A recently released comprehensive catalogue features a series of 5 landmark exhibitions organised at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, curated by the pre-eminent theorist Geeta Kapur.
Art Radar also talks to Shireen Gandhy, the daughter of Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, the founders of Gallery Chemould, and the present director of this historic space.
Celebrating 50 years of support to Indian contemporary art
On 24 April 2018, the art and culture-loving fraternity of New Delhi was witness to the release of Chemould Prescott Road – Celebrating 50 Years of Contemporary Art with Aesthetic Bind at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. The book launch itself was a significant event, as it introduced to the public a comprehensive catalogue of five exhibitions curated by Delhi-based theorist Geeta Kapur in 2013-14. The event also marked the importance of the role played by Gallery Chemould and its owners in the evolution of Indian contemporary art.
Gallery Chemould was founded by Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy in 1963, and as one of the oldest commercial galleries in the Indian subcontinent, it famously nurtured the first wave of modern artists in post-independence India. It has the distinction of having represented some of India’s most eminent artists including M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza and Bhupen Khakhar. The Gandhys’ role and personal involvement, both as facilitators and as promoters of art in the cultural climate of post-independence India, was integral to the direction taken by contemporary Indian art in those tumultuous years.
The present director of this historic space, Shireen Gandhy, joined her parents in 1988, adding a new dynamism to its programmes by focusing on young, emerging artists who had an experimental and interdisciplinary approach to their practice, such as Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat and Shilpa Gupta. The gallery promotes the work of artists such as Nilima Sheikh, Desmond Lazaro and Lavanya Mani, who work with references to tradition and materiality, and other artists who work with installation and new media such as Vivan Sundaram and L.N. Tallur.
“Aesthetic Bind”: unique ‘fivesome’ of shows
In 2013, Chemould Prescott Road celebrated its 50th year for which Geeta Kapur curated an arresting series of five exhibitions held in rapid sequence under the over-arching title “Aesthetic Bind”. These exhibitions attempted to look at the gallery’s role, as a space that creates conversations between contemporary Indian artists – dialogues that are the lifeblood of art and its evolution, particularly in a country like India that has been seeking to find its identity on the stage of international art.
Kapur, a noted art historian, curator and seminal voice of a post-1968 tradition of leftist art criticism in India, worked with Gandhy to mount the exhibitions in quick succession. From September 2013 to April 2014, Kapur presented more than 50 contemporary artists from South Asia and a total of 129 works. In the exhibition catalogue readers get to witness the unfolding of the five exhibitions – “Subject of Death”, “Citizen Artist”, “Phantomata”, “Cabinet Closet Wunderkammer” and “Floating World”, with display pictures, installation images, curatorial conversations and artist statements so as to understand all the behind-the-scenes activities in exhibition management.
In Gandhy’s own words,
As her (Kapur’s) ideas unfolded – first through the concept, the titles, then through the choice of artists, and finally through the exhibitions themselves – it became a point of deep reflection and a viewfinder to the tectonic shifts in art practices that had manifested during the last twenty years.
The release of Chemould Prescott Road – Celebrating 50 Years of Contemporary Art with Aesthetic Bind therefore presents before the Indian art audience not only the historical significance of the role played by Gallery Chemould, but it also documents for posterity the depth and richness of Indian contemporary art displayed at this landmark exhibition. As Kapur says in her essay on “Aesthetic Bind” at the beginning of the catalogue,
I deciphered the pattern of the five exhibitions better after they were mounted, seen and concluded. The seriality emerged from hazy intuition into a kind of circuitry that can now be theorised or otherwise swirled into more questions – about obsessions, even repression, that were revealed by this somewhat recklessly undertaken fivesome.
Art Radar spoke to Shireen Gandhy, the director of Chemould Prescott Road, about the trajectory of both the gallery and of Indian contemporary art, and of the genesis of “Aesthetic Bind”.
Chemould has been indelibly linked to the development of modern and contemporary Indian art. When the gallery celebrated 50 years of existence, you had been a part of your family’s enterprise for only half of that period. Could you share with Art Radar readers what you believe to be the most significant moment in its history, during these early years and before your time?
A very significant moment was about the time of my entry, when Christie’s first came to India to have a charity auction, and all the proceeds went to the charitable foundation, HelpAge India. Agreeably, art was not necessarily selling for the price of art, but with the strings of charity sale attached. But this was a momentous time! It was the first time in the history of contemporary art, that Husain, Raza and a few others touched six figures (in Indian rupees that is!), so if Raza was at Rupees 20,000, for the first time his work touched 120,000! The noise around this “spurt” certainly caused a flutter – enough to bring in a new surge of collectors.
The other occasion would be in the 1990s. A significant political event in the history of India – the coming down of the Babri Mosque – changed the language of expression. Several artists who were in their prime began to shift the parameters of art making – the mediums began to shift – installation and gradually video art began to take the place of canvas paintings and two-dimensional work.
Your parents Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy played a leading role in showcasing contemporary Indian art in the second half of the 20th century. Your father was a socialist, a political activist with Gandhian ethics and he was, as Geeta Kapur says, a “comrade of artists across three generations”. What was his vision, both for the gallery and for the path that Indian art should have taken?
