UNTIL THE 1940S, art in Bombay was an occasional pleasure for the city’s European and Indian elite, displayed most prominently at an annual exhibition sponsored by the Bombay Arts Society that was more a social event than an artistic initiative.
With India’s impending independence offering an opportunity for radical political shifts, the practice of art took a revolutionary turn too. In Bombay, this resulted in a modern art movement led by the Progressive Artists Group, formed in 1947, which rejected prevalent European and Indian traditions to forge distinct styles inspired by classical as well as folk Indian art forms.
The movement counted amongst its earliest patrons the city’s Central European Jewish immigrants, who had settled there after fleeing Europe in the early stages of Nazi persecution. Between 1938 and 1940, foreigners like Walter Langhammer, Rudolph von Leyden and Emmanuel Schlesinger came to Bombay with hopes to establish artistic or business ventures, and soon found themselves at the centre of Bombay’s rapidly changing art scene. Langhammer, a former professor of art in Vienna, and von Leyden, an art critic, cartoonist and collector of Mughal-era playing cards called ganjifa, both found work in the art department of the Times of India. Schlesinger, who arrived with a great deal of wealth from his successful hat studio in Austria, started a partnership with an Indian chemist in Bombay, and with the other two Jews began to encourage younger and less privileged Indian artists.
By the early 1940s, Langhammer and von Leyden were organising informal gatherings at the former’s home in Bombay, which gradually became the place where avant-garde Indian artists converged during that era. Langhammer had also opened a studio on Nepean Sea Road that he lent first to SH Raza after meeting him at the Bombay Arts Society exhibition in 1939, and later to a variety of young painters, including but not limited to members of the Progressive Group. As someone who collected a great deal of art, Langhammer used to be on the lookout for high quality frames; this quest took him in the in the mid 1940s, along with the paintings of artists he was mentoring, to Kekoo Gandhy’s shop, Chemould Frames, on Princess Street in south Bombay.
The son of a wealthy Parsi businessman, Kekoo was born in 1920 in his family’s sea-facing bungalow, Kekee Manzil, in Bandra. “As a child, my father was a bit of a goody-goody, but that changed as the years went on,” his daughter Shireen Gandhy told me about Kekoo’s transition from a privileged Parsi child to a young man deeply engaged in art and politics. After completing his school education in Bombay, he went to Cambridge in 1938, where he became secretary of the Indian students’ organisation Majlis, which was a forum for, among other things, vibrant political debates. In 1939, he came to Bombay to see his family, but could not return to Cambridge because of the outbreak of the Second World War. Two years later, when his father set up the Chemical Moulding Manufacturing Company, a factory that made picture frames, Kekoo began to help out with the business. This was the beginning of his contact with the world of art.
Through his work in the frame factory, whose name was later officially abbreviated to Chemould, Kekoo grew increasingly curious about developments in Bombay’s ongoing art movement. Soon enough, the fortuitous meeting with Langhammer at his shop brought Kekoo to the forefront of the scene. United by their interest in avant-garde art, Langhammer and Kekoo decided to collaborate on a set of frames for the works of modern Indian painters like KK Hebbar, Shiavax Chavda and NS Bendre, as well as some members of the Progressive Group.
Kekoo also became a member of the Bombay Arts Society in the early 1940s, where, along with Langhammer’s wife Käthe, he was entrusted with organising exhibitions. Through his efforts, and those of other enthusiasts, the society started to transform into a platform for new modern art, especially by younger artists. As his prominence in Bombay grew, Kekoo became involved with nationwide activism to create a body to advise the government on policies related to the development of the arts. In 1947, the All India Association for the Fine Arts was established for this purpose. The next year, as part of a team that included artists and intellectuals such as Manu Thacker, VR Amberkar, Mulk Raj Anand and Ram Chatterji, Kekoo helped organise the third All India Art Conference, in Bombay, where politicians and prominent citizens spoke about the need for preserving India’s artistic heritage.
