Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, is over 50 years old. But the showcase, say artists, is always new.
For over half a century, Chemould, a popular and successful Mumbai art gallery, has managed to uphold quality, passion and pursue creative satisfaction.
Chemould Frames, established in 1941, gradually became the site for small informal shows by artists who had their work framed there. Among them were M.F. Husain, K.H. Ara, S.H. Raza and K.K. Hebbar. In 1963, Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy turned it into an art gallery. Their vision was for the gallery “to be a premier contemporary space, show the art of the ‘now’,” says their daughter Shireen Gandhy, who now runs Chemould. “The gallery may be 50 years old, but the art on showcase is always new. We continue to work with current artists and materials. I took it up over 25 years ago — I hope his (Kekoo Gandhy) vision has already been carried forward!”
This vision, in fact, “was about promoting art, and not the business of it.” Shireen knows this is not always easy. As she explains, “When you are in the business of art, it is very difficult to be pure. It is very much a struggle; it does not change. You are initiating and introducing new concepts all the time and money is of the essence. One should not shy away from being commercial, but it is much more than that. You invest yourself in it.”
Praise did come from Kekoo, but not as an outright compliment. “My father said that I was upholding the flag in my own way,” Shireen remembers. “We do what we do. We are celebrating with five wonderful exhibitions curated by Geeta Kapur.” The series has begun with a homage to the late Bhupen Khakar in Subject of Death.
Artists who have shown over the past few years at Chemould are enthusiastic about the gallery’s vision. As Reena Saini Kallat says, “Our association goes back two decades, from when I was a student. I have vivid memories of Shireen reaching out and supporting me —in the 1990s that really meant a lot. Kekoo was a visionary, a dreamer, while Khorshed was more grounded. They were active in how the scene of art transformed. Today those values remain; looking at the best interests for the work, not about what would be popular or sell. As a gallery, Chemould has continued to serve that need for every artist. The nature of some work can be so ahead of its time that it could be hard to get people to come, see, understand…it is a huge challenge to take on!”
The relationship between Chemould and Jitish Kallat is also an enduring and close one. As he says, “We go back a very long way, to the mid 1990s when I had a student exhibition in the final year of art school — the Monsoon Show at Jehangir Art Gallery. Two large paintings of mine were hung in the gallery — one was a self-portrait biting into a wristwatch. On the second day, Shireen walked up to me with her watch hanging out of her mouth and shook hands. We have been friends ever since.”
Kallat says, “At many levels what Kekoo and Khorshed were doing with Chemould was pretty much being at the front end of the art scene in India; Shireen is now doing the same thing, creating a discourse; enlightened programming.”
For the avant-garde Shilpa Gupta, it was intimidating “going into these large air-conditioned galleries. But at Chemould, Kekoo would watch us and smile sweetly. When I approached Shireen to do a project that was not in the gallery itself, she was so helpful, so generous — she introduced me to people who would help, so that I could do the project the way I wanted to. It was not a transaction; today it is still very open, very friendly, very generous, stemming from a love of art, not competitive, and very special.”
Anju Dodiya agreed that Chemould is special. She did her first solo exhibition there. “I have been working with them for about 25 years now. What has been important is that they are extremely liberal — it has always been about art, not the art business.” The first show in the anniversary series is about death, giving “complete freedom for curator and artist! So exactly like Chemould to do this — to give a face to art and not be literal; you celebrate and you are making art. There has been a great sense of freedom and the idea of allowing the liberal even in art form. It’s caring for the real issues. Kekoo had a political opinion and would share them. Khorshed was extremely sensitive — she responded to the art. Shireen has an open, light friendship — not working with a business agenda.”
German artist Wolfgang Laib is part of the chorus of praise. As he says, “It was very moving for me — after so many years of having such a close relationship with India — to participate directly with my work in this gallery. One can easily feel that this gallery stands on generations of respect, love and dedication to art and artists.”