My father was a visionary without an eye on business. He had the faith that contemporary art would one day make its mark, but that was not the end result. His vision lay much more in institution building. He was president of the Bombay Art Society in its most glorious days; he sat on committees during the building of the Lalit Kala Akademi, the AIFACS (All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society). He organised exhibitions of artists from Bengal, Bombay, Madras all together in Delhi – his was a pan-Indian vision for art. He took paintings (rolled and under his arm) all over the world. He made sure he made contact with ambassadors and Consul Generals around Europe – and would use his good offices with them to turn embassies into exhibition spaces! He spent six months travelling around Europe on a shoe string budget meeting gallerists and introducing Indian artists to them. He met the wife of the Shah of Iran in Bombay and took an exhibition of Indian art to Iran in the 1970s! His vision went way beyond the promotion of artists of the galleries.
What is your own vision and how does it differ from your parents? Particularly in the context that they operated Chemould at a time when there were hardly any art galleries in the country, while you are currently an integral part of Mumbai’s Art District. How have things changed for your own space and for the city?
The world changed before my father’s and my eyes – and the art scene took a completely different turn. The nature of a gallery being a hub for cultural activities has now evolved into the role that galleries play around the world. Modern-day galleries hold on to their artists, build an infrastructure for them by establishing strong artist-gallery relationships – a system that existed very loosely in the past. The promotion of art through the art fair route, expending resources to support artists through participation in biennales and other large-sale international exhibitions characterise the art business today and did not happen during my parent’s time. Indian contemporary art, and particularly the artists we work with, have scaled great heights today, with the gallery having played a significant role in supporting artists at critical times in their career.
What has been Chemould’s experience with public engagement initiatives such as the Mumbai Gallery Weekend and the Kochi-Mujiris Biennale, as well as art fairs such as the India Art Fair where you have had a continued presence? Do you feel that we are doing enough to improve people’s engagement with the arts in India? If not, how do you think we could do better?
Chemould has been at the forefront of the Mumbai Gallery Weekend, spearheading programming by being actively involved in the committee right through. The concept began as a joint initiative, which I have been a part of from the beginning. The gallery has actively supported the Kochi-Muziris Biennale with my being a patron, and also by participating in fundraising, support of artists and being a very, very proud friend of the Biennale! Chemould has been a consistent India Art Fair participant since 2009. I have been on the committee of the fair since almost the beginning. I have also been on the committee of international fairs like Art Basel Hong Kong for the last eight to nine years.
In 2013-14, you organised “Aesthetic Bind” to commemorate the gallery’s 50th anniversary. What was the genesis of this extraordinary series of five themed exhibitions that explored diverse topics such as death, politics, freedom of citizen’s voices and of artistic expression, personal and communal histories and our understanding of the earth-world. How do the multiplicities showcased in “Aesthetic Bind” connect to the past, present and future of Chemould?
I had asked my go-to guide and comrade Geeta Kapur a second time (with much trepidation) to curate the show. It did not begin with a year-long expedition, but a single show to celebrate 50 years. It was Geeta who came up with 5 “small” shows – and I loved the idea, because 5000 square feet of gallery space is right for concise, tighter exhibitions. Chemould has always been contemporary in its programming – whether it was showing S.H. Raza or Ram Kumar during their time, or now Jitish Kallat, Atul Dodiya or L.N. Tallur in their time. “Aesthetic Bind” really fructified Chemould’s role as being a space that was a laboratory when new media were being explored in the 1990s, with artists who were experimenting with mediums. It felt that it was the right moment to consolidate our position as being in the forefront of these changes and explorations that contemporary art had taken in the last 20 or so years!
Finally, to focus on the future of the gallery, could you share with Art Radar readers about what is on the anvil from the stable of Gallery Chemould for the rest of 2018?
We have an interesting experiment coming up during 12-18 July 2018 – “Modus Operandi” – which brings together a large number of Chemould artists and showcases their modes, methods and processes. This show will give visitors an instructive introduction into contemporary art as it exists in India today with over 25 artists in dialogue with each other and displaying their unique artistic language.
“Modus Operandi” will be on view from 12 to 28 July 2018 at Chemould Prescott Road, 3rd Floor, Queens Mansion, G Talwalkar Marg, Fort, Mumbai 400001.
- “Ray Trace”: Indian artist Baiju Parthan’s stereoscopic prints at Art Musings, Mumbai – in conversation – June 2018 – Baiju Parthan’s unique solo exhibition displays artworks that re-imagine our perception of reality
- “Step inside and you are no longer a stranger”: a retrospective of Indian artist Vivan Sundaram – curator interview – May 2018 – the large-scale exhibition that celebrates 50 years of practice of one of the most influential artists of his generation in India
- 11 Indian artists explore personal and collective memory in “Lapses II” – interview – May 2018 – the second chapter of “Lapses” explores the impact of personal, political and cultural trauma on memory
- “A Man of the Crowd”: Indian graphic artist Sameer Kulavoor – in conversation – April 2018 – Art Radar talks to the artist about his practice and his latest exhibition, on display at TARQ in Mumbai
- “Manu Parekh: 60 years of Collected Works”: a versatile Indian artist at NGMA Mumbai – April 2018 – after a successful showing at NGMA New Delhi in October 2017, Art & Soul Gallery brings over 150 paintings and sculptures of the eminent artist to NGMA Mumbai
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