In Bombay, Kekoo’s Chemould Frames became the place where those interested in art were introduced to new work. Over the late 1940s and 1950s, the elegant wooden frames inside the small shop on Princess Street displayed a whole range of new art from India, including Husain’s galloping horses and Raza’s symmetrical whorls of colour. Since all the paintings couldn’t go on display at once, Kekoo would store several at the family’s factory in Andheri. Kekoo’s son, Adil Gandhy, remembers paintings by artists like Tyeb Mehta piled up in rooms on the upper floor of the factory. “I used to tell him, ‘Papa, what are you doing? These paintings are just collecting dust here,’” Adil, who now runs Chemould Frames, told me when I met him at the shop last October.
In 1963, after over a decade of toying with the idea, Kekoo set up Gallery Chemould on the first floor of the established Jehangir Art Gallery in south Bombay’s Kala Ghoda area. Kekoo saw his responsibilities as surpassing those of owning and operating a frame shop and an art gallery—he wanted to build an institution of and for Bombay’s modern art. His three broad objectives were to showcase a wide variety of modern Indian art at the gallery, to promote Bombay’s art in other Indian cities, and to take Indian art abroad. The gallery’s inaugural exhibition in 1963 included works by NS Bendre, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna and Satish Gujral, while a large group-show by young artists was held downstairs at Jehangir Art Gallery.
In the years following 1941, when he started working at the family frame shop, Kekoo become a mediator of sorts, travelling frequently to bring artists together and into contact with others with similar sensibilities in art. After seeing the paintings of Jamini Roy, a controversial artist who was influenced by the traditional art of Bengal, at the Bombay Arts Society in the late 1940s, he opened a frame shop and gallery on Park Street in Calcutta in 1950 to facilitate artistic exchanges between Bombay and Calcutta. In 1965, he set up the Kunika Chemould Art Center above the Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Janpath in Delhi to bring Bombay’s artists into the national arena.
In 1969, long before the idea of a pop-up exhibition had gained any traction in India, Kekoo, who had learnt through a conversation with MF Husain that the Queen of Iran, Farah Pahlavi, had a keen interest in contemporary art, turned one of the rooms at the governor’s residence in Bombay into a makeshift gallery. The Queen bought seven paintings, and after spending much of the day with the Gandhys, invited them to bring an exhibition to Iran.
Kekoo pioneered an immersive culture of art patronage that few others supported at the time. With him at the helm, Chemould went on to shape the careers of generations of modern Indian artists, contributing to their rise to fame at home and abroad. His daughter, Shireen, who joined her parents in managing the gallery on its twenty-fifth anniversary, built upon her father’s vision, taking risks with artists as she gradually took Chemould to the international stage. Through the history of the Gandhy family’s association with art, Chemould has hosted exhibitions by most of India’s contemporary artists. If Bhupen Khakhar, Vivan Sundaram and Nalini Malani were guided in their work by Chemould under Kekoo’s leadership, leading contemporary artists such as Atul Dodiya and Jitish Kallat, both of whom had their first solo shows at the gallery in 1989 and 1997 respectively, owe a significant part of their success to the support offered by Shireen.
In 2013, the gallery turned 50, marking an important milestone on its eventful journey. To celebrate the anniversary, the gallery inaugurated in September a series of five exhibitions to be spread over eight months, titled Aesthetic Bind. Instead of one sprawling exhibition without a clear focus, curator Geeta Kapur and gallery director Shireen Gandhy decided to hold five shows centred on themes as varied as death and the relationship between man and machine. With the works of senior artists displayed next to those of new and upcoming talents in a clear dismantling of hierarchies, the shows enable a thorough exploration of contemporary issues and art practices that stays true to Kekoo’s legacy.
