A few streets over from the rising Oberoi is the Devi Art Foundation. In 2008 Delhi’s Poddar family, who made their fortune in paper and perpetuated it in hotels, established the foundation—the first private museum of contemporary Indian art in India. Peter Nagy, an American who runs Nature Morte, Delhi’s leading contemporary art gallery, was visiting that afternoon to see its latest exhibition. After marveling at traditional scroll paintings and bronze casts, Nagy climbed into the backseat of his SUV for the ride back to central Delhi. That night he was hosting a dinner for artist Subodh Gupta, who, depending on whom you ask, is either the Damien Hirst or the Jeff Koons of India. A larger reception was planned for the following night. Nagy’s BlackBerry vibrated relentlessly. “You would not believe the level of prima donna behavior I’m getting,” Nagy said. “Everybody wants an invitation.” Before the financial crisis, he estimated, his clientele was two thirds European. It is now three fourths Indian. “My Indian clients want things that look big and sparkly and international,” he said. “They don’t want anything that looks ‘old India.’”
The Gupta dinner took place in the backyard of Nagy’s gallery. It had a winter wonderland feel: mirrored votives, pale mums, silvery branches. Nagy’s 30 guests were seated in high-backed chairs draped with translucent chiffon as waiters in saffron-colored scarves served soup, daal, and lamb so tender a fork seemed like overkill. Feroze Gujral, once India’s top model and now one of its grander dames, presided over one end of the table. (“Instead of exercising, I get a full-body massage five times a week, which has kept me toned and fit,” she once told Indian Vogue.) Toward the end of the meal, her husband, architect Mohit Gujral, stood to tell a dirty joke. “Stop!” Feroze cried. “It’s so embarrassing!” Mohit proceeded with his joke—it involved an Italian accent, a beleaguered lover, and the line “I can’t take another 67 of those”—and afterward even Feroze was faintly smiling.
Not everyone has found Delhi’s age of prosperity and sophistication so pleasing. “Delhi is...a city with a fondness for barbed wire, armed guards and guest lists,” journalist Rana Dasgupta wrote in Granta in 2009. In the essay, titled “Capital Gains,” Dasgupta offered a taxonomy of Delhi’s class structure, as manifested by its cars: “Mercedes flash Marutis to let them through the throng, and Marutis move aside. Canary-yellow Hummers lumber over the concrete barriers from the heaving jam into the empty bus lanes and accelerate...past the masses—and traffic police look away, for what cop is going to risk his life to challenge the entitlement of rich kids?”