In India, the world of NFTs suffers from the same inequalities as the world of traditional art

A much-discussed moment in the Indian art world’s 2021 calendar was the October sale of La Petite Mort (from The Orgasm Project) for $94,500 at the Sotheby’s-Burning Man Project auction, the highest price paid until then for a non-fungible token by an Indian artist. The NFT was of a ‘phygital’ artwork created by Raghava KK (aka NFT Punk) in collaboration with fellow artist Harshit Agrawal, neuroscience researcher Abhijeet Satani and Ben Tritt, founder of a technology-based art production company. The sold token certified ownership of both a digital representation of Raghava’s brain activity during orgasm and a physical oil on canvas version made using a 3D painting robot.

Bengaluru-born Raghava was an early adopter of computer-based technologies in art, first engaging with them 25 years ago. When crypto rolled around, he recognised its value as an asset class. In 2017, Raghava started a project with American investor Mike Novogratz, for which he “wrote up a vision statement, [saying that] essentially, if you can make an algorithm unique, it’ll open a tsunami of value” Though he later moved on from the project, he continued to pursue his interest in the form now widely understood as the NFT, “where every stakeholder [in the blockchain] participates”.

The wider world learned of the term NFT in March 2021 after the sale of an artwork titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days by the artist Beeple (aka Mike Winkelmann) for $69 million by the auction house Christie’s created a furore by becoming the third most expensive by a living artist. It was heralded by some as a watershed moment in the history of art, and reviled by others as the death of artistic value. What polarised public opinion was the fact that Everydays was a collage of 5,000 digital images, an NFT.

Unlike cryptocurrency, which like regular money is fungible (i.e. any one unit can be exchanged for any other), crypto-art is analogous to fine art in that it is ostensibly a unique asset that cannot be substituted by another. A certificate establishing ownership of a crypto-artwork, a non-fungible token or NFT exists as a code in a tamper-proof digital ledger or blockchain (the most popular, including in India, is Ethereum and to a lesser extent, Polygon). Through 2021, deep into what came to be termed the “JPEG summer”, the international contemporary art market seemed to be strafing towards a new frontier.

La Petite Mort. Oil On Canvas, 74.75” x 74.75” x 1.75”. Raghava KK, 2021.

From the beginning, Indians were involved – the buyers of the Beeple work were Singapore-based Vignesh Sundaresan (aka MetaKovan) and Anand Venkateswaran (aka Twobadour), representing a “crypto-exclusive” fund called Metapurse. As significant as the sale appears, what immediately followed was controversy about a conflict of interest regarding Beeple’s pre-existing 2% stake in a Metapurse crypto token, B20. What this report indicated was: the price of Metapurse’s token shot up in response to its own massive bid on business partner Beeple’s artwork. It’s a quintessential NFT story involving digital art, lots of money, questionable manoeuvring and, of course, a massive amount of hype about the future.

In India, while the government wants to regulate cryptocurrency, artists, platform owners and auctioneers are hopeful about NFTs being the next horizon of Indian art, especially in the wake of the retarding effects of Covid-19. In the Indian art world too, there came something of a “web3 winter”, catalysed by the emergence of new crypto-art platforms, headline-making auction sales and the emergence of influencer artists on social media.

Sandesh B Suvarna, vice-president at one of India’s biggest crypto platforms, WazirX, attributes the general craze for NFTs in India to “an explosion of the South Asian passion economy” during the Covid-19 pandemic. Speaking specifically about art, Hari Pilaka, co-founder of White Noise, a platform launched in December 2021, cites three reasons he and his partners Parth Taco and Sajid Wajid see potential in the NFT art scene: “We have a sizeable demographic of young artists, solid high-speed internet connectivity nationwide and rich, young collectors interested in crypto-art as stock.”

‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’ by the artist Beeple (aka Mike Winkelmann). Credit: Handout/Christie’s Auction House/AFP

But is the hype founded?

The NFT art market in India, like its share in the traditional global art market, is still very small and tough to track because there simply isn’t enough data, according to Arvind Vijay Mohan, trade analyst and CEO of Artery, an asset advisory firm specialising in art. Speaking at a webinar called ‘Decoding the NFT’ at Delhi’s Dhoomimal Gallery, he elaborated, “In the Indian context, NFTs have picked up a lot of young collectors. Day trading has taken off during Covid-19 with the loss of jobs, and people want to diversify their portfolios. We aren’t producing Peggy Guggenheims here.” He reiterated this position in an interview to this writer: “In the Indian context, there’s no talk as there is overseas of most expensive NFTs sold. If there were numbers of value, platforms would publicise them. So I don’t think money is being put where mouths are…it’s a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes playing out.”

Pushing back against this view are people like WazirX’s Suvarna who believe that the blockchain model offers artists more than the gallery does. “To buy physical art, you need to reach out to museums and galleries,” Suvarna said. “We have removed the entry barrier. Gallerists used to charge up to 40% whereas the platform fee is hardly 2-5%.”

