Usha Mirchandani and Ranjana Steinruecke have a gap of 17 years between them, which makes them not quite mother-daughter and not quite friends. It is that from which they derive their points of view on art.
They share more than a career trajectory: Usha lives with Ranjana and her husband Bernhard Steinruecke, director general of the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce, and takes charge of their two children, Felix,14, and Moritz, 11. “In some families, mothers in America know what daughters in India had for lunch. We don’t need the nitty-gritty of each other’s lives. There are specific points at which we meet,” says Usha.
Both came to art from advertising. Usha had moved to New York in 1968, where she worked with the J Walter Thompson agency, which had a beautiful contemporary corporate collection, for 16 years. “My exposure to art came from there,” says Usha. Ranjana, who began with Lintas Advertising in Mumbai, moved to New York to join Grey Advertising.
It was the late 1980s, and back in Mumbai, Usha had started helping people buy art. By 1990 she was dealing in it. She curated a few shows. Ranjana, tired of the single life in the US, returned in 1992. Her mother gave her a book on corporate collections in the US. “That was my hook. My approach and taste was totally guided by my mother. I see art through her eyes,” says Ranjana.
Within six months of her return, Deutsche Bank, which had bought the Tata Palace in Mumbai, was looking to put together a collection of Indian contemporary art. It became their first project.
They built collections for UBS and Unit Trust of India—where they commissioned three major works, one integrated into the facade of the building (Sudarshan Shetty) and two in the atrium, three-four storeys high (by Laxman Shreshtha). It was the start of Usha’s collaboration with Kamal Malik, an architect who views art as intrinsic to architectural design.
During the Deutsche Bank project, Ranjana met Bernhard. They married in 1996, and moved to Berlin, Germany, in 1997, where Ranjana opened her gallery, The Fine Art Resource. In India, Usha went on to curate a restrospective of Bhupen Khakkar’s work at the National Gallery of Modern Art in 2003.
At the time, Indian art in Germany was viewed as something religiously-oriented, without the calibre to be contemporary. A few shows—solos by M.F. Husain and Jogen Chowdhury—helped them set the tone. “Berlin was raw at that time. The shows didn’t do well at all, we barely sold any works. People came because of our network, but they didn’t get Indian art. Ultimately it takes a nation to be in the limelight for that country’s culture to be sought after,” Ranjana says.
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: Ranjana: My husband has a saying that when two people argue, there are three points of view—the two discussing and the one listening. When we need a third vote, we call my sister Nina. The kids are also articulate about who is being ridiculous."
In 2003, Ranjana returned to India when her husband moved to the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce and gave up the Berlin gallery. In 2005, Usha and Ranjana took an exhibition of contemporary Indian art to the House of World Cultures in Berlin, with major works by Anju Dodiya and Nataraj Sharma, Jitish Kallat, and Shilpa Gupta, to keep the link with Indian art in German spaces.
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Ranjana handles creatives, Usha the finances. If there’s something that Ranjana won’t be able to handle, like disciplining her boys, Usha leaves her out of it."
Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke opened in 2006 in a Mumbai tenement that once housed five Parsi families.
The duo’s driven by the idea that art is intrinsic to the everyday life of people in a city. “That obviously determines art production, how artists are regarded... It’s still peripheral here, and that is why you find the ‘star artist’ wooed like a celebrity,” Ranjana says. “When my mother first dreamt of asking an artist like Kiki Smith to show with us, or brought Sigma Polke down, artists like Atul Dodiya were so excited; he felt bringing it home made a difference. These things made us feel ‘Yes, there is a certain contribution we can make’,” she adds.
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Ranjana: We agree to disagree on artists we want to take on, for instance. But I have perfected the art of saying ‘hmmm’ when she says something to me that I don’t like. When I was younger I’d feel the need to retaliate...."
Today, from Manish Nai to Dayanita Singh, the gallery seeks a specific aesthetic. “It has always been important to us to choose artists who work with their intellect, and the craft of art,” says Usha. Ranjana interjects: “Sometimes you may need to tease the message out of the work, but the trend now, especially in developing countries, is to plaster it with the horrors of society and politics, but art is much bigger than that. It has to outlast an immediate response. It is more encompassing.”
"DO NOT OPEN: Usha: Self-awareness and integrity in relationships is very important. You don’t leave anything buried."
Sidestepping hype has not been easy. “It’s been detrimental to us. When you have artists who are more prolific, more able to talk about their art than make convincing art, it brings attention to the gallery. Ours is a much longer process. It’s only now that I feel that this is paying off,” says Ranjana.
Working and living together has allowed them to harmonize their personal and professional stances. Neither can conceive of functioning without the other. Balance is art too.