WHILE KEKOO WAS BUSY CULTIVATING artists in India and around the world, his wife, Khorshed, managed the gallery. The two had met through a mutual friend, Bapsy Sabavala, who was the daughter of Sir Cowasji Jehangir, a prominent Parsi who founded the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1952. The vivacious Sabavala, who used to organise theatrical productions and charity benefits, persuaded Khorshed to help her sell tickets for a tea dance in 1943. When Khorshed failed to sell a single ticket, Sabavala insisted that the least she could do was attend the dance herself, and since the young woman wouldn’t be allowed to go alone, she was paired with Kekoo. On the evening of the dance, the artist Jehangir Sabavala—who did not know Kekoo or Khorshed yet but would have an exhibition at Chemould more than 20 years later—learnt about his mother’s imposition and decided to excuse the young couple from the party. With no plan at hand, Kekoo suggested that they attend a film at Metro Cinema, and although initially hesitant, Khorshed agreed to go. That evening, the two bonded over a mutual love for cycling. Looking for an excuse to see Khorshed again, Kekoo organised a large cycling party a few days later, putting Khorshed’s brothers at the top of his guest list. Over the months that followed, Kekoo and Khorshed found several ways to meet each other. They got married in 1944.
Khorshed shared Kekoo’s love for art and assumed the role of administering the day-to-day operations of the gallery from the day it was founded in 1963. Whether it was the gallery’s first exhibition of tribal art—a show of block-print kalamkari paintings in 1979—or a 2002 show of ancestral Parsi portraits titled Portrait of a Community, Khorshed was the one who set Chemould’s daily agenda. “My father was a dreamer. My mother used to say, ‘Kekoo is the kite that flies, and I’m the one who holds the string,’” Shireen told me when I met her in October in her office at the back of the gallery.
“Kekoo was the visionary but his visions were not based on any considered aesthetic,” Jerry Pinto, who is writing a book on the gallery and the Gandhy family, later told me. “Instead they were based on decisions that he made, synaptic flashes that illuminated possibility and the broad outlines … If Khorshed did not have logistical control, Kekoo was likely to let things slip.”
Money never motivated Kekoo, partly because he had no sense of how to spend it. “Dad had never made an invoice in his life,” Shireen told me. “Without my mother, the gallery wouldn’t have survived beyond two or three years.” In its early years, the gallery relied on the thriving frame business for funds, and Khorshed constantly had to ensure that Kekoo was not exceeding their budget.
Shireen used to visit the gallery very often as a child, through the late 1960s and 1970s. She recalls artists dropping in regularly, many of whom would also stop by the iconic Samovar Café at Jehangir Art Gallery on the ground floor. “My siblings were much older, and I didn’t have too many friends, so I followed my mother around all the time,” she told me. In the early 1980s, when she was studying psychology at Sophia College in Mumbai, Shireen started going to the gallery almost daily and contributing more consciously to the exhibitions and sales. When she expressed her desire to take on greater responsibility, her parents advised her to pursue a master’s degree in arts administration in London, from where she returned in 1987.
Shireen officially joined her parents in 1988. Over the years, she has retained her parents’ commitment to supporting artists in their experiments with unconventional representations and media, while keeping the gallery attuned to shifts in the art business. In December, the gallery participated in Art Basel, arguably the most prestigious and competitive art fair in the world, for the fifth time. “When Shireen took the reins, it was a wonderful handing over of the baton,” Vivan Sundaram, who has been showing his work at the gallery since 1972, told me. “Her leadership has really helped to usher in the changes of the past few decades. She’s alert, travels to international fairs and galleries. In the absence of [other] institutions, the gallery has emerged as the promoter of Indian artists globally,” he added.
In the late 1980s, an expanding Indian upper class began to buy art with a new seriousness. Around the same time, collectors in the West were growing increasingly interested in contemporary art from the East. “In the early days, no one had the kind of money to spend on art. The gallery came up because of my parent’s love for it,” Shireen told me. “As soon as money got involved, interest started to grow.” In 1987, the international fine arts auction house Christie’s hosted a charity auction, organised in close collaboration with the Gandhys, at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. It was there that paintings by Husain and Raza sold for above Rs. 1 lakh for the first time.
