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PATRON SAINT,

9 Sep

PATRON SAINT,

As Chemould Prescott Road celebrates
50 years this month, we sketch the life and
loves of the place that so many Indian
artists called home
By GEORGINA MADDOX

If you’d visited the Jehangir
Art Gallery in the 1990s, it
would not have been uncommon
to see the late Kekoo Gandhy
having his lunch of salted sprouts, rice
and boiled vegetables at Café Samovar,
after which he would go up to his own
Gallery Chemould, where an exciting
exhibition was inevitably afoot. Gandhy
often held your hand when he spoke to
you; he was so genteel, it never made
you uncomfortable. As he grew older,
he sometimes fell asleep while chatting
and would wake up after a short nap
to continue from where he’d left off.
He always had, at the ready, the kind
of stories you wished were your own;
stories that you knew, with time and
enough retellings, would even become
your own. “I once came upon a young
artist painting beautiful seascapes on the
rocks near Bandstand [in Mumbai].
I invited him home to Kekee Manzil
for a cup of tea and bought six of his
paintings for ` 600. The artist was SH
Raza,” I remember him telling me.
Kekoo and his wife, Khorshed
Gandhy, went on to establish
Chemould, now one of the country’s
oldest commercial art galleries.
What started off as a framer’s shop – the
Princess Street, Bombay unit of Kekoo’s
Chemical Moulding Manufacturing
Company (later Chemould), which
produced frames for paintings – in
1941, became the pivot around which
the post-colonial story of Indian art was
beginning to take shape. The Bombay
Progressives, a group of avant-garde
artists including FN Souza, MF Husain,
SH Raza, KH Ara, S Bakre and HA
Gade, were lent the space for some of
their earliest showings at a time when
their ‘anarchic’ work found no purchase.
“Husain and I first displayed our
paintings in Kekoo’s showroom window,
in his specially designed frames, while he
promoted us to prospective clients like
Walter Langhammer and Emmanuel
Schlesinger, war émigrés from Germany
who became great patrons of the arts
during the 1950s and ’60s,” recalls
92-year-old Raza.
The Gandhys were unequivocal
in their support of the new, the
groundbreaking, the change-making.
Whatever shook up the order, whatever
furthered the conversation.
“I carry the weight of a big legacy,
and I am often daunted by it,” says
present director Shireen Gandhy, Kekoo
and Khorshed’s daughter. “My parents
had a vision when they founded Gallery
Chemould in 1963. They wanted to
celebrate art that was of its time, to
promote young talent and to provide
a space for art to go beyond the frame, so
that it touched lives,” says Gandhy.
E L L E SEPTEMBER 2013
PATRON
SAINT
As Chemould Prescott Road celebrates
50 years this month, we sketch the life and
loves of the place that so many Indian
artists called home
By GEORGINA MADDOX
Photograph: farzan randelia; MAKE-UP AND HAIR: SUNITA BRACE.
Shoes courtesy Zara
shireen gandhy
ELLEART
116
Art Chemould1.indd 116 28/08/13 8:47 AM
In 2007, she took the much-debated
decision to move out of the intimate space
above Jehangir Art Gallery to establish
a new chapter at Queen’s Mansion,
Prescott Road, rechristening the gallery
Chemould Prescott Road. The vast
space, shiny chrome and woodwork had
none of the homegrown quality that
earmarked the old Chemould. But times
had changed. The competition was
cutthroat, the art market was soaring
(before it went on to crash spectacularly)
and the gallery needed to match step.
“If there is one thing that I have learned
from my parents, it is to believe in the
here and now, with an eye to the future,”
says Shireen.
Now, for its 50-year celebrations,
along with noted art historian and curator
Geeta Kapur, Shireen has planned
a five-part exhibition that will celebrate,
for a year, Indian Contemporary art in
all its diversity and complexity.
The first exhibition will coincide
with the death anniversary of Bhupen
Khakhar. “It may seem unconventional
to celebrate on the death anniversary of
one of our most important artists, but art
is immortal and often recycles death,”
says Shireen. One of the central paintings
will feature Khakhar, India’s first openly
gay painter, massaging the feet of his
partner, Vallabhai. Artists Gieve Patel,
Mehlli Gobhai, Sudhir Patwardhan
and Atul Dodiya will also be featured in
this homage.
Dodiya remembers frequenting the
tiny gallery in his student days at the JJ
School of Art in the late 1970s through
the early ’80s. “Kekoo and Khorshed
were always welcoming to young students
hungry for knowledge. Chemould was
a real adda where poets, playwrights,
lawyers, journalists and art lovers would
meet and talk for hours,” he recalls. His
fondest memory goes back 25 years, to his
first solo exhibition at the gallery. It was
also Shireen’s first time organising and
planning a show from scratch. “Shireen
was bubbling over with ideas. We made
a beeline for each other,” he says. The two
went on to become lifelong compatriots.
When she moved to the new space in
2007, another big first, Dodiya’s was the
inaugural exhibition.
Where the senior Gandhys had
been mentors, the new director was
a contemporary, a co-conspirator to
the young art community. Multimedia
artist Jitish Kallat remembers his first
meeting with Shireen. “I was an art
student visiting Chemould in 1996 when
she came up to me, bit her wristwatch,
and said ‘Hi! I’m Shireen Gandhy.’ We
became friends right away.” Kallat’s
early works often spoke about his own
mortality and the tyranny of time, and
Shireen had been tracking him. “I think
what defines Chemould for me is its deep
love for art – whether it was the tribal art
of Jivya Soma Mashe, a Warli painter
who had his first exhibition there, or
installation and video art that did not
even have a market in the 1990s.”
Art critic Ranjit Hoskote agrees,
“It’s the adventurous vision that
Chemould has always had, and its
ability to span artistic engagement, that
set it apart,” he says. “There was no
dogma of looking only at a particular
type of art. That and the Gandhys’
incredible drive, which organically led
to social and political engagement,
made Chemould not just a gallery, but
a platform for larger discourse.”
And for a wicked sense of humour,
that family trademark. For example,
at her first performance-based photography
exhibition, titled ‘Phantom
Lady’, artist Pushpamala N donned a
cape, a mask and Nadia Hunterwali
boots, roping in her friends (Atul Dodiya,
Mehlli Gobhai and others) who posed as
gangsters – at Chemould.
Time has a way of marching on,
though, indifferent to both travails and
glory. The gallery has done its best to
keep up, sometimes taking the difficult
decision to break from lifelong alliances
and take the road less lucrative. “Some
changes have been organic, but it
has been a very conscious decision to
showcase only contemporary artists,”
says Shireen. “So
while Tyeb Mehta was
with us till the end, an
artist like Raza may
have felt disgruntled
because he could not
see himself fitting into
the new Chemould.”
Shireen dug in her heels
even during economic
downturns. When the
market was nervous, with everyone
rushing back to the trusty Moderns,
Chemould continued to define itself as a
contemporary art space featuring newer
talent. But she is wistful: “Running an
art gallery on this scale is hard; not only
is the economy weak and the art market
slow, but private art entrepreneurs
like us get almost no support from
the government.”
For now though, rejoicing is
important. The little framer’s shop has
come a long way, and while the future
might be speculative, history is sound.
The Gandhys – Kekoo, Khorshed,
Shireen – have already won.
ELLEART
E L L E SEPTEMBER 2013

