The golden spine of Anurag Tripathi’s ‘Kalayug’ catches the eye instantly. It glitters on the shelf, till you pick it up and notice the dark silhouette of a man against the headlights of cars. The contrast of gold and black is palpable. The juxtaposition even more significant when you read the book. For what lies within is a story that takes you deep into the labyrinth that the art industry is according to the author – glam and gloss on the outside but with a murky underbelly behind the sheen.
‘Kalayug’ enjoys a great plot, with only a handful of characters and a deceptively simple story line. There is no visible effort to complicate things or confuse the readers, and yet there are wheels within wheels; or to put it differently, paintings within paintings. Intrigue is a constant, with the first chapter itself setting the pace, the tone and the characters for what is to follow. And what does follow?
‘The global art world was transforming…this transformation had replaced aesthetics...with economic considerations of value and marketability…’
Jay Malhotra, a sharp and astute banker, enters the unregulated art market of the Navaratnas, hopeful of turning his fortunes around with the help of his personality and unflinching ambition. He knows that ‘the Navaratnas could be the next big trend in the art industry.’ But what he doesn’t is that ‘the purchase of the Navaratnas was so out of the ordinary, it had the potential to spoil the harmony in the art fraternity.’ So many unexpected colours mix on his palate; those events which surprise him, make him soar, make him struggle and finally shock him! As he makes his way from one art gallery to the next dealer, one warehouse to the next businessman and finally to the courtroom, Jay meets an array of characters who make or break his deals and add both style and suspense to this novel. There’s Patty, a savagely competitive art dealer and owner of two of the biggest art galleries. ‘There is no dearth of people, but there is only one Patty’, as she believes and the book later confirms. There’s Arun, a disillusioned artist. Deepak, the first-generation entrepreneur desperate for social acceptance. There are art collectors ‘hoping to ride the wave of increasing prices in the future’. And then there is Biswas, the academician who hopes for the ideal in the art world…
Every character in this book is manipulative. And so everything is manipulated. There are no free lunches and few relationships to trust. Which makes the book a page-turner, more so towards the end. Which makes the characters risk-takers. Which is also why every partnership – in bed or business – sets the reader wondering about ulterior motives and agendas. The guessing-ahead never really abates!
Consider Jay and Patty, both representatives of the contemporary, urban, educated world of business and art. Their ‘passionate battle for dominance’ in a world where ‘a bank balance is more tangible than goodwill’ is a constant note that drives them to turn the art tide their way. To even buy peace by selling their souls! How an outsider tries to succeed on a project that 'the queen of the market' herself had failed at is the exhilarating journey the book takes us on. Does he? Can he? That remains to be found out.
‘Kalayug’ not just makes for an entertaining story imagined well. It is created well too, the primary reason for which is Anurag Tripathi’s scholarship. Anurag knows the world of art - totally unregulated, fragmented and growing - like an insider would. His book is based in a context which is actual. Like Dan Browns’ books, ‘Kalayug’ is full of facts and analyses of artworks, artists and eras. From the calculated seating arrangement at complex auctions to the psychology of bidders. From the development of Tagore as a painter to the lack of documentation plaguing his paintings. From scientific methods of authentication to the underground forgery market often run by the painters’ families themselves. And from motives behind buying art as an alternate asset class to master painters languishing in penury on the roads. There’s much that is told to the readers, often in slightly repetitive chapters dedicated to information. Some may feel it slows the pace of the novel, but may change their minds when they realize how everything that is told is significant to the story unfolding with every turn of the page.
The author’s voice comes through the narrator’s - acutely observant, subtly satirical and with a tinge of regret that ‘all was fair in the unregulated art industry.’ Anurag’s social commentary is unmistakable. People who received fancy invitations made sure everyone knew about it. Perhaps, the applause wasn’t for the paintings but for the amount they sold for? ‘People without experience, expertise, reading or aesthetic exposure became art dealers.’ And the one question - ‘Were people buying art for its aesthetic beauty or merely paying for the signature of the Grand Master’? So many times you hear the narrator but you listen to the voice of the lesser sold artist that Anurag Tripathi is standing up for. Almost creating this story for. Even a forger is but ‘an artist…used his knowledge, talent and imagination to interpret’ because these days ‘being talented was not good enough’. It was Kalayug, after all. The world of art. The age of downfall. Or… both.
The only let-down in ‘Kalayug’ was, perhaps, the character of Patty. The blurb introduces her as a ‘fiercely competitive art dealer who will defend her turf at all costs’ and raises expectations for a great female character. However, the more you get to know her successes the more you realize – Patty is a stereotype speaking a typical script. She is smart and ambitious but ‘she did what was required to survive in an unforgiving world, exploiting her beauty and sexuality to her advantage…a go-getter, known to play dirty.’ Why? Does a female survivor of misfortune have no other way to success, except using and abusing those around her, much in the language of the abuse she may have faced? Plus, her dialogues lack charm, her retorts spunk. Even in her final gesture towards Jay, Patty befuddles rather than attracts.
One cannot consider ‘Kalayug’ as solely a thriller. It is a convincing exposé of the fickle and impulsive art industry, where money speaks and relationships go from symbiotic to parasitic in one stroke of the brush. This in turn makes the book a reflection of human nature itself, with adult ego, ambition and opportunity driving the characters to possess ‘institutionalised and objectified cultural capital’. The portrait of the art world in this gripping thriller is a nude figure of ‘the commercialization and degeneration' of this very world.
‘No one knows for certain the extent of these (forged) works currently afloat in the art market.
Biswas smiled as he read the last sentence and wondered if it should have read ‘no one wanted to know’ rather than ‘no one knew’.
The final twist to the tale ends it on a hopeful note. Utopic. Idyllic. (Naïve?) But hopeful, nonetheless, of ‘a new beginning.’ This is a book with a spine, which says it as it actually is.
'Kalayug' by Anurag Tripathi is a Rupa Publication, 2017.
[Review was commissioned by the PR agency. Views are my own.]