream art market because of the worry of it being easily replicated and thereby lacking authenticity. NFTs solve that problem by tamper-proof provenance on the blockchain. This has suddenly made digital art a great collectible, and big art institutions and the art world at large are responding to this,” says Agrawal.
The pandemic also saw the birth of India’s exclusive blockchain-powered online platform – Terrain.art – focusing on art from South Asia. The platform has mounted its first edition of Masters, showcasing 27 works by legendary Bengal artist Lalu Prasad Shaw, certified using NFTs.
The year 2021 has turned NFTs into a Gold Rush movement for the art world. Nothing is suddenly impossible. Delhi-based artist Pratul Dash agrees, “Keeping in mind the current development around blockchain technology, NFTs are definitely the future. Paradigms are changing worldwide. We are in a very exciting yet transitional phase. Indian artists can monetise their artworks on the internet; unlike earlier when the works on the net could easily be stolen or copied.”
Why the Craze?
Indrajit Chatterjee, director of Mumbai-based auction house Prinseps, will host the country’s first-ever NFT auction on July 15. Oscar-winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya’s sketches will be on sale, as will be 35 digital prints of 1950s artist Gobardhan Ash’s ‘Avatar’ series.
While NFTs or digital receipts prove ownership – be it a piece of art or even a tweet – it does not mean that the owner can hold the physical art in his hands or display it on her walls.
Why the interest in NFTs, then? For one, there’s big money involved. Established institutions are also coming forward to take a share of the cake. The owner of an NFT-certified art does not even get to be the only one who can view the art – anyone with digital access can view it – s/he has no exclusive right over the artwork or its distribution.
In short, it is the unique token that one buys, not the artwork per se. But in the art world, this unique token is yet another form of investing. Also, with the US dollar no longer enjoying the high returns it once did, NFTs could be the way forward for many to park their investment.
Additionally, these unique tokens solve a very important pain point of vouching for the authenticity of any artwork. And in doing that through digital solutions, it also becomes a new channel for the discovery of newer works.
It becomes a foundational solution for connecting art and its buyers. And big names are hopping on. It began as early as February, with the first-ever NFT performance art by Russian artist Petr Davydtchenko.
Internationally renowned art curator Francesco Bonami – or The Bonamist as he is known on Instagram – Snoop Dogg and Paris Hilton have also taken to the new medium to showcase their art. Milan, the global capital of design, is opening a new contemporary art gallery – Plan X Art Gallery – that will host NFT-certified works of Costa Rican artist John Paul Fauves.
And, of course, there is the eccentric genius of Banksy, whose artworks were shredded and even burnt at live-streamed auctions even as the digital tokens went for millions.
Entering the Digital Space
With big institutions such as Christies and Sotheby’s adapting to NFT, it only endorses the idea and brings the right eyes and ears to it. “This will improve and proliferate the awareness of art in general. More global institutions, as well as personnel associated with them, will warm up to the new system,” says Bengaluru-based artist Abhigna Kedia.
“Also, with more art going digital, NFT definitely does to the ecosystem what e-mails have done to communication. It will become more accessible and hence it would lead to more adoption. I’m convinced it will become omnipresent. It’s just a matter of time, evolution and adaptability,” she added.
And as Agrawal has pointed out earlier, art is evolving and becoming more tech-oriented. The pandemic has led to the digitisation of art on a major scale – from creation to its presentation. So the physical barriers are already being breached.
The curation-only NFT platform – SuperRare – hosts both artists and collectors. Agrawal is India’s only AI artist to be featured on the platform. His art is inspired by traditional Indian motifs such as mask cultures and rituals of India, and bright Thangka (Buddhist) paintings.
Through his practice, Agrawal explores what he calls the ‘human-machine creativity continuum’. Using machines and algorithms, he juxtaposes traditional art media, tools and processes along with computation.
“AI art opens up new possibilities of creating art with data. I feel this is the best way of commenting on our technology-centred reality,” says the artist, who believes India should get more actively involved in the NFT space. “There are some Indian artists, but not enough. Collectors, art institutions and galleries should realise the potential of NFTs,” he adds.
Out with the Fakes
It is no secret that the art world is riddled with fakes. In fact, such is the penetration of fakes in the market that it has given rise to a new band of ‘art authenticators’, who charge anywhere between Rs 20,000 and lakhs (if the painting is by one of the old masters) to decide whether the SH Raza you quietly acquired from a private collector is actually worth the small fortune you paid for it.
Says a prominent gallerist, who rather not be named, “You’d be surprised with the kind of stories people spin to sell fakes. Years in the business and I still find it both hilarious and frustrating. The most recent story I heard was how a family ‘suddenly discovered a painting by one of our famous masters’.”
“Apparently, the patriarch of the family had bought it (or, had been gifted, I forget, which), and left the canvas unattended in a locked room in a Mumbai apartment, where it stayed for 20 years. Can you imagine someone possessing an apartment in Mumbai where one room has been locked away for 20 years? It immediately raises suspicion,” the gallerist added.
Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery. But that is definitely not the case in the art market. In fact, in July 2017, shock currents went through the global art world when it was discovered that as many as 21 works by Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, on exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, Italy, were fake.