Some artists were disillusioned with such commercial incentives, which they perceived as capable of distorting creative motivations. Vivan Sundaram told me that his decision to shift from painting to installation-based work was in part due to “the absurd price” of Rs. 2 lakh for which he sold a painting called ‘Fisherwomen of Bombay’ at an auction organised by the Times of India in 1989. “I didn’t make any more paintings after that … I wanted to keep myself out of the market boom in a very self-conscious way,” he said. But not all artists felt that way. Many were enamoured with the new opportunities that came with the global demand for Indian art.
In New York in 1995, Sotheby’s held its first auction dedicated to contemporary Indian art. Over the next decade, the auction market grew, with help from the online firm Saffronart and the Mumbai-based auction house Osian, from around $3 million in 2000—when they were both founded—to an estimated $100 million in 2010.
The Gandhys’ small-scale family-run business was no longer a match for competitive establishments proliferating across the country and seemed unprepared for the rush as business persons and industrialists entered the gallery business. In 2004, collector Amit Judge opened the Bodhi Art gallery in Singapore, and followed it up with branches in Mumbai, Delhi, New York and Berlin, sending ripples through the market for contemporary Indian art. Judge, almost always described as a “serial entrepreneur”, was the first gallerist to work on this scale, marketing Indian art with a focus that neither artists nor other gallerists were accustomed to. Prices soared, as did the perks for Indian artists—Judge is known to have flown them first class to international shows, and bought them subscriptions to pricey art magazines. Indian artists now had the opportunity to show their work at prime international locations—Bodhi’s New York gallery was in the same building on West 57th Street as the Marian Goodman gallery, one of the city’s most influential contemporary art spaces.
“A lot of my artists were just entering the prime of their careers, and were all very ambitious … Name the artist, they were all [now] showing their work with Judge,” Shireen told me about the uncertain phase. “They would show with me too, but the main work was with him.” The fear of losing the loyalty of artists with whom the gallery had been associated for years—if not decades—was a real worry.
In 2005, convinced that the 600-square-foot space was limiting the scope of her plans for the gallery, Shireen began to search for a new space. She found a large, airy gallery—formerly a corporate office—on the third floor of Queen’s Mansion, an old building tucked away on a quiet street in Fort, in south Bombay. There, Shireed launched Chemould Prescott Road in 2007. “It wasn’t just a physical shift. Here we are able to think in a much bigger way,” Shireen said during one of our conversations at the new gallery, an elegant suite of rooms with a 5,000-square-foot expanse and high ceilings. Vivan Sundaram described it to me as “the most beautiful space for a private gallery in Bombay”.
Chemould Prescott Road is now also a part of the Mumbai Art District (MAD), a loose association of nine city galleries, such as Chatterjee & Lal and Project 88, formed after they survived the global financial crisis of 2008, which ended the rosy glow of the 2000s. Judge had to shut down all his galleries, and the art entrepreneur Neville Tuli declared Osian’s Art Fund, an offshoot of his auction house, bust. Apart from organising events to promote art among the city’s public—these included Art Night Thursday, with all the member galleries staying open until 9.30 pm on the second Thursday of every month—MAD members collaborated on sales and agreed not to poach artists from each other anymore. “If someone wants something from another gallery, we make an agreement. If the borrowing gallery sells the work, it gives, for example, ten percent to the owning gallery,” Shireen told me.
This sense of collaboration, which Shireen and Chemould fostered, enabled the gallery to stay relevant through the shifting tides. Many Chemould artists I spoke to said it was their personal connection with Shireen, as well their trust in her sensibilities, that kept them working with her through drastic fluctuations in the market. “She’s a friend first and a gallerist later, so that gives a human touch to the work,” Tushar Joag, a Mumbai-based multimedia artist who has recently moved to Delhi, told me. LN Tallur explained that each time he worked with Shireen, they challenged each other to learn. “There’s no standard method. With each show, we’re growing together and going through an exercise of convincing, understanding and sharing,” he said. Reena Kallat grew emotional as she talked about her and Shireen’s old friendship. “As a gallerist, she’s very much like an artist, a real romantic,” she said. “She loves, she’s passionate, she’ll move where her heart takes her.” Kallat’s association with Chemould dates back to her time as a student at the JJ School of Art from 1991 to 1996, when she and other students would visit the gallery to become familiar with the contemporary art scene.
