Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Neha Kirpal – Day 5

A last-minute request for space for a private jet signals that it’s time for the art fair director to exchange her jeans for her best sari

Neha Kirpal – Day 5

January 28 2013
Neha Kirpal

Day: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

I finish the final site walk of the day at 11pm, spotting several snags: booth touch-ups, lighting problems, carpet cleaning, sign polishing and changing the plants in the VIP lounges.

All my headaches of health and safety procedures, insurance and bureaucracy administration disappear once we start unveiling the artworks. One of the installations to be delivered in the next couple of days that I’m particularly excited about is by Mumbai-born artist Jitish Kallat. Covering Letter is inspired by a letter written by Ghandi to Hitler in 1939, urging the dictator to consider the values of non-violence. The artist beams the text on a curtain of traversable dry fog. I can’t wait to see how visitors react to this piece. I was with Jitish and his wife, Reena, at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which was the last event in the Indian art calendar during a hot and sweaty week last December. Reena – another inspiring artist, who I’ve been a fan of for many years – has also taken part in one of the art projects this year, presenting her sculpture Podium/Cube.

This weekend is the only time I have to think about what I’ll be wearing on the fair days and VIP events. Up until now the uniform for everyone on site has been anything that provides comfort and warmth. I’ve stuck to my favourite large cardigans, jeans, thick socks and old Nike trainers. As I don’t have a fairy godmother, an hour on Thursday morning will be spent frantically picking out something special from my wardrobe. Today I chose a traditional dress from my favourite designer, Ritu Kumar.

The preview day is a glamorous affair in the India society scene; the site is crawling with the fashion pack, politicians from Mumbai and Delhi, and reporters from the glossies, who celebrity- and trend-spot over cocktails and paneer and chickpea delicacies. Eccentric personalities and big egos are all part of the fun of the fair, but underneath the glamour, the collectors, artists and gallery owners are all playing an important game. The event is a boost of energy for India’s art scene, which everyone involved takes very seriously.

Saturday was Republic Day for India and a public holiday across the whole of the country, a tribute to the day the Constitution of India came into force 63 years ago. Most places remain closed until noon and there is a grand parade on Rajpath, which the team and I watch on TV in our tent. Jet planes pass overhead and fireworks are relentless until the early hours.  If I wasn’t at the fair, I’d probably be at my friends’ barbecue and bonfire parties. Either that or heading to one of the many weddings going on this month; this is an auspicious phase in the Hindu calendar for matrimonial celebrations. Elaborate invitation cards line my windowsills, often five pages long and beautifully embellished, and accompanied with treats such as brownies, dried fruit, wine, baklava and an assortment of exotic Indian pastries. Sometimes I feel that preparing for the fair is like organising a big, fat Indian wedding – but at least at my own wedding I had family to buy my dresses for the big day!


I get a call from a collector. “Is there a parking space for my private jet?” he asks. With only three hours to spend at the fair, he needs to make a speedy getaway. As I juggle parking spaces, media interview requests and sponsor welfare, I’m grateful that Will and Sandy will be supporting me during the fair days – a strong team of three to greet the hundreds of VIPs as they enter the grounds is very welcome after years of flying solo.

I make a flash visit to an exhibition opening downtown at Palette Art Gallery on Sunday night and I have no time to go home to change. Make-up is done in the car en route in dim light – I’ve become an expert at this manoeuvre and my Honda has become something of a moving home for me, stocked up with all sorts of necessities: invites to the fair, a few sets of clothes and shoes, fresh fruit, an extra BlackBerry and an assortment of my daughter Ruhi’s things.


I get a call from the Spanish ambassador. I have 140 exhibitors arriving on site tomorrow but he insists, charmingly, that I just cannot decline his flamingo soirée in honour of the Spanish galleries presenting their work at the fair. Sadly, with the German, French, Swiss, Italian and British embassies all hosting similar events this week, it will be a miracle if I make even half of them.

From Tuesday onwards, the days will run into one another as the art party fever spreads across Delhi. I cannot believe that in a week’s time, the art fair’s doors will have closed for the fifth time.

See also

People, Neha Kirpal