Karan Kalra, a 30-year-old multidisciplinary visual engineer, woke up to a barrage of emails, an unusual beginning to a seemingly ordinary day at his home in Delhi. Just a day prior to that, he had minted his NFT ‘Dreamers’, an illustration of love for his dog Zelda enjoying a car ride. He had managed to sell a few artworks before but he was still awaiting his first ‘big’ sale. It came on that day in 2021. A sense of validation and triumph rushed through his veins when he realised that the artwork was purchased for around 600 WazirX – an India-based cryptocurrency – valued at approximately Rs 80,000 at the time. Kalra hasn’t looked back since.
But what is NFT? It is tricky to explain these virtual digital assets without dipping your brain cells into a bowl full of technical jargon. In simpler terms, NFT, or non-fungible tokens, are digital assets that use blockchain technology. It acts like an authentic proof of ownership of both digital and physical objects and is non-interchangeable, traceable, and immutable. An NFT can be anything – an image, video, GIF, song, or material object.
And what’s something whose value you can count on and need to guarantee the authenticity of? Art. In the last two years, the Indian art industry and artists’ collectives have bought into the NFT idea. Whether Kalra’s Rs-2,000 note paintings or Siraj Hassan’s ‘Caged’ series, ‘crypto art’ is giving artists a new canvas — it’s digital, unique, non-transactionable, and perfect for the Metaverse era. It guarantees you have an artist’s original piece because it comes with their digital signature. Artists who have been using software to produce art for years had no way of ensuring its afterlife or exclusivity to a buyer. Crypto art has changed that. Now, an NFT painting can hang on your digital wall and be completely yours. Signed, sealed, delivered – on blockchain.
Kalra, who has spent many years as an artist for big corporations, swears by the big wave of change NFT has brought to the art space.
“You always feel like a second-class citizen in art,” he says about life before NFT. He isn’t the only one.
In the last year or so, a virtual army of artists has walked out from the invisible dungeons to claim their worth using blockchain technology. Artists no longer have to rely on middlemen or wait for years to make their first sale. The advent of free-floating digital creation like NFT has democratised the art market for artists across ages. “I am selling art from a sleepy coastal town like Udupi! It is a level playing field,” says Shreya Daffney, a 29-year-old artist and architect, who has sold over 30 artworks in the last five years.
And when Christie’s sold Beeple’s ‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’ in 2021 for a stunning $69 million, making it the first NFT art to be sold by a major auction house, the crypto art industry both at home and abroad got the validation and boost it needed.
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Art and the NFT artist
Vimal Chandran, 35, a visual artist from Kerala, began creating digital artworks along with his analogue art pieces in 2010. His blind date with NFT in 2021 helped him scale his art to unimaginable heights.
“I had worked on a new series ‘Folk SciFi’, and I remember minting it on 31 May 2021 – my first ever NFT up for sale. I was shell-shocked to see that it sold within 24 hours,” says Chandran, about the artwork ‘The Arrival’, which re-imagines the characters from ‘Kuthira Vela’, a procession with wooden decorated horses often seen during temple festivals in Kerala.
“With glittering lights, balloons, and colourful characters, temple festivals have always been fascinating for me since I was a little boy. As a child, these horses seemed enormous in size and I used to think of them as giant spacecraft visiting the Earth,” he wrote about the artwork’s conceptualisation, a part of his elaborate ‘Folk SciFi’ series.
While for Chandran art is often a love letter to the place he grew up in and a homage to his roots, Daffney uses art as a medium to vent, cope, and celebrate, something driven by her mood. “I like making narrative-driven art. Things that you see every day but would not have noticed really. I often add choppy animations to give it some life,” she says about her process. Daffney has been making art for as long as she can remember—her works are an extension of her mind space and personality.
In a serendipitous moment, Daffney’s artwork was the first one to be sold on the platform WazirX when it was launched last year.
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Called ‘Chasing Sunshine’, the artwork was conceived on “a particularly hard day” during the Covid lockdown.
Even for Kalra, the rendezvous with NFT was a gradual one. Growing up, he always found it difficult to fit into conventional boxes. After studying animation, motion graphics and film in the US and working there for a few years, he returned to India following issues with H-1B visas during the Donald Trump era in 2019.
Kalra was selected as the ‘spotlight artist’ on WazirX in June 2021. Many of his artworks take months to complete, considering the intricate details and Easter eggs he sprinkles. A self-proclaimed Bollywood buff, one of his most recent pieces has over 26 movie references ranging from the classics such as Andaz Apna Apna and Hera Pheri.
“I am a big chaos guy, which reflects in my artwork too,” he says, speaking about one of his most successful pieces ‘Organised Chaos’ — an isometric homage to his hometown, Delhi.
