Made-to-Order Art on Main Street


Aileen Blaney

Published on 10.5.2023

Exterior of Reflection Glass & Frame Works on Kolsa Galli. 2019. Photo Courtesy of Vaibhav Devnath/LBB.

They can only be envied. Whatever their greatness and miseries, the disillusionments and failures of their careers, their role in society and place on earth were not questioned, their profession universally recognized and as evident as the profession of butcher, tailor, or baker. The question why art exists did not occur to anyone, because a world without paintings was simply inconceivable.
‘The Price of Art’ (Zbigniew Herbert)

At the counter of New Devendra Glass and Frame Work, in Pune’s Camp area, a woman wearing a mildly apprehensive look stands over a page from an outdated calendar. “This is in my pooja room since 2011,” she tells me after a few moments of silence. An image of Lord Vitthal, center-framed on an egg-yolk yellow page, is the motive behind her visit. I ask her if she plans to get a photo-print made of it. “No. I’m very attached to this. I want this only,” she replies.  

The gods are many here, and in every other framing shop that I’ve visited in India. “The most popular nowadays is Radha Krishna and Lord Buddha,” the owner’s son Chetan, tells me. We’re standing a few feet from an oil painting of the Maratha ruler Shivaji that takes up almost the entire width of the wall. Another imposingly sized digital print (of Shivaji) in a heavy gilt frame occupies a space just inside the entrance way. I ask about his popularity. “He’s the king,” Chetan tells me, smiling coyly. I notice that, unlike Shivaji, who’s depicted in a traditional mode, there are paintings rendering gods such as Ganesh in a modernist art style. Again, I turn to my young friend for an explanation. “A richer person will go for a god but in a modern art form. The normal person will go for original Radha Krishna,” he says. This is a business model that is definitely reductive yet strangely inclusive. Chetan goes on to articulate a commercial logic that is as pragmatic as the white cube gallerist's is whimsical: “There are different segments, we need to think of all ranges,” he explains, before gesturing at a set of shelves crammed with laminated pictures of a pantheon of Hindu gods that, he says, start at 80 rupees.   

In Reflection, a store across the lane from Devendra, which was my first port of call on this expedition, framed verses from the Bible and Koran sit propped up on the counter. As I enter the premises, Nasir, the owner, is giving instructions to his assistant: “It’s a Van Gogh, check again. Have you looked in that drawer?” A customer’s model image for what was to become a printed copy of a post-impressionist masterpiece has gone astray. Funnily enough, watching the genesis of a customer’s imitation Van Gogh reminds me of taking images of clothing off Pinterest for my tailor to copy. And indeed, made-to-measure art is the order of the day in Reflection and elsewhere on this lane at the center of Pune’s busiest shopping district.

“We are a complete end-to-end solution for whatever comes—animals, gods, modern art—we just provide the service,” Nasir tells me. “It’s an economic thing; instead of going for lakhs of rupees, unless they’re willing to shell it out, they come here.” The idea of originality, captured in the hand-signed artwork, is an obsolete concept for service providers with the machinery and software to turn any source image into a framed print. Here, it’s an economy of surplus, rather than one of scarcity—the variable aiding a lucrative global art market to spin on its axis of speculative finance (a world where a famous artist’s unmade bed, its own kind of signature, can sell for £2.5 million[1]). Whatsoever the consumer wants, whether to beautify the home or workplace, and in whatever quantity, can be arranged. The business card for Reflection says so in as many words: “All kinds of frames, canvas print, matt print, vinyl print & translate prints are done here.”  

When the customer at Reflection, a telephonic presence during my visit there, is eventually reunited with their Van Gogh, they’ll be able to choose from three different types of print: there’s the velvet option, which might have specks of glitter; there’s also a matt finish; and, finally, the most expensive one, canvas—its appeal being a resemblance to painting. Chetan, during an earlier conversation, had told me that canvas print is the preferred option for corporates and people with bungalows. The rectangular picture frame, meanwhile, around since at least the European Renaissance, and in India since roughly the same time, has, like the surfaces for printed matter, moved with the times. Here in Kolsa Galli’s framing shops (the ground zero for affordable prints and framing services in Pune), and in countless counterpart stores throughout the country, the metal frames that replaced wooden ones have in turn been supplanted by fiber. All of these changes—in the very substance, literally, of imitation artworks—continue to lower the bar to affordability. What is abiding, one might point out, however, is neither price, nor materiality, nor production processes, but purpose: “You will go to anyone’s house, at least one frame will be there,” one store owner told me. Another proprietor shares something similar, also bringing a metrics-driven philosophy to bear on the subject: “Framing is necessary in each and everyone’s life. Out of 10, at least 4 people will need framing.”