Some of these paintings were on loan from private collections and even major art institutions such as the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, France, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the UK.
Such has been the chaos that fakes wreak that once an anguished FN Souza, who had often been on the receiving end of his fakes being peddled while the originals had no takers, wrote an open letter to Geeta Mehra, the director of Sakshi Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1997, complaining “there are numerous fakes in the art market, not only in India but in Europe”.
The Indian art scene is full of so-called art owners who often claim that they came into the possession of an Indian great thanks to their supposed royal lineage. Even the best fall for fakes. Bengaluru-based auction house Bid & Hammer ran into two major controversies in 2010 and 2014.
While in 2010, it had fake Souzas on its catalogue, 2014 saw paintings by Rabindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose, when the original Tagore was locked up in the vaults of the Visva Bharati in Shantiniketan, and the original Bose was hanging in the National Gallery of Modern art, Delhi.
Add to all this, fresh art graduates who stand to make a quick buck by producing fake works, and it’s become a booming business. Rakhi Sarkar, director, CIMA Gallery, Kolkata, has often said how the city has become a hub of fakes because of a new tribe of artists, who are taking on the masters.
Since the painting’s history, paper trail, receipt, etc, often lose to the passage of time – more so if it is an unsigned work—it becomes near impossible to establish provenance, something NFTs are aiming to get right. Chandigarh-based self-taught artist Ashima Raizada says, “I feel moving to NFT is a positive shift. It is more inclusive, accessible and democratic in nature, not to forget, forging a safer eco-system for art. Sure, it will take some time to catch up, but the possibilities are limitless and it is the need of the hour.”
Is it a GenZ Thing?
Anupa Mehta, director, Anupa Mehta Arts, Mumbai, says, “Given the uniqueness of an NFT-certified item, its acquisition is likely to catch on as a trend, particularly with younger collectors. They seek the thrill of the exclusive, one-of-a-kind art object. The online space has really bloomed during the pandemic, and those who are familiar with the realm of technology and art in the digital space will go in for such artworks.”
While it is true that millennials and GenZ spend a lot of time with newer technology, it is not necessary that they alone would drive the NFT trend. Eighty-four-year-old Shaw taking to the new platform is a case in point. The initial adopters might be the more technically-inclined people, but that is changing too, especially with mainstream art institutions such as Christies and Sotheby’s getting into action.
Delhi artist Seema Kohli says, “Though NFTs are still at a very speculative stage, artists are slowly taking to the medium. Of course, abroad they are making steady strides. In India too it may eventually have a future. At the end of the day, I believe that NFTs will chart out their own parallel course in the art world.”
The evolving system has the potential to be the breakout for art in India. Since it uses technology, it can help push awareness of art, artists and their thought process, and most importantly, connect the young tech-savvy generation with the world of art that is often viewed as an ‘elitist forum’.
Also, the emerging interest in NFTs can be an added advantage for Indian artists – both young and established – who can command a better audience and monetary return in the global market. “With NFTs, the sky is the limit when marketing and creating awareness of your art,” says Kedia.
The art market is a constantly evolving one, and especially the pandemic has taught it to expect and adapt to change. While NFTs are getting a lot of traction, there are sceptics too. There has been a narrative emerging about how NFTs are bad for climate change. The ethereum blockchain requires a network of computers and this gives rise to high carbon emissions. Many artists have refused to issue NFTs on these grounds.
Says Kiran Nadar, founder, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, “I’m personally not sure how it will play out just yet. While fast adopters like Christies and Sotheby’s have already started dabbling in digital art, my concern is related to the huge amounts of computing power required to make them.”
The problem of environmental concern is real. But with conversations around it, and independent initiatives, the next stage is likely to mitigate climate issues. A new NFT platform – Hic Et Nunc – is already attracting artists for its negligible carbon impact.
The other issue plaguing purists – for want of a better word – is what should be digitised and minted for the future, and what should be allowed to remain as it is. A believer in the true sense of art, Nadar feels that there is nothing to compare to the experience of viewing an artwork in person – to witness the nuances of the artist’s hand, each brushstroke telling its own story… “All said and done, it’s difficult to predict art markets. Spurred on by the pandemic, many galleries may embrace NFTs,” she adds. Like Nadar, many in the art world are still wary of the new trend.
To some, using NFTs to mint works that are specially created for this kind of a format is the way forward, not digitising The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, or Birth or Lovers by Souza. “The texture, the application of paint and many such features are hallmarks of the modern masters which cannot be replicated digitally. Also, the government has still not accepted cryptocurrencies and NFTs and till it receives a legal framework, it’s hard to predict the future,” says Uday Jain, director of Delhi-based Dhoomimal Gallery.
While a lot of questions still need to be answered or things to be established, at the moment it looks like both the physical art world and NFTs are going to coexist.
But whether NFTs will one day replace physical art or change the dynamics of possessing art completely, is a question that does not have any concrete answers as of now. As David Linden, a neurobiologist at US-based Johns Hopkins University, famously said, “You can’t turn off touch. It never goes away.”