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But things aren’t all hunky dory in the world of art. A futuristic rendition of the Rs 2,000 note is, according to Kalra, his most controversial artwork. MK Gandhi can be seen wearing a Bluetooth earpiece and VR goggles while cryptocurrency swims in the background of the illustration. “The concept was to showcase the infinite possibilities lying ahead for India to advance forward and take the charge from the West in fields like robotics, space travel, and blockchain. The only roadblock I see is the money, hence the choice of a currency note,” he says.
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Are art galleries ready?
New Delhi and Mumbai have remained cultural hubs for many years now, and the contemporary art space has flourished since the 1990s. But the booming NFT industry has evolved as an alternative for young artists who may not easily make it to the high-walled traditional galleries. NFTs are making art accessible to a larger and virtual audience, paving the way for a generation of collectors.
“Since NFTs are new in our vocabulary, there is a buzz about them and the art they are associated with,” says Parul Vadehra, director of Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery.
But NFT artwork isn’t just democratising the art space and levelling the field for artists, it also has the potential to storm the mainstream art market. “Beyond the hype around NFTs, we are seeing how digital technologies, particularly blockchain technology, are helping reshape how we buy, sell and even create and enjoy art,” says Jaya Asokan, fair director, India Art Fair. However, Asokan also pointed out how no medium is “better” than another, and it is important to foster diversity and dynamism in the market.
At the 2022 edition of the India Art Fair, Terrain Art exhibited works by NFT artists such as Amrit Pal Singh, David Young, and Laya Mathikshara. They have developed unique artistic languages that are novel amalgamations of technology with art. Earlier this year, as an initiative to educate aspiring artists and discuss the future of NFT art in India, India Art Fair also held a talk ‘NFTTEASE’ featuring some prominent figures in the field.
Vadehra Art Gallery, a prominent name among the traditional art galleries in Delhi NCR, has not showcased any NFT artwork as yet. However, Vadehra insisted that they would support any of their represented artists if they decided to take the plunge into NFT.
Despite the accelerating trajectory of crypto art since 2020, the contemporary art space seems to be as “vibrant” as ever. “I feel nothing can replace the experience of viewing a physical work of art in person, it is intrinsic to the making and viewing of art,” said Vadehra, while acknowledging the significance of NFTs.
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NFT — art or money?
Amitabh Bachchan, Yuvraj Singh, and Manish Malhotra, all have one thing in common — they have launched their own NFT collections. In the last year, India has witnessed an evolving bunch of digital creators and flourishing NFT marketplaces like BeyondLife.club, WazirX, Bollycoin, and others.
A common assumption around the NFT art world is that it is a quick getaway to fame and money. But is it for the art or for the money?
“My theory is that art, perhaps, became the alibi through which crypto became mainstream,” says Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, curator and faculty at Ashoka University.
But with a sudden boom in 2021, has the ‘NFT moment’ passed?
Kalra agrees that certain aspects like PFP projects “have stagnated a little compared to last year”, however, the fine art side of NFTs, which Kalra and his fellow artists are “actively a part of, is still very much progressing steadily upwards”. On the other hand, Mopidevi thinks there isn’t a definitive answer as NFT is “so much dependent” on the highs and lows of the market, and a certain sense of stagnancy right now could be washed away with another wave waiting around the corner. “One has to be familiar and also accustomed to the market’s changing pace and how it is going to define and consolidate the NFT scene,” he says.
Mopidevi advocates for much-needed critical thinking to understand the nuances of the digital art world. “The reason why the world is going gaga over it, or how can in a matter of 22-24 months or less, crypto that was not even the legal tender suddenly become mainstream? What is the relationship between the proximity of Meta launching itself and CryptoPunks being sold out for half a billion dollars in the same period?”
He also recognises that NFT has paved the way for a diverse set of creators and created an artist-artist peer support system. Amrit Pal Singh, a visual artist, evolved into an unofficial spokesperson for the NFT scene in India.
“Whenever he sells, he also buys the work of other young NFT practitioners in India as a way of supporting them. This case isn’t an anomaly, and is a common practice in the Indian NFT sector,” says Mopidevi.
For many artists when the chips are down, the collector-artist relationship is often a driving factor. Arijit Das, the collector who purchased Kalra’s most special artwork ‘Dreamers’, has evolved into a good friend over time. Chandran also swears by the booming community of creators and collectors.
Bengaluru-based Colours of India is one of the many NFT collectives being run in the country. It aims to educate and support young and aspiring artists. Seeing the overwhelming support and conversation around NFT on a global level encouraged Ramesh Gopal, the founder of the collective and a collector himself, to do the same for the South Asian NFT space.
Be it contemporary or digital art, most creators and experts stress art as being the most important thing. Conversations about artistic factors instead of the valuation economy could keep the interest and creativity flowing. But, according to Mopidevi, there is something more significant than the valuation economy, that is the circulatory potential of the NFT space.
“Today, someone sitting in a remote area in Latin America can build artistic solidarity with someone in Delhi, without thinking what these geographic proximities are,” says Mopidevi. All thanks to NFT.
This article is part of ThePrint Feature’s Tracking Cryptonomy series. Read all the articles here.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)