The blockchain-enabled decentralisation of art’s production and distribution appears to promise more democratic participation, enabling more artists to easily monetise their work without having to deal with galleries and dealers. But how realistic is this claim? Who has access to this supposedly egalitarian apparatus? One aspect that came up with the artists and platforms interviewed was the issue of gas fees, the initial payment required to mint a token. The figures quoted varied widely, much like the flux of crypto market itself. WazirX is the cheapest at Rs 50 because it caters mainly to Indians, though according to one artist, “It crashes often – it’s not built to handle large volumes of traffic and it has limited reach worldwide.”

Discussing his own hesitation to mint, a young Indian artist speaking on condition of anonymity says that it’s more complicated than every Indian artist with an internet connection (and not everyone has that) suddenly being able to generate income. “You might spend up to Rs 25,000 in gas fees alone,” he said. “Plus, the market is very volatile and dependent on trends. There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to sell your work.”

The gas price fluctuates based on the number of transactions at the time of minting, an indicator of how dynamic the market is, possibly to the detriment of the artist. Lazy minting is a process whereby the cost of minting is added to the price of the artwork, thus making it part of the buyer’s bill. However, this lack of a filter also leads to platforms being flooded with copies. This is why WazirX doesn’t have that feature, says Suvarna, opting instead for the methods of referral and review (a lengthy process involving proving social media credibility and submission of a “making of” video) for whitelisting assets. Faridabad-based illustrator and comics maker Bhanu Pratap makes the point that the factors that influence access and success in the traditional art market, like caste, gender and class, do so in the NFT space as well.

In 2018, as part of two-member collective 64/1, Raghava helped mount Gradient Descent, the world’s first Artificial Intelligence art show, at one of India’s highest profile galleries, Delhi’s Nature Morte, co-directed by Aparajita Jain. Continuing her interest in the intersection of art and technology, in June 2021, Jain launched a blockchain-powered art platform called Terrain.art, straddling the trade of both physical art and crypto-art (“I would not call it NFT art, rather it’s NFT-ed art.”) Jain’s business partner at Nature Morte, Peter Nagy, has been quoted describing NFTs as “a charade”. Obviously, she doesn’t agree, instead characterising the NFT era as “a moment akin to the coming of photography”.

She believes that NFTs have made artmaking accessible: “NFTs do democratise the practice of art; we have artists from all over India on Terrain.art.” She points out that in India, historically no artist gets royalty, but since NFTs are minted through smart contracts, these can be coded such that artists get a percentage each time their work is sold. But how many working artists would enjoy these benefits? As Vijay Mohan points out, few artists ever reach the point of secondary sales: “For resale to matter, an artist needs to be in demand [in the first place]. [Most of] the guys selling NFTs — nobody even knows their names. The resale of art is usually driven by future value because of scarcity. In the case of an NFT, which is reproducible, the artist probably has years of practice ahead of him. Why pay top dollar?”

Another advantage of these blockchained smart contracts is that at least theoretically they solve the longstanding problem of record of ownership that distinguishes fakes from authentic works. Jain explained, “The entire NFT space is based on the idea of provenance, on giving security to the artist or buyer in perpetuity. NFTs make the process [of establishing authenticity] effortless.” Terrain.art’s trajectory seems to mirror a growing confidence in this new infrastructure and form of art in India: though initially posted with each sale, Jain says that Terrain.art will soon stop issuing physical certificates of authenticity.

Pratap is sceptical, observing that NFT-ed art is forged all the same and that the blockchain can be as opaque as older forms of information. He expresses another concern: “Even democratic spaces have security. This is not democratic.” The crypto space in India, as elsewhere, is unregulated, by design of course since the entire point is to circumvent centralised control like big government, big banks and, in the case of NFTs, thumb a nose at ‘big art’ (already barely regulated). The downside to this is a lack of accountability and redressal (except when companies want to exercise control, since the trust-based structure does tend to collapse). Pratap elucidated, “Scams are everywhere. There is no recourse in case of data leaks [phishing attacks] and plagiarism [called copyminting in the NFT community; Indian copyright law pertaining to NFTs is hazy because online anonymity shields violators.] The first chump in this whole thing is the artist.” He gives examples of scams, many of which have cognates in the traditional art market as well as in the West’s NFT market: people buy their own works to drive up its price; sellers hire artists at low rates to produce tokens, exploiting their labour to earn profit. As such, leaving artists to the vagaries of the market can be disastrous in an already precarious economy.

Sherlock Toy Face, from Toy Faces series, by Amrit Pal Singh. Courtesy: Amrit Pal Singh.

One of the artists Terrain.art featured in its September 2021 show of physical works at Delhi’s Bikaner House is Amrit Pal Singh, who had by November 2021 earned more than $1 million through the sale of NFTs over the course of nine months. He points out the broader context in which NFT success stories like his have emerged, “There’s been a rise in the creator’s economy – lots of opportunities were created by NFTs, including increasing the reach of artists by 1000x.” Singh mints his 3D series of portraits (Toy Faces) and environments (Toy Rooms) on foreign platforms Open Sea and Foundation and finds the blockchain to be more lucrative for artists than the traditional art market. “Galleries aren’t required anymore,” Singh said. “In terms of trends and choices, a lot of control is with the community, bringing new collectors into the space, most of whom made their money in crypto.”