Kallat’s husband and fellow artist, Jitish Kallat, also met Shireen while training at the school. He recounted to me the rather dramatic moment in 1997 that heralded their long and memorable working relationship. “I was in the monsoon show at Jehangir Art Gallery for students graduating from the JJ School of Art,” he said. “One of my paintings, ‘Flower child operates the funeral of a schedule’, was a self-portrait of myself with a watch in my mouth. Shireen saw me through the glass door, put her own watch in her mouth and started walking toward me. We’d had loose conversations before, but this sealed it. Within a few weeks, we were working on my first solo show.”
A PART FROM SHOWCASING THE ARTISTS the gallery has encouraged since Shireen took over, the fiftieth anniversary shows are also a way for Chemould to celebrate some of its oldest discoveries, including the work of the renowned artist Bhupen Khakhar. “My mother discovered Bhupen’s work at an exhibition in the 1960s,” Shireen said. “He was making sculptural paintings with papier-mâché. They addressed religion in abstract ways—images of one-eyed devis, sort-of temple pictures but not in the traditional form … My parents bought some of his work from that show, and shortly after, he started exhibiting his work at Chemould.” In 1965, Chemould put up two collages by Khakhar, titled ‘Interior of a Temple’ and ‘Pan Shop’, which gained him instant recognition as India’s first pop artist. For one of his collages, Khakhar juxtaposed motifs of deities and goddesses with ordinary images from Indian streets, like an inscription that read “It is prohibited to urinate here.”
Paintings from the last two decades of Khakhar’s life were the centerpieces of Subject of Death (3 September to 3 October 2013), the first of a series of shows marking the tenth anniversary of Khakhar’s death. “Bhupen knew he was dying [of cancer], so I took as my central axis of the show both his raging anguish and reconciliation with death,” curator Geeta Kapur told me. Also on display were quiet depictions of old age and death—paintings by Sudhir Patwardhan and Gieve Patel showed the slow surrender to mortality through images of very old men. Anju Dodiya confronted death more conceptually, through images from personal diary pages that mourned her own death.
In Citizen Artist (14 October to 15 November), the second show in the anniversary series, artists confronted the state. While Gauri Gill and Arunkumar HG presented photographs of impoverished or marginalised migrant communities, Ram Rahman and Gigi Scaria dug into India’s historical flirtations with communism—the former through an image of the playwright and actor Safdar Hashmi’s funeral procession after he was killed while participating in a radical left-wing street performance, and the latter through a two-channel video featuring Mohandas Gandhi and Mao Zedong respectively, to draw parallels between their political views.
The third show, Phantomata—the name fuses “phantom” with “automata”—opened on 29 November 2013 and will run through 3 January 2014. It looks at the relationship between man and machine. Ranbir Kaleka’s portrait, ‘Man Threading a Needle’, features an oil painting of a man deep in concentration as he threads a needle. Over this is projected a video of the same image, in which the man occasionally blinks or gulps as he continues his effort—the effect created is of the painted canvas coming to life.
Also included in the third exhibition is an untitled piece from Sudarshan Shetty’s Eight Corners of the World that comprises ten vase-shaped jars, each about one foot tall, arranged in an ornate, wooden cabinet. The jars are connected by a network of pipes that move milk from one vessel to another, creating a constant dripping noise that echoes through the gallery. In another corner of the gallery, rhythmic sounds emanate from another installation: a Braille typewriter that runs automatically, producing an incessant clicking. These rhythmic sounds are mirrored by the robotic motion in the artist’s untitled third installation from the series This too shall pass: this work comprises a square wooden desk with a glass top, through which viewers can watch a single feather spin around in circles, almost like a clock hand.
Circular motion recurs in Phantomata in the Raqs Media Collective’s ‘An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale’, which digitally reworks a 100-year-old archival photograph of men in white dhoti-kurtas absorbed in work at the Survey of India office in Calcutta, and projects it onto a large screen. The silent, looped projection starts with a few twinkling lights in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, before it brightens as daylight streams through an open window into the office and the men, surveying political maps on glass boards, take form. The ceiling fan on screen begins to spin, its rhythmic motion tying in with the other pieces on display.
LN Tallur’s ‘Apocalypse’ invites viewers to drop coins into an electromagnetic coin-polishing machine. The machine shines the coins to excess, almost erasing the numbers and symbols on their faces. Visitors must turn knobs, which turn neon green and red, to switch the machine on and watch an intricate mesh of wires whir in rapid circles. “After the global financial crisis, money became a phobia and obsession,” Tallur told me, adding, with a hint of irony in his voice, that visitors who find the machine useful may place an order to purchase one at the gallery’s front desk.
The next show in the series, Cabinet, Closet, Wunderkammer, which will run from 17 January to 15 February, has been envisioned as a more playful one, centred on objects typically stored in closed cupboards or display cabinets. The exhibition captures the human compulsion to hold on to material objects. It will include a version of Atul Dodiya’s 2003 installation ‘Broken Branches’, which fills replicas of Mohandas Gandhi’s teak cabinets—in which he stored letters, personal belongings and handspun khadi—with objects, tools, human bones and prosthetic limbs, all meant to draw attention to political changes since Independence. Mithu Sen will present a more personal piece: a disc-shaped cabinet filled with seemingly unimportant objects, from hair clips to cat pictures, arranged in a manner that gives the viewer an intimate portrait of her private life. “They’re the kind of things that most people would throw away,” Shireen told me.
In contrast to the three installation-dominated shows, the last in the commemorative series, Floating World (15 March–12 April), will be a celebration of art for its aesthetic power, with pieces that draw attention to transience. The title is inspired by Ukiyo-e, a form of 17th-century Japanese woodblock printing whose name literally translates to “pictures of the floating world”. As part of the show, Hema Upadhyay will create an elaborate and delicate chandelier with unlit matchsticks, which she conceived as being symbolic of the fragile and inflammatory relationship between India and Pakistan. An untitled piece by Reena Kallat, labelled “Map/Drawing” and first exhibited at the Göteborg Biennial in Sweden in 2011, will string electric wires across a map to trace the movement of international migrants, from indentured laborers to present-day jetsetters. The installation will occupy an entire wall of the gallery—it measured 11 feet by 38 feet when first displayed—and the wires will highlight the paths of migrants across the globe. “I worked with electrical wire because it’s a transmitter of kinetic energy,” Kallat told me. “Also to think of the flows of energy and the movement of migrants, information, ideas, chance encounters. Wires, which are a carrier of energy, are also treated as barriers—barbed wire and fences. At no other moment in human history do we have this much movement of people, but it’s also the most regulated movement.” Her work incorporates a strong audio element. “We have speakers inserted into the work, playing the dense sound of high voltage electric current,” Kallat said, “and along with that constant din are sounds of ship horns, factories, sirens … dialing tones, engaged tones, some bird migrations, all coming together in a sort of friction.”
ALTHOUGH ALL FIVE SHOWS of Aesthetic Bind offer ample opportunities for social reflection, the second, Citizen Artist, stood out for its political engagement, which was central to the Gandhy home. Kekoo was known for being deeply concerned about political events in Bombay, from issues of local governance to traffic regulation. When the Hindu–Muslim riots shook the city in 1992, he worked closely with the police commissioner at the time, Julio Ribeiro, to organise “mohalla committees”, a civil society initiative that brought together the police and members of the public and facilitated discussions. “Kekoo used to call me comrade,” Vivan Sundaram said. “He was always fighting for one cause or another, and wanted to use the gallery like an adda to talk about social and political issues.”
In 1994, deeply affected by the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent riots in Mumbai, Rummana Hussain, who shifted from painting to installation and performance art to capture the changing political climate, presented Fragments/ Multiples at Chemould, using repeating sculptures of a semi-circular dome to symbolise the splitting apart of the