The SoBo gallery that showed the early Husain, Ara and Souza traces back its steps
A little over a week to go before the grand opening on September 16, we see what Wadhwana called her “hive mind” visualised as multiple coloured post-it notes stuck on a wall in Chemould’s archives, located in the gallery’s newest outpost — Chemould CoLab, an artist residency started in 2022 by Shireen’s daughter, Atyaan Jungalwala, with co-founder Sunaina Rajan in an old Colaba building
MUMBAI The imposing teak wood doors open unhurriedly into the well-lit gallery, already abuzz with activity on an overcast weekday afternoon. The windows get a fresh lick of paint, workers sit in a circle finishing their meal, a contractor nods as a staff member jabs at a paper, a nine-foot-high curved wall looming unobtrusively behind them.
The curved wall, supported on freshly laid gypsum tiles plastered onto the gallery’s floor and 44 feet wide, is conceptualised by Jitish Kallat for the upcoming exhibition, ‘CheMoulding: Framing Future Archives’ that opens Friday. Bare at the moment, it will display works by other artists who have created works to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the gallery.
Kallat’s piece replicates the circular wall in Chemould’s first and longest home, located on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda.
“For ‘Chemould 60’, an exhibition reflecting on the long history of the galley, I am radically restructuring the gallery space,” Kallat said. “I am reintroducing the former, much smaller, and historical Gallery Chemould space within the current Chemould Prescott Road. The distinctive circular Chemould wall will be reincarnated within this larger gallery space, nested like a Russian doll or a tree’s growth ring. My intent was to create an older space to reflect on an earlier time, returning the circular wall to host the gallery’s timeline,” Kallat said.
There are many apocryphal tales about Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, the much storied husband-wife pair who held their inaugural exhibition on that very circular wall on September 16, 1963. Their daughter Shireen, who looks after Chemould Prescott Road (as the gallery is now called) — Kekoo passed away in 2012, Khorshed in 2013 — functions in an art world that is far more complex and globalised. So, the predicament of the upcoming show’s curator, Shaleen Wadhwana, in trying to come up with a timeline of these six decades is understandable.
A little over a week to go before the grand opening on September 16, we see what Wadhwana called her “hive mind” visualised as multiple coloured post-it notes stuck on a wall in Chemould’s archives, located in the gallery’s newest outpost — Chemould CoLab, an artist residency started in 2022 by Shireen’s daughter, Atyaan Jungalwala, with co-founder Sunaina Rajan in an old Colaba building.
A truncated version of this timeline will go up on Kallat’s wall. Wadhwana aims to show the interweaving strands of Gandhys’ and Chemould’s histories with the socio-political goings-on.
In his 2022 book, ‘Citizen Gallery: The Gandhys of Chemould and the birth of modern art in Bombay’, author Jerry Pinto wrote of Kekoo as a “young man with money, imagination, enthusiasm and the ability to see art as a form of personal social commitment.” All this was certainly required to sell art in a newly independent India, where, Pinto points out, Gandhian principles of austerity rubbed elbows with a sensibility that viewed the buying of art as a bourgeois luxury.
Maqbool Fida Husain sold his first painting from the storefront of Kekoo’s picture frames shop set up in the 1940s. Krishenji Howlaji Ara, Francis Newton Souza, Sayed Haider Raza — all of whom would go on to become the country’s most influential Modernists — visited the shop often. Kekoo put them in touch with rich art buyers and helped keep this talented but broke bunch afloat. Over the years, Kekoo’s indefatigable interest in artists and Khorshed’s roll-up-the-sleeves attitude did more than keep artists afloat. They helped develop an appreciative audience for Indian art, even as they increased their roster to include newer artists. In the 1960s, they showed the work of a young Bhupen Kakkar; in the 1970s and ’80s, they supported indigenous artists like Jivya Soma Mase, a Warli artist, and J Gurappa Chetty, a Kalahasti artist. In the ’80s, and ’90s, artists like Atul Dodiya and Kallat had their first solos at Chemould.
“The mandate that I wanted to work within, was that it’s important this is not an archival exhibition. It’s an exhibition about the archive through the contemporary lens,” said Wadhwana. Accordingly, the contemporary artists have been given a prompt to respond to Chemould’s earlier artists. The exhibition will be spread across three months, and will showcase the works of Atul and Anju Dodiya, Reena Kallat, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Ritesh Meshram, and Desmond Lazaro, among several others who form part of the gallery’s roster of current artists.
The exhibition will also have two other significant programmes: starting Thursday, Chemould CoLab, which houses the archives, will showcase 10 young artists who, in turn, have been asked to respond to works by the contemporary artists in Chemould’s roster. This will include a 98”x43” woodcut print and kantha embroidery on a cotton saree, made by Jayeeta Chatterjee, whose work ‘Portrait of Lakshmi’ is a response to Nilima Sheikh’s iconic 1984-85 work, ‘When Champa grew up’.
A week-long exhibition will be held on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery. Conceptualised by Shireen, this exhibition will showcase works of some of Chemould’s early and long standing collectors like (the late) Jehangir Nicholson, Czaee Shah, Kavita Singh, Jeroo Mango, and even from the collection of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (which once formed part of Homi Bhabha’s collection), among others.
“The idea is just to hark back to those times with a sense of nostalgia without it becoming some kind of canonical exhibition,” Shireen clarified.
Art historian Geeta Kapur, quoted in Pinto’s book, talks about the Gandhys as “protagonists of Indian modernism”. They were “committed to envisioning the kind of India, the kind of society that would be supportive of the project of modern and contemporary culture, and, vice versa: the kind of art movement that would reflect the democratic aspirations of this nation,” Kapur writes.
One set of works that will be showcased at Chemould Prescott Road will include photographs by Ram Rahman, many of which recount the connection between Safdar Hashmi, the founder of theatre group SAHMAT and the Gandhys. “Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy were key supporters of SAHMAT from our event, ‘The Artists Against Communalism’ [held in] Shivaji Park in 1992. [Kekoo] managed the 1993 Anhad Garje event on Marine Drive… even though Bombay was under night curfew after the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots,” Rahman’s note on the inside of the circular wall reads.
Nostalgia is, indeed, necessary.