'Missing women' loom over India's art fair

NEW DELHI - Large black figures cast in steel loomed over the India Art Fair as it opened on Friday with the display of the eerie silhouettes seeking to highlight the country's millions of "missing" women.

The outdoor installation called M.I.S.S.I.N.G. by artist Leena Kejriwal is a visual response to alarming research showing a gaping gender gap in India, which has led to severe imbalances in some parts of the country.

Caused by sex-selective abortion, infanticide and the death of girls through neglect, the issue is part of a national debate about women's rights

sparked by fresh scrutiny of sexual violence. The three outsized sculptures are meant to be "like sharp, black holes cut out of the sky. Holes into which millions of girls disappear from the face of this earth," according to Kejriwal's description of the project.

India's 2011 census data showed that just 914 girls are born nationwide per 1,000 boys - much behind the global benchmark of 952 - reflecting a cultural preference for male heirs.

The India Art fair has been phenomenally successful since its first edition in 2008 and now draws leading local and international galleries and artists, as well as hundreds of thousands of members of the public.

This year organisers signalled their intent to tackle some of the issues thrown up by the sweeping changes underway in the world's biggest democracy, wrought by economic development and globalisation.

Another public photo display challenges a recent Supreme Court decision which has recriminalised gay sex by reinstating a 1860 colonial law that outlaws "carnal intercourse against the order of nature."

"We are in a state of flux, in a state of change and the art is responding to that," Art Fair founder Neha Kirpal told AFP.

"There is a degree of freshness and energy, a degree of revolt and rebellion sometimes. The art reflects the mood and energy of the country," she added.

The Indian market is still far off its peaks of 2008 when the global financial crisis led to a sharp fall in prices, leaving many investors who had rushed into the young art scene badly burned.

The market for top-end pieces by established modern artists remains strong - as demonstrated by a recent record Christie's auction in Mumbai - but prices for the rest are still depressed, experts say.

In 2010, the United Nations Development Programme said that Asia was "missing" about 96 million women - the vast majority in China and India - who died from discriminatory healthcare and neglect or who were never born at all.

India has seen its women's rights movement gain confidence over the past year in response to a string of horrifying sex crimes reported in the media, starting with the gang-rape of a student on a New Delhi bus in December 2012.