Other than the odd Indian takeaway, Salem, Massachusetts, a cobblestone-crusted town on the eastern coast of the US, has few tokens of Indianness. Infamous for the witch trials of 1692, witchcraft and maritime history still remain cornerstones of the city’s tourist routes. But late one evening, mid-July, the Herwitz Gallery on the first floor of the legendary 208-year-old Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) hosted the sights and sounds of another seaside town almost 13,000km away. Mumbai’s staple dabbawalas rode through the hall on bicycles while turbaned helpers served chana, bhel and sundry Chowpatty-esque street food, all moving amid the soundtrack of Bollywood music. The occasion was the inauguration of PEM’s latest exhibition, Gateway Bombay, which focuses on the city and the artworks it has inspired over more than 40 years. The display is on at the museum till December 2008.
The source of the exhibition is the museum’s Davida and Chester Herwitz collection which is, with 1,200 works by more than 70 artists, one of the two largest collections of Indian contemporary art in the world (the other exhaustive Indian contemporary art collection is held by Japanese food processing tycoon Masanori Fukuoka). The exhibition, with 30 works on display, is a bite-sized sample of that lot, brought together by their Mumbai theme.
The show is largely made up of the works of present or one-time residents of Mumbai, such as M.F. Husain, Bhupen Khakhar, Sudhir Patwardhan, Atul Dodiya, Nalini Malani, Gieve Patel and Tyeb Mehta. “The Chester and Davida Herwitz collection of contemporary Indian art includes quite a few works in which the artists evoke Mumbai, its atmosphere and residents. Also, Americans are increasingly aware of Mumbai as a metropolis on the move. It is the hub of Indian expansion, home to huge multinational corporations, the world’s largest film industry and a leading centre of the art world,” said Susan Bean, the museum’s curator of South Asian and Korean Art, in an email interview.
The exhibition also includes pieces from outside the Herwitz collection, including Bose Krishnamachari’s 2006 installation work Ghost/Transmemoir, which employs two signature elements of life in Mumbai, the dabbawala and the suburban train, and photography by Mumbai-based Bengali Chirodeep Chaudhuri and Ketaki Sheth. “The dabba is an iconic figure. At the end of the day, everything about Mumbai is about the gut, about survival in the city,” says Krishnamachari, who was present at the opening of the exhibition.
It was in the 1960s that Chester Herwitz, a designer and leather manufacturer from Worcester, Massachusetts, first came to India. It was not a particularly good time for Indian art but, through regular trips to the country, Herwitz familiarized himself with important artists and collected till his death in the late 1990s. “Chester came once every year to get fabric and began to notice the Indian art movement, and collected at a time when no one was collecting. I came to know him after a show at the Pundole Art Gallery, when Kali Pundole asked me to meet an American collector who was serious about Indian art,” says Gieve Patel, the doctor-painter who is represented in the exhibition with four works, including the titular piece, the 1981 Gateway. The Pundole Art Gallery, through its long association with the collector and the gallery, is also sponsoring the show catalogue for folks interested in getting a peek at the collection without the cost of airfare.
The PEM was founded in 1799 as the East India Marine Society by a collection of local seafarers, who took an oath to collect curiosities from all the places they visited, including India. Today, the museum holds the country’s leading collection of Indian art of the modern era, from the 18th-20th centuries. “The collection includes paintings and works on paper, sculpture, a large collection of photographs, as well as important documents recounting the 18th- and 19th-century commercial and cultural relations between the US and India,” says Bean. It is also the first US-based museum to devote a gallery to contemporary Indian art. A connection far more cemented than Indian takeaways.