Art Mumbai: off to the races

The Maximum City’s first art fair debuts at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse, with 53 galleries, a sculpture garden, and a dollop of glamour and entertainment

November 10, 2023 02:42 pm | Updated 05:22 pm IST

Pushpamala N.’s photo-series, The Return of Phantom Lady

Pushpamala N.’s photo-series, The Return of Phantom Lady | Photo Credit: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road

Next Thursday, it won’t be the horses that’ll draw crowds to the Mahalaxmi Racecourse in South Mumbai, but something that’s been eagerly anticipated for a while. The city, with its cultural heritage and deeply entrenched art history, is finally getting its own art fair.

Co-founded by Minal and Dinesh Vazirani of Mumbai’s homegrown art auction platform Saffronart, along with Conor Macklin, director of London’s Grosvenor Gallery, the first edition will feature 53 galleries from India and abroad — from Jhaveri Contemporary, Nature Morte, and Experimenter, to Aicon Gallery and Aicon Contemporary (New York), and 1X1 (Dubai). It will also include a sculpture park and a series of talks. While not as expansive as Delhi’s India Art Fair, the country’s first, and an annual fixture on art calendars since 2008, the more boutique Art Mumbai hopes to charm with a tight, well-planned curation and the ace up the city’s sleeve, glamour and entertainment.

Gigi Scaria’s Life, Death, and Miscellaneous

Gigi Scaria’s Life, Death, and Miscellaneous | Photo Credit: Courtesy Aicon Contemporary

Rathin Barman’s Unsettled Structure VIII

Rathin Barman’s Unsettled Structure VIII | Photo Credit: Vivian Sarky/courtesy Experimenter

More than a financial capital

Mumbai has a long-storied engagement with the arts, going back to the founding of the Sir J.J. School of Art in 1857 — an institution whose alumni include many of the Progressive Artists Group, including M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, and celebrated contemporary artists such as Nalini Malani, Atul Dodiya, and Jitish Kallat.

Art didn’t keep to its corners in the city, it became part of cultural life, with artists such as Bhupen Khakhar and Dodiya collaborating with its famed theatre industry, working on sets with notable directors. The streets of South Mumbai are filled with stories of Husain walking around barefoot, or intense debates at Gallery Chemould (now Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai’s oldest gallery) or the erstwhile Cafe Samovar at Jehangir Art Gallery. Since 2005, the city has seen a number of galleries open doors; now, these galleries will represent Mumbai in its homegrown art fair.

“Mumbai is very much India’s financial capital, but we also have some of the oldest galleries here, and a history of acquiring art — of living with it, collecting it”Minal VaziraniCo-founder, Art Mumbai

Minal Vazirani

Minal Vazirani

Shireen Gandhy, director of Chemould, has planned their booth to reflect Mumbai’s history of cinema and art, and curated work that highlights it as the protagonist. “Our central wall has an amazing photo-series by Pushpamala N., called The Return of Phantom Lady. It is based on a fictitious story, about a famous Australian star called Nadia Wadia, and was shot entirely at the old drive-in theatre [now Jio at BKC], so in some ways reminisces the Bombay that was,” she says.

Meanwhile, Jhaveri Contemporary has Bangladeshi artist Rana Begum’s minimalist paperwork in dialogue with Sri Lanka-born Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s maximalist sculpture in ceramic, terracotta and stonewear.

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s multi-armed warrior

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s multi-armed warrior | Photo Credit: Mark Pokorny/courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary

And Macklin is looking forward to Grosvenor Gallery’s first outing in Mumbai with their booth. The gallery had once exhibited Souza in the mid-80s, to a dismal response. In the early 2000s, however, another Souza exhibit sold out, an indicator of the upswing in Indian art. Grosvenor will bring a collection of unseen Souzas, and new work by Senaka Senanayake, Sri Lanka’s most important living artist, and 98-year-old Krishen Khanna. “I hope Art Mumbai becomes a major part of the country’s cultural calendar, a place where collectors, dealers, and curators gather as well as a destination for upcoming artists to be seen,” he says.

New entrants to the city’s art scene are also excited. Experimenter, which opened its Mumbai outpost in 2022, will be showing 17 artists, including new works by Ayesha Sultana, Rathin Barman and Prabhakar Pachpute. “For a country the size of ours, I definitely see a scope for multiple art fairs, multiple platforms, multiple initiatives that provide a place for the art community to congregate, exchange and learn from each other,” says co-founder Priyanka Raja, “because we still are at a very nascent state of information-sharing and the wider the reach of those platforms are, the better it is.”

Prabhakar Pachpute’s When Cornish Chuff Arrives!

Prabhakar Pachpute’s When Cornish Chuff Arrives! | Photo Credit: Courtesy Experimenter

Stories in stone
The sculpture garden will exhibit select works submitted by galleries via an open call. “Most of the pieces relate to man and nature in some way, bringing up the urgency of wanting to return to a more natural way of being,” says curatorial advisor Veeranganakumari Solanki. She is curating the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ (NMWA) ‘Women to Watch’ booth too, hosted by the Saffronart Foundation. It will feature five women artists — Rajyashri Goody, Ayesha Singh, Prajakta Potnis, Prarthna Singh and Farah Mulla. Goody will also be participating in NMWA’s New Worlds exhibition in Washington DC next year.

Karan Johar in the house

For those looking to dive deeper into contemporary art and its histories, the Speaker Series, with artists, curators, collectors and gallerists, will discuss various topics, including the making of art institutions, Mumbai’s institutional art collections, and the future of art with AI.

Tom Vattakuzhy’s Departure

Tom Vattakuzhy’s Departure

And bringing Mumbai’s je ne sais quoi to the series is an evening with Karan Johar, where the filmmaker will discuss the intersections of art and cinema with Art Mumbai co-founder Dinesh. Also on the cards is a special presentation by fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani, musical acts and stand-up comedy to keep visitors engaged.

The art ecosystem in Mumbai, while thriving, is small, and the fair hopes to bring fresh interest and newer audiences. One that can be translated into footfalls at galleries, into enthusiasts, and hopefully into collectors, once again lending to the city’s rich history.

Art Mumbai is on from November 16-19 at Mahalaxmi Racecourse.

The writer is based in Mumbai.

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