The Top 10 Going, Going, Gone
USD 6.6 million
A Beeple piece, this iconic work with a dystopian twist mocks public figures
Everydays: The First 5,000 Days
USD 69.3 million
Artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, made history when his ‘accumulative piece made up of 5,000 images—one for each day since May 2007, spanning the past 13 years’—sold for an astronomical $69.3 million at Christie’s first-ever NFT auction
USD 7.57 million
Only USD 10,000 behind its #3100 peer, this CryptoPunk may just be sold for more in a few years
USD 7.58 million
The most expensive CryptoPunk (CryptoPunks are 10,000 unique collectible characters) ever sold, character #3100 started its journey with a USD 76 bid in 2017, ultimately going for USD 7.58 million
USD 1.6 million
NFTs are in love with CryptoPunks. And the algorithm-generated pixel art pieces do not disappoint either.
Created by an artist, who goes by the name Pak, this features a group of spherical objects cocooned within an infinity symbol moving against a black background
Jack Dorsey (and Twitter’s) first-ever tweet
USD 2.9 million
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey auctioning his (and the platform’s) first-ever tweet. This probably added the fillip that NFT needed. The proceeds went to charity.
Axie Infinity Virtual Game “Genesis” Estate
USD 1.5 million
You have heard of virtual games being sold, and estates being sold, but have you heard of estates in virtual games being sold? Danny, the virtual property seller, told his Twitter followers, “This is the largest digital land sale ever recorded on the blockchain.”
USD 1 million
When it was sold in 2018 on Valentine’s Day, it became the most expensive virtual art ever. This unique digital photograph has been created by artist Kevin Abosch.
USD 1.5 million
Yet another CryptoPunk. They were the first NFTs on Ethereum, and have retained the fascination.
What are NFTs?
An NFT or a non-fungible token is a collectible digital asset. It represents a one-of-a-kind item, for example, a particular painting; since no two paintings are the same. It may ‘look’ similar to another, but will always be differentiated by a change in texture, medium, even context. Similar to a cryptocurrency – Bitcoin or Ethereum – NFT has its own uniqueness. It cannot be exchanged like-for-like.
The Master’s View
With a career spanning over six decades, Indian modernist Lalu Prasad Shaw is the first of the masters to adapt to the new world of Non-fungible Token (NFT)-certified artworks. For those who have been following Shaw’s artistic oeuvre, this comes as no surprise.
After all, this legend – born in Bengal in 193 – was felicitated with the National Award for Graphic Art as early as 1971. “Simplicity is the key to my artworks. I like to depict the happiness in my surroundings through my artworks. I’ve been working with the same theme on all my new artworks as well,” says the contemporary of Jamini Roy, as he talks of his recent set of 27 works on display at the Terrain.art exhibition, on show till July 27.
In the last five decades, this unique artist – who is not just a painter, but also an accomplished printmaker – has expertly used his creative language to frame the Bengali middle class, or the ‘babus’, and dramatise the routine everyday on his canvas.
One finds elements of 19th-century Company School style and the Kalighat Pat painting in his art. The master chuckles, “Many have asked me about this. And I enjoy talking about it every time. You see, being a Bengali, I’ve naturally grown up observing the Kalighat Pat painting style. Needless to say, I have always been interested in these folk art forms. And the influence has seeped into my artwork as well.”
Shaw’s canvas of minimalism draws from the economic hardships he faced as a child. In his forever-evolving journey, Shaw decided to mould in bronze his babus and bibis in his late 70s. But it was rural Bengal – the impoverished countryside – that is, as he says, “the heart of all my paintings”.
“It’s all about the originality, the essence it holds, the stories and all that you can find in a beautiful village. From the mightiest tiger to the Terracotta Temples, every small detail has impacted my artworks,” he stresses.
While he may be the first Indian master to have taken to NFTs, which till now is largely a youth-oriented space, Shaw understands that an artist’s journey can be really tough. “Every artist has his or her own ups and downs. At times the paintings you put the most effort into don’t get the appreciation and attention you were expecting…,” he says
“Regardless of that you still pour your heart out on every new art, because you enjoy it. Becoming a master in itself is a task. It means you have proven yourself many times in your art journey,” he adds wistfully. So, will the masters rule the NFT race some day? Or will the NFTs leave them behind? That is a question only the next decade can answer.
Digital art has long been around, but never quite entered the mainstream art market because of the worry of it being easily replicated and thereby lacking authenticity. NFTs solve that problem by tamper-proof provenance on the blockchain: Harshit Agrawal, AI artist
Given the uniqueness of an NFT-certified item, its acquisition is likely to catch on as a trend, particularly with younger collectors. They seek the thrill of the exclusive. Those familiar with the realm of technology will go in for such artworks: Anupa Mehta, Director, Anupa Mehta Arts, Mumbai
I’m personally not sure how it will play out just yet. While fast adopters like Christies and Sotheby’s have already started dabbling in digital art, my concern is related to the huge amounts of computing power required to make them: Kiran Nadar, Founder, KNMA, Delhi
Keeping in mind the current development around blockchain technology, NFTs are definitely the future. We are in a transitional phase. Indian artists can monetise their artworks on the internet; unlike earlier: Pratul Dash, Artist