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The Kumars at 56

Delhi’s oldest art gallery celebrates 55 years, writes Amitava Sanyal.

art and culture Updated: Jan 22, 2010 22:12 IST
Amitava Sanyal

The emergence of private galleries reflects the story of modern art the world over. But such a view of Delhi’s art scene remains unclear, made foggy by claims and counter-claims. On one side is the Kumar Art Gallery run by the seven Kumar brothers, which is celebrating 55 years of existence with a star-studded show next week; on the other side is Dhoomimal, the gallery owned by Kumars’ maternal uncles, the Jains, that claimed four years ago to have completed 70 years.

Virendra Kumar, 77, the eldest of the seven brothers, says, “My journey started with a mistake. I was scouring Connaught Place for a photo studio that could add a caption to a print. I spotted Kulkarni Art Studio in M Block. There I met K.S. Kulkarni, the painter who acquired considerable fame later. He explained that his wasn’t the sort of studio I was looking for.” Kulkarni later introduced Kumar to other modern painters such as M.F. Husain — and the 55-year-old journey began from a modest ‘gallery’ in E Block.

By then Dhoomimal, a stationary shop that sold painting material, had started keeping some frames by artists who would exchange their art for brushes and inks. Some of those frames, including ones by Jamini Roy and Sailoz Mookherjee, sold for a few hundreds of rupees. The only other gallery in Delhi at the time was the state-affiliated All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society.

Uma Ravi Jain, 65, director of Dhoomimal Gallery, says, “A clipping from the era says the shop started in 1936, but another says it was in 1938... It’s difficult, though, to say when we held our first show or sold the first frame.”

A belligerent Virendra Kumar, who has catalogued shows from 1955, says, “Let them say they held any show before the 1960s... Here, I paid monthly sums to painters against contracts.” His youngest brother Sunit, 55, shushes him, saying, “Let’s please stay with the art.”

Or the artist. Krishen Khanna, 84, is one of the artists who earned a ‘stipend’ of Rs 500 from Kumar Gallery in 1957. He provides another twist to the contested history: “Virendra Kumar used to work at the Dhoomimal shop. Then he set up his own on top of a second-hand clothes shop... He helped us and we got more artists. I introduced him to Tyeb Mehta. We stayed on contract for as long as it suited us and then flew the coop, though the association continued.” At the coming exhibition, Sunit Kumar expects a Krishen Khanna canvas to fetch “upwards of Rs 15 lakh”.

Ram Kumar, 86, was another artist patronised by Virendra Kumar in the 1950s. “He was the first professional art dealer in Delhi,” says Ram Kumar, who happens to have been the Dhoomimals’ neighbour in Karol Bagh decades ago. “I started with him on a monthly sum of Rs 150 for a painting.”

As with the prices, the art has changed. A wide arc of that journey will be on show at Kumar Gallery next week. Jostling with some 60s’ works by F.N. Souza and Ram Kumar will be freshly-dried ones by Sakti Burman and Paresh Maity. In ways more than one, it will be a lesson in art history.