Pathak draws on his passion for architecture to create digital animations using Blender, an open-source 3D CG software. “Unlike many others, Shwetang’s work actually uses digital media to create things that conceptually make sense as NFTs,” Singh says. “I don’t know if it makes sense to put a static image out there, although I have!” she laughs. Still the NFT space is promising to her, as it is native to a whole new generation of artists who are able to bypass the established system.
There are also more established artists who are keen to explore NFTs for their subversive potential. Among them are Enit María and Srinivas Mangipudi, a Goa-based artist couple from Peru and India whose collaborations have been exhibited at the Art Gallery of the Embassy of Peru, New Delhi, Cultural Equinox Arts Science Festival, Rio de Janeiro, and International du Films sur l’Art Montréal among others. The duo live in Parra, a village on the outskirts of Mapusa, and spoke to us over a fluctuating internet and telephone connection.
The world of NFTs and blockchain was like “second skin” to Mangipudi, who has a background in computers and has been generating paintings from programming code for years. “I’d been looking at ways to interact with the blockchain world more conceptually, rather than NFT’s utility as provenance or as a token of trade.” One such exploration took the form of a public art project, Portrait of a Nation, where the duo and Madhavan Pillai travelled from Kanyakumari to Kargil in 40 days, making people paint collaborative portraits as an inclusive representation of the country. “We intended to create NFTs of each portrait and use the funds to create more public funded art projects. But then the complication arose, how do you actually disburse these funds even if you’re able to generate funding? How do you get public art into the hands of people in non-metro cities?”
This hits at the heart of the issue for Mangipudi—barriers to entry are replicated and the government’s flip flops on blockchain and crypto further discourages new entrants, he says. Even though the premise of NFTs is extremely interesting, these things have a tendency to mutate, muses writer, researcher and curator at Terrain.art, Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi: “It’s important to keep an eye on who the main players are and how it’s going to translate tomorrow. It’s a similar conversation as how the internet translated from being open source to being led by heavily surveilling corporations.”
He adds that Terrain.art tries to level the playing field by linking artists creating interesting work to the NFT space via Terrain Open, their homegrown platform aimed at democratisation. Vadodara-based Andhra painter and print-maker, Kodanda Rao Teppala elaborates via a translator over text: “NFTs and Terrain have hugely increased my reach, taking my images easily to a global audience and giving me some measure of renown. At 42, this has given me a certain hope and courage to keep going. While art is a universal language, being someone who is non-English speaking, this technology has tremendously overcome that barrier.”
Mathikshara adds: “I was totally unknown initially. There are many regional communities on Clubhouse and Twitter spaces like NFT Malayali that emphasise a particular language. English itself isn’t a huge barrier. You just have to actively take part in the community, help others with their engagement too.” She pauses. “Of course if you don’t have an internet connection you can’t make NFTs!”
Art for Whose Sake?
For artists in India, where royalties have not historically existed, NFTs promise recurring returns from artwork. “Because it is recorded on the NFT ledger, 10 percent of sales has to come back to the artist from secondary sales,” says curator Mopidevi. “And the idea of long-term is important for both ends of the market—creating a new collector base as well as a creator base. With Terrain, we’re trying to invite different kinds of creators and not restricting ourselves to fine art or an academic style of art making. In this way we’re moving beyond establishment-led ideas of gatekeeping.”
“In my opinion, NFTs do provide another revenue stream to Indian artists but their viability as a long-term and stable income stream is questionable. There’s a lot of buzz right now regarding NFTs but the space requires more of a deep dive around questions of ownership and exploitation,” says Manojna Yeluri, the founder of Artistik License, an eight year-old legal practice for independent artists in Hyderabad and Bangalore.
Understandably, many artists remain reluctant to dive into the NFT space — even when their work draws heavily on technological interventions, like Bengaluru-based Nihaal Faizal: “I have nothing against more income streams but right now it feels like anything that is digital is being put up as NFTs because it’s trendy. I wouldn’t mind if someone paid me in crypto, but why do I need an NFT as provenance when I have an authenticity certificate anyway? If you look at Seth Siegelaub’s work on artist contracts, resale royalties and certification around conceptual art way back in the 60’s—the questions being asked were very precise: What is the work, why is it this way, what is the market in which it exists, what is the reproduction of the work, or is the work the reproduction?”
Mumbai-based fine artist Shailee Mehta, 24, whose work turns an autobiographical lens on female embodiment and depictions of care and intimacy, says, “It’s not just the NFT space but the digital space at large that democratises the art market. A Gond artist I know who was facing a financial crisis during the pandemic was able to sell almost all his paintings on Whatsapp.”
Overall, Mehta isn’t convinced. “My paintings and drawings aren’t just images to be digitised but art objects that need to be experienced. Where they are shown and what their affective relationship is with their environment, their physical scale and the proximity of the object with the viewer are critical aspects too. There is a presence I like my work to have for the audience that I feel is lost in the digital space.”
Perhaps this feeling lingers in the art world, which could be one reason why a considerable volume of NFTs in India now are physical works that merely use an NFT chip as authentication or why a physical work accompanies the purchase of an NFT in auctions. Thus they retain the benefits of authentication/resale from the NFT marketplace but are still works to be experienced physically.
Yeluri sums it up: “The thing about relying on blockchain tech enabled solutions is that they offer the opportunity for transparency and additional commercial success. But it isn't necessarily guaranteed— which I feel a lot of stakeholders in the creative and cultural industries need more time to dwell on. Many of the existing rules of copyright and contract law extend to NFTs and the truth is that the viability of NFTs as a revenue opportunity for artists relies on factors that are more systemic — accessibility to digital resources, proper legal and business guidance that allows the artists to make informed decisions. I think it offers an exciting array of opportunities, but there's still a long way to go before I'd say without a doubt that it's a guaranteed revenue support solution for artists.”
While the NFT marketplace of art cannot elude the insidious logic of cultural industries, it seems there is still plenty of healthy debate and churn to be had around if and how it will transform artistic practices in India—whether conceptually, or financially, for the better. If it’s only the latter, would it be so unwelcome? After all, ‘art for art’s sake’ has usually been a refrain of the privileged.
Riddhi Dastidar is a Delhi-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. They tweet @gaachburi.