For Singh, it’s the network of participators that holds appeal, more than the money. “The NFT space is a very supportive community,” he said. “For Indian artists, the space is open.” What about the artists who are being left out in the cold, unable to afford the initial gas fees or make sales? Of Singh’s own experience, fees on an Ethereum-powered platforms abroad can be upwards of Rs 15,000. He acceded, “Obviously privilege is required to access the [international] market but I have seen a lot of junior designers and students doing it [successfully].”

Indrajit Chatterji, owner of Prinseps, the Mumbai-based auction house that in January 2022 launched India’s first NFT auction, selling works by early 20th century painter Gobardhan Ash, agrees that the NFT market in India is small, but he is optimistic, “It’s part of a natural evolution in how art is made, from cave paintings to using canvas. Not digital art, but its moment in India is still relatively nascent.” Prinseps’ choice of art to mint was deliberate. Taking their cue from the OG NFT collectibles, the CryptoPunk collection, Chatterji accounts for the decision to sell Ash, “The CryptoPunk avatars are created simplistically. A lot of the work Gobardhan Ash did between 1948 and 1951 was similar to avatars, displaying a certain emotion or personality trait.”

Curating an internet persona is one of the reasons people buy NFT art. Pilaka suggests that the pandemic, when Indians got cut off from socialisation was possible only online, sped up the surge in demand for skins and avatars – “extensions of the virtualisation of life”. Gobardhan Ash’s 70-year-old pieces were amenable to being deployed as part of buyers’ social media presence, making them prime NFT material.

But what happens to the question of intrinsic aesthetic value in the age of blockchain production? A lot of the art on Indian NFT platforms is plain bad, riffing off existing pop cultural forms, apparently devoid of original ideas and indistinguishable. The young artist who preferred anonymity is critical of the Indian NFT market saturated with memes and viral collectibles. “At this point, [most of] it is far from fine art,” he said. “The templates are code-based and the human and conceptual approach is missing. The design of most NFT art is telling: it’s an album run through with a code. They are versions of the same character, more of an investment from a collector’s point of view.”

Pratap too finds the dominant NFT aesthetic of “the flat avatar, thumbnails and tiles” on Indian platform to be fungible. “It’s hard to discern the qualitative features – there’s no affect to the works,” he said. “Even from an artistic perspective, it’s tough to embrace NFTs. People are buying storage space, not art.” In the webinar, Vijay Mohan compares the majority of it to Clip Art. In the interview, he draws parallels between NFTs and “mediocre art of the 2000s”. A question arises about commoditisation and the link between the aesthetics and the political economy of NFT art in India, seemingly oriented towards investors rather than art makers and lovers.

A woman looks at an NFT by Larva Labs titled ‘CryptoPunk 7523’ at Sotheby’s in June 2021. Credit: Timothy A Clary/AFP.

Of course, this discourse is hardly new or exclusive to crypto-art. As Prinsep’s Chatterji notes, “Art has always been an [investment] asset the world over, we’re not doing anything different in India. NFTs are a gamechanger because they convert art into a stock that can be traded within seconds.” Despite the repeated characterisation of NFTs and crypto-art in India as “disruptive”, is it simply the next phase of a long-standing trajectory in India since the late 20th century, of the securitisation of art as an investment, culminating in the art boom of the 2000s? While Vijay Mohan agrees that there are similarities in terms of driving factors, Terrain.art’s Aparajita Jain doesn’t think so. “There was no securitisation [back then], just lots of punting,” she said. “This [now] is backed by the blockchain.” But the blockchain can only guarantee information. For value to be generated, the token has to be tethered to an actual asset with limited reserves, as it is with other commodities like precious minerals and physical fine art (which there was in the 2000s).

In fact, one of the chief criticisms of crypto is ecological (and therefore economic): unsustainable amounts of electricity must be generated in order to power servers that mine crypto, its scarcity consequently creating value for digital assets. Incentives to offset carbon footprints and other models of mining seem like greenwashing attempts to appease the conscience of individual consumers and reward the wealthy. Pratap does spot a pattern similar to the early-stage securitisation of art in India, albeit “with a Web 2.0 spin. Back then it was some industrialist [profiting off the art], now it’s a tech firm manager. The worrying part is the combination – the fine art grift, the fintech scams and the gullible people.” The very fact that auctions are being held suggests that NFTs are all too compatible with, and comfortably folded into, the very infrastructure they ostensibly seek to challenge.

For now, NFTs are not considered securities in India and not governed by relevant laws. But given the Securities and Exchange Board of India’s history of shutting down art funds in the 2000s that were similar to fractionalised NFTs (shared ownership of a token), the jury is still out on what their regulatory future might look like.

In the meantime, the debate around what it means to own a work that can be right-clicked and saved by anyone else will continue to rage.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.