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Young Indian digital artists see a new future in NFTs

Blockchain hasn’t just redefined art, it’s also helped artists find new buyers without going through traditional gatekeepers of the art world


When filmmaker and artist Vimal Chandran wanted to create this latest high-tech thing called crypto art, he drew inspiration from an unlikely quarter: the traditional procession of decorated wooden horses during temple festivals in his hometown of Palakkad in Kerala. Chandran’s animated NFT shows a young boy on a tricycle gazing in wonder at two large and otherworldly wooden horses with glittering lights.

NFTs or non-fungible tokens are digital assets including art, music, video and even memes that are encoded on a blockchain. These are sold in cryptocurrency. There has been quite a buzz around them after a record-breaking $69 million purchase by Singapore-based Indian entrepreneur Vignesh Sundaresan in March. Now, India too is jumping on the NFT bandwagon.

Some Indian artists have already sold their NFTs on international platforms such as Foundation, SuperRare and Open-Sea. Delhi-based designer Amrit Pal Singh is known for his signature ‘toy face’ style NFTs of public figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Frida Kahlo, and Vincent Van Gogh. His highest sale so far has been 15 ETH or Ethereum (Rs 18 lakh) for a set of Daft Punk toy faces released after the electronic music duo split in February.

“While earlier artists and designers would sell prints and merchandise, this offers a new dimension to your work,” says Singh, who gets many messages from senior artists wanting to explore NFTs. “There can be a lot of monetary opportunities for digital artists.” For instance, artists can draw up contracts which let them get a royalty from secondary sales of their NFTs. “You can get anywhere from 10% to 20% from every sale,” he adds. While the price of NFTs has plunged in the last month, Singh isn’t too worried. “Even if prices are revised, it is still a good market for artists to get into.”

Last week, Chandran made his debut on South Asia’s first NFT marketplace by cryptocurrency exchange company WazirX. To his surprise, his piece quickly sold for Rs 2.5 lakh. The platform (disclosure: WazirX is being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate though it claims it is in compliance with all laws) features a curated selection of Indian-origin artists from around the world. Several featured artists have taken on topical themes like Delhi-based freelance illustrator Ravi Koranga’s Dark Times which features figures in masks and lab coats, alluding to the spread of Covid-19. So far, the platform says it has sold NFTs worth $44,554 (Rs 32.5 lakh), with the highest sale being for $4,730 (Rs 3.46 lakh). Collectors can purchase NFTs through its native token WRX, which has a value of Rs 119. Sandesh Suvarna, VP WazirX NFT Marketplace says it’s a new asset class for collectors. “For artists, NFT gives them autonomy over their art.”

For younger artists like Chandran, NFTs are also a way to bypass traditional gatekeepers of the art world. “It is decentralised so anyone can sell anywhere in the world,” Chandran says. “The traditional art world was so reluctant to consider digital art because it was not saleable but now we can tokenise it.”

However, some concerns remain, such as their environmental costs. Most international platforms running on Ethereum also charge a substantial ‘gas fee’ to artists for mining NFTs. Since cryptocurrency is still in a legal grey area in India, some have chosen to steer clear of using it.

Raunaq Vaisoha, founder of block-chain startup Elemential who recently raised money for Covid relief by auctioning NFTs, says the pandemic has changed attitudes. “As people spend more time in the virtual world, they won’t distinguish between physical art and digital art,” he says. For example, Singh plans to set up a virtual gallery for his NFT collection.

In the traditional art world too, NFTs are enabling greater transparency. Since NFTs are unique digital tokens, they can be used as individual identifiers for physical assets on a blockchain allowing for a transparent transfer of ownership each time the works are resold. For instance, online blockchain-powered platform Terrain.Art is hosting an exhibition of senior artist Lalu Prasad Shaw’s paintings on the Bengali middle class, each of which have been certified using NFTs. “I have a feeling that it is going to become a new way to transact in the art world,” says founder Aparajita Jain, who also runs the Nature Morte gallery. “As a ledger system, it can help us weed out fakes and protect the artist’s legacy.”

NFTs can also include many elements of pop culture: virtual cats, voice notes, and even a video of supermodel Kate Moss sleeping. In India, EDM artist Nucleya dropped a limited edition 10-second beat for 1 ETH. In April, Mumbai-based filmmaker Terence-Hari Fernandes mined and sold his short film Those That Watch Me Dream for 0.3 ETH. “We wanted to showcase the value of films as NFTs to other independent filmmakers and hope to build an ecosystem for them in the blockchain,” he says.

TOY STORY: Delhi-based designer Amrit Pal Singh’s ‘toy face’ NFTs of Vincent Van Gogh, Malala Yousufzai and Frida Kahlo have sold on international platforms

Artists can draw up contracts which enable them to get a royalty from the secondary sales of their NFTs, opening up new opportunities


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