Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Gallery Chemould: The alchemists

In the 1940s, Chemould was just a framing studio on Mumbai’s Princess Street. The shop, even now visibly ensconced in this neighbourhood populated with shops selling chemicals and medical supplies, is doing brisk business. Its French-sounding name is an abbreviation of “chemical moulding", a process that had, in the early 20th century when it opened, gained currency in the business of framing.

But the late Kekoo Gandhy’s Chemould was also an art salon—something Bombay had not seen before. Artists, curators, architects and authors would meet at Chemould. Kekoo was the patron-in-chief and facilitator, without any formal training or education in art.

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Shireen Gandhy at the Colaba gallery. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint

Chemould’s role in fermenting Bombay’s art scene coincides with India’s independence, World War II and the intellectual and artistic coalescing of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group.

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Sculptor Piloo Pochkhanawala, one of the earliest sculptors Chemould showed. Photo: cOURTESY Gallery Chemould
Artist Rummana Hussain who showed her works on the identity of a Muslim Woman after the 1992 riots: Photo: Courtesy Gallery Chemould
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Artist Rummana Hussain who showed her works on the identity of a Muslim Woman after the 1992 riots: Photo: Courtesy Gallery Chemould

By the late 1940s and 1950s, Kekoo became a catalyst—not in the way a catalyst is an agent or a dealer, or a gallerist as we understand him today, propelling individual artists to fame and high-auction equity. He went by friendship and happenstance, and believed art was a community project, and not simply a product of solitary practice. Atul Dodiya, whose first solo show was at Chemould in 1989, says, “The Gandhys have become my family. Kekoo and Khorshed would meet my parents who are not artists or artistic people. We have disagreed on things, but that has not changed our relationship. They have been big-hearted and kept the big picture in mind. I would say that is something unique to Parsis."

The facade of the framing shop today. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint
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The facade of the framing shop today. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint

During the 1970s and 1980s, Kekoo’s wife Khorshed became the quiet force behind the gallery. “She would travel to Baroda (Vadodara) to find newer artists, and was in the office every day, involved with every show," says Shireen. She was good sense, and he was all idealism. Doshi recalls that much later, when she took over as the director of the NGMA soon after its inception in Mumbai in 1996, Kekoo was sceptical. “He would visit me and wonder what I was up to, being trained in ancient art. He was always for the sake of art, for new ideas and new initiative in art. As NGMA changed, we became very good friends."

The scope of the framing shop enlarged, when Kekoo looked beyond Bombay and engaged with Delhi’s Lalit Kala Akademi for collaborations and infrastructure to show art. He showed works of Amrita Sher-Gil, a quintessentially Delhi artist, along with Bombay’s artists. Slowly, he began travelling abroad with the works of Indian artists, visiting galleries. By that time, the Jehangir Art Gallery in Flora Fountain was about 11 years old. In 1952, on the insistence of Homi Bhabha and Hebbar, Sir Cowasji Jehangir, a social and cultural impressario and a prominent member of the Parsi community in Bombay, founded the Jehangir Art Gallery named after his deceased son Jehangir. Art had found a public space in the city, but there wasn’t much art practice to sustain the large space. Doshi says, “Sometimes it was even rented out for weddings!". In 1963, with Hebbar’s help, Kekoo found a gallery space on the first floor of Jehangir Art Gallery. Since then, Chemould has been a cradle of modern and contemporary art, often preserving works and collections over years. “We have had some artists who did not become very big names but were important because of what they represented. Piloo Pochkhanawala, a sculptor, for example. In the 1960s, she was one of the very few Bombay artists who worked along the Baroda school of sculptors," says Shireen.

