This month, Chemould Prescott Road gallery in Mumbai celebrates its golden jubilee. The occasion is being marked by a series of shows taking place over eight months, curated by the art critic Geeta Kapur, under the title ‘Aesthetic Bind’. Each exhibition will present a mix of artists from the gallery’s roster. The breadth of work showcased across this sequence of presentations will pay homage to the gallery’s historically inclusive and eclectic programme. The first in the cycle is titled the ‘Subject of Death’ and includes six artists, one of whom is Bhupen Khakhar, who had his first solo show with the gallery in 1965. Coincidentally, 2013 is also the tenth anniversary of Khakhar’s death. It may seem curious that the longevity and success of the gallery is being toasted with a meditation on mortality and finitude. The gallery is, in fact, entering this landmark year on the heels of the passing of its founding director Kekoo Gandhy, who died in 2012 at the age of 92.
In a freewheeling conversation printed in Seminar in 2003, Gandhy stated: ‘I can’t say honestly that I was interested in art to begin with, or that I had any great knowledge of it. I got interested through my friends Langhammer and Leyden, after seeing their great enthusiasm for contemporary Indian art. I was moved by their belief in the future of Indian contemporary art.’ The admission is both suggestive and revelatory. It makes plain that there was an international dimension to the formation of the Indian modern art movement, which needs to be acknowledged, and one that was fostered through networks of friendships and alliances.
A number of European intellectuals had fled Europe after the outbreak of World War II and found themselves in India, playing active roles in supporting a bourgeoning art community. The two men Gandhy mentions are Rudolf von Leyden and Walter Langhammer, who were, respectively, the art critic and first arts editor of the national newspaper, The Times of India. The war had also prevented Gandhy from returning to the uk to pursue his studies at Pembroke College, Cambridge. These events provided fortuitous meetings and exchanges. It was a conversation with a Belgian gentleman, Roger van Damme, whose father has been a framer and restorer of Flemish masters, which inspired Gandhy to set up a factory that made frames called the Chemical Moulding Manufacturing Company, which was later abbreviated to Chemould.
Gandhy’s framing shop on Princess Street played host to numerous exhibitions of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, before evolving into Gallery Chemould in 1963. The gallery was located on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, a public space dedicated to the display of modern art, that Gandhy himself was instrumental in establishing with the industrialist and collector Cowasji Jehangir and nuclear scientist Homi J. Bhabha. This early collaboration reflects Gandhy’s unique and spirited commitment to supporting and building public bodies for the presentation of Indian art.
In his obituary of Gandhy, the poet, art critic, cultural theorist and curator Ranjit Hoskote labelled him ‘a pioneer who helped formulate the contours of the postcolonial Indian art world’. More importantly, however, he emphasized that: ‘His historic contribution lies in the public-spiritedness and generosity with which he identified, helped create, and worked to sustain the cultural and infrastructural contexts in which modern Indian art could live, breathe and grow.’ Beside the Jehangir Art Gallery, Gandhy was the driving force behind the institution of the Mumbai chapter of the National Gallery of Modern Art, and also extended his support to the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi and the Triennale India in 1968. Gandhy was also fiercely engaged in the social sphere, with a strong belief in justice and equality. He was deeply critical of divisive and authoritarian politics, opposing the Indian Emergency from 1975 to 1977, and was a community leader during the Bombay communal riots of 1992. A man of deep integrity, Gandhy’s convictions and sympathies were echoed by his lifelong partner Khorshed Adenwalla whom he married in 1944. She oversaw the day-to-day management of the gallery, steering it through tough times. It was her silent but resilient presence that grounded Gandhy and helped him realize his vision. The active role she assumed, both in their lives and the wider community, was invaluable.
Now that growing networks of supporters at home and internationally buffet Indian art, Gandhy’s pioneering efforts and contribution must not be taken for granted. His daughter Shireen assumed directorship of Gallery Chemould in 1988, opening a new, larger space, Chemould Prescott Road, in 2007. His other daughter, Behroze, a film producer based in London, interviewed her father numerous times from 2002 until his death. These conversations are currently being edited into a documentary. Gandhy’s reminisces will, no doubt, reveal a rich tapestry of personal relations and connections that will deepen our understanding of the history of modern Indian art. However, there is something else that needs to be harnessed from his singular legacy. In India today, the state infrastructure is moribund and sometimes hostile to contemporary art; curators, gallerists, scholars and artists need to find forms of address which extend Gandhy’s spirit of working towards a public consciousness of its importance.