At Devendra’s, a little inside the door, a five-panel floral still life hangs on display. White lotuses spring from an earthen pot against a burnished background. “Each person can’t afford everything; they go for this. They can place in their staircase, or their living room,” Chetan tells me when he notices my attention resting on the lotuses. A few feet away hang a couple of 24×30 geometric abstract paintings inspired by the likes of S.H. Raza, Wassily Kandinsky, and Jean Miro. Typically, these hand-painted works fetch around INR 10,000, whereas a machine-made canvas print, if its dimensions are large enough, can cost anything up to INR 50,000; the technology used in producing such canvas prints is so advanced that it can be difficult to tell them apart from a genuine painting, giving them their expensive price tags. These very different art assortments and price ranges make Devendra’s one of the more successful shops on the gully. What they do is not unique, though; theirs is a business model practiced by many more framers across the country.  Common to all of them is the democratic logic of the market - a straightforward story of supply meeting customer demand, a different scenario to the special economic zone accessed by the professional art buyer working on behalf of clients with deep pockets. It’s no coincidence that Jerry Pinto took inspiration from Chemould Frames, a modest picture framing store that Kekoo Gandhy set up on Bombay’s Princess Street in the 1940s, when he gave the title Citizen Gallery to his book about its famous younger sibling, Chemould Gallery, the much-loved citadel of the Indian progressive art movement.  

Citizens who walk through the doors of Devendra’s have the luxury of commissioning a painting at an affordable cost (theirs is the only business on the street offering this particular service). Sai, the store’s in-house artist, who comes with 50 years of painting experience, is ready to work with whatever image a customer brings through the door. Around festival time, he faces a steep rise in demand for painted gods. At other times, Chetan’s uncle and father give him verbal instructions to follow. At the moment, “as per demand,” Chetan tells me, they’re asking him to paint abstract geometric and impressionist street scene paintings. He points up to a shelf accommodating rolls upon rolls of canvases. All of these are Sai creations, either the result of working with the store owners—whose intuitive grasp of what might become a fast-moving consumer painting dictates what they ask him to produce—or straight-up reproductions requested by the clientele.

Ironically, the ubiquity of phone photography has rekindled the appetite for painting, and companies such as Portrait Flip, based in the US with artists working out of India, among other locations, give the consumer an opportunity to either turn their photographic portraits into paintings, or to ‘own a famous painting’. In their online store, Portrait Flip gives customers a walk-through of ‘how to get your own masterpiece’: “simply click ‘paint my masterpiece’ and follow the process; if you already have a painting in mind, you can get a quote here or simply fill out the form below.” Of course, handmade art replicas are nothing new. Caravaggio, the most copied and imitated artist in the history of Western art, lent his name to a group of followers, the Caravaggisti. These painters took overt inspiration from his technique, style, and choice of subject, often going on to become outstanding artists in their own right. Others, who would be better described as copy artists, have given experts the difficult task of appraising the originality of paintings that are either believed or doubted to be a Caravaggio, on occasions when one surfaces in an old attic or outhouse somewhere. Meanwhile, the citizenry visiting Kolsa Galli or those shopping online, indifferent to artist signatures or limited editions, can own an imitation artwork at no great expense. Like the framing shops, with their no-nonsense, no-art-speak approach, Portrait Flip knows who its market is and how to sell to it: “Bring home a famous artwork with our Reproduction Paintings.”

Without being part of the art market as many people know it, Pune’s Kolsa Galli is a marketplace of images; incidentally, pictures are not the only replicas on the lane, something I discovered after wandering into a store selling Nike and Adidas ‘first copies’. The money question, however, is as important here as in the contemporary art market, if in very different ways. In the latter, art is an investment that may or may not have any intrinsic value. The price of art and value of the investment flow from the artist’s reputation, the footwork of the gallerist, and the judgments of the art critic. In the framing-shop world, by contrast, art for sale has little or no investment value, the artist is a draughtsman, and the critic is not part of the equation. What framed pictures (copies, first copies, reproductions, replicas, and everything in between and beyond) do have, however, is intrinsic worth—at least for the buyers who take them home and live with them for years, if not forever.

[1]My Bed’ is an artwork by the English artist Tracey Emin. It has its own Wikipedia page, where it is credited for having been “exhibited in Tate Gallery in 1999 as one of the shortlisted works for the Turner Prize” and described as consisting of “her bed with bedroom objects in a dishevelled state”. It goes on to point out: “Although it did not win the prize, its notoriety has persisted. It was sold at auction by Christie’s in July 2014 for £2,546,500.”, accessed 27 February, 2023.

Aileen Blaney teaches film studies at FLAME University. You can reach her at