One of India’s first few women sculptors, Pochkhanawala experimented with a number of media and techniques in the 1960s and 1970s, including direct carving, and cement and metal casting. Her signature finally became junk welding, using found objects. One of her sculptures, Spark, commissioned by BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport), was installed at the Haji Ali traffic circle. A miniature version of the sculpture now stands, hedgehog-like, in a garden opposite the NGMA. Nobody knows what happened to the original, four times its present size, after the circle was demolished due to traffic snarls. Pochkhanawala’s first show was at Chemould in the 1960s.

In the 1980s, the Gandhys embraced the Contemporary wave, in style and form heavily borrowed from Western artists but with distinctly Indian sensibilities. Shireen returned from a stint in the US in 1988, when Chemould hosted a show commemorating 25 years of the gallery. Dodiya stood alongside Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakhar and Ranbir Kaleka. “I think it was the first time we recognized a space that was as much about art as about what was happening around us politically. It was a time of crossing over—the birth of the post-modernist, which Chemould encouraged." All works in that show were sold. The collector became important. Jehangir Nicholson was already amassing a personal collection, and new ones like Noel Rands, Czaee Shah, Cowas Bharucha, Chester Herwitz were emerging.

By the mid-1990s, Shireen was on her own. “Babri Masjid happened, and artists were looking at political subjects. At the same time, there was this parallel trend of bigger auctions of contemporary art," says Shireen. Chemould introduced the works of Rummana Hussain, an artist whose art practice transformed after the Bombay riots in 1992-93. She derived her art solely from the idea of the artist as a Muslim woman in India in the 1990s and continued to be collected in museums and collections in India and outside until her death in 1999. Around the same time, Nalini Malani took over the entire gallery space to create the gallery’s first on-site installation using terracotta powder on the floor and paint on all the walls.

Chemould shifted to its new location in Colaba in 2005, right before the art market boom. Shireen says staying back Jehangir meant being in a slump, disconnected to the bustle outside. “It made us visible player. Collectors and dealers would just walk in," Shireen says.

By 2008, Indian art leapt into in an utopia—price shooting skyward, frenetic activity replaced the sense of community. The gallery was a shop, and not how Kekoo and Khorshed had envisioned it—a space for ideas to synthesize and bodies of works to develop. With Saffronart and Bodhi Art gallery taking the lead in this swell, there was too much art in too many shows. Auctions proliferated. “Suddenly we had to reconcile to a new definition of auction. Previously, auctions never sold what the galleries were selling. We were competing with our own artists in the public sphere which was very awkward," Shireen says. “In 2005, we lost many artists and many NRI collectors." On the brighter side, Chemould never took a real shot at the jackpot and so did not lose as much as many other galleries.

The series of shows that begins in September looks back at Indian art as a continuum (see box). Geeta Kapur, the curator of the show, combines the ephemeral and the timeless, Chemould takes another assured step forward.

The first show in the series, Aesthic Bind: Subject of Death, is on display at Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, from 3 September-3 October.

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Show roster

A glimpse of the series that marks 50 years of the gallery

Anju Dodiya’s ‘The Book of Endings VIII’ from the first show
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Anju Dodiya’s ‘The Book of Endings VIII’ from the first show

u Aesthetic Bind: Subject of Death

The common themes running through the first group show of works by Bhupen Khakhar, Mehli Gobai, Anju Dodiya, Mithoo Sen and Gieve Patel are mortality and the cycle of life. The 11 paintings of Khakhar are from a collection never seen before, one which is a tribute to himself and his homosexuality. He sits with his partner, pressing his foot. Dodiya paints a series of mourners; Sen weaves Khakhar’s images into her works and Patel has a work on “old men".

u Citizen Artists

A group show of works by contemporary artists who have engaged with society and politics.

u Phantomata

L.N. Tallur looks at the economic depression with works of mixed media that symbolize “erasure of money".

u Cabinet Closet

This show draws from the curiosity around cupboards and shelves (Atul Dodiya has used the shelf for many installations) as showpieces.

u Floating Worlds

The most subjective and personal among all the shows, this group show is not tightly connected by a theme.

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