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2 Responses to “PATRON SAINT,”

  1. nikkitytom September 28, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    I have a lump in my throat as i read this. Kekoo and Korshed were dear friends and i spent many an hour sitting with them and chewing over the latest news on the art scene in the 1970’s and 80’s. I remember Kekoo’s eyes filling with tears as my years in India were coming to a close.

    And I remember the pair of them neatly tricking me into commenting on a show,while Mohini Bhullar the editor of the brand new Bombay Magazine stood behind me taking notes. And getting my first assignment right then and there. As I stood there totally confounded by Mohini’s insistence that i write it all down and deliver it to her office the next day, Kekoo beamed and encouraged me.

    And when M.F. Hussain returned from Italy with a beautiful collection of prints, I noticed his signature had been printed onto each piece by the printer. I mentioned this to Kekoo and completely trusting. he handed me an erase to “test” it. And when the signatures proved to be printed we then sat there chewing our fingernails as we debated how to tell the eminent artist he would have to countersign 4000 prints to avoid selling posters. To his great credit, Kakoo found the whole episode funny. I suspect today those “double” signatures are worth a bundle.

    I worked for the Bombay Magazine as their Art Critic for several years until I left India. And I began my career right there in Kekoo and Korshed’s little gallery. At that time, Gallery Chemould and the Pundole Art Gallery were the two commercial galleries … newer ones were opening as I left. But the art scene was still fragile. Today I can’t believe the advances and I yearn to be back in Mumbai …..

    • themaddoxproject October 17, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

      Thank you for this heartfelt response to the article. It is always encouraging to know that your work is being read by people who matter. I would love to know more about your time in Bombay/Mumbai. Please let me know if you have a blog of your own, or if you have showcased your writing on a website. Would love to read it.
      Cheers and I do hope you come to Mumbai again, though now I live in Delhi.
      Warm regards
      Georgina

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