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Intangibles money can't buy

At 70, India's oldest art gallery, Dhoomimal, stands tall like a guardian angel, reports Zia Haq.

delhi Updated: Dec 29, 2007 00:38 IST
Zia Haq

Long before art was investment and the art world a public relations game to attract the cognoscenti with hors de' ovres and cocktails, there was G-42 in Connaught Place.

Most people still drawn to CP for their quotidian needs are likely to give it a miss for chic art hubs. Hemmed in high-end stores, G-42 houses Dhoomimal — India's oldest art gallery.

Even as it completed its 70th year this month, some of its priceless masterpieces sport an arrogant tag: Not for Sale.

Its three floors house an art museum, an open sculpture courtyard house, some landmark paintings and intangibles money can't buy.

When it started off in 1936, there were no galleries and few artists.

"Dhoomimal Dharamdas: Stationers and Printers" turned into an artists' loft by default. Ram Chand Jain or Ram babu, its proprietor with a creative mind, exclusively sold painting equipment, canvasses, palettes and greeting cards.

Ram babu would request artists to allow their works to be carried as visuals for greetings cards. This meeting of minds was to touch off a great idea in the years to follow.

"My grandfather (Ram babu), along with AS Raman, former editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, and Sailoz Mukherjea, Delhi's most celebrated modern artist, formed the triumvirate of Delhi's art circle in the 40s," says Uday Jain, the present director of Dhoomimal and its third-generation proprietor.

Mukherjea used to teach at Sarada Ukil Art School, then located above India Coffee House on Janpath.

The young scion knows that to carry the heritage forward and manage art, he must have domain knowledge. So before taking over, he enrolled for an art course at University of California, Berkeley.

Ram babu, Mukherjea and Raman would "hang out" at Wengers Bar, just a few blocks away, to discuss art over Scotch. "Ram babu would leave the place at 8 pm, quietly hinting at owner Tondon to send the bill to him," says Uma Jain, his granddaughter-in-law.

When the Partition split India, celebrated artist BC Sanyal was in danger of losing his works and livelihood. Dhoomimal came to his rescue.

Dhoomimal's Ravi Jain put Indian art on the world map in 1964, by setting up the Navina Art Gallery in New York's 72nd Street, Madison Avenue. The New York gallery became a major hub for Indian artists with regular shows.

Years later, on March 23, 1978 it crossed another landmark.

The Directorate-general of Posts and Telegraphs released four commemorative stamps on Indian art, one of which featured a painting of Sailoz Mukherjea from Dhoomimal's collection.

While many art galleries now thrive on interest generated by kitschy customer instincts, Dhoomimal stands apart as a guardian angel, giving an epic view of Indian art history.