Chemould Prescott Road: Moulding modern art for decades

India was still taking its first steps as an independent nation when a young Maqbool Fida Hussain was struggling to find avenues to display his art in the city. He met by chance a young Parsi couple who ran a frame-making business at Princess Street in south Mumbai.

By Sukhada Tatke | The Hindu

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Soli Bathiwala, Piloo Mulla, Khorshed Gandhy, Farrokh S. Mulla (head of M.R. Tatas), Mme de Volois (art critic from Paris), Savax Chavda and Kekoo Gandhy at the Princess street shop, 1965. Photo courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road archives, Mumbai.

Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy hosted M.F. Hussain’s first informal, solo show on the window of their shop – Chemould Frames – in 1951, where his paintings hung from specially-designed frames. Years later, Chemould became a full-fledged space for showcasing modern art when it shifted to Jehangir Art Gallery in 1963. It relocated yet again and in its current form, the enterprise has completed 50 years.

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Chemould Prescott Road is now managed by the Gandhys’ daughter Shireen who inherited her parents’ “ethics, sensibilities and development of the eye”. Currently, the gallery is hosting ‘Aesthetic Bind’: five exhibitions spread over seven months and curated by Geeta Kapur to mark its 50 years. The show closes on April 7.

Shireen says the new gallery bears fidelity to the ideals of its predecessor by remaining rooted in contemporary movements as well as engaging in social action. “I keep pace with current waves of art. Space has now become instrumental to the practice. The gallery can have huge audio-video installations and sculptures,” she says. It was possible, thus, for Jitish Kallat, for instance, to exhibit his life-sized installation ‘Autosaurus Tripous’ (a skeletal structure resembling an autorickshaw) in 2007.

Given Kekoo and Khorshed’s preoccupation with political and social concerns, Gallery Chemould soon became an important location for Progressive Artists – as Francis Newton Souza, Sayed Haider Raza and others had begun to call themselves – who had started charting new territory in contemporary art.

Poets Nissim Ezekiel and Adil Jussawala and filmmakers Mani Kaul and Shyam Benegal were regulars at the gallery, as were artists Tyeb Mehta and Bhupen Khakhar. “They were all major influences in my formative years, and I met them there,” says artist Atul Dodiya.

According to art critic Ranjit Hoskote, Chemould was a major seedbed for very diverse artistic practices across India. “Kekoo and Khorshed supported artists they believed in, regardless of what was critically acclaimed or commercially viable at the time,” he says.

The new avatar has enabled artists to think expansively. Artist Gieve Patel who calls Chemould his second home says that the current gallery lends itself to new trends in the international art scene. “The shows are now much grander. When one exhibits, one can think in terms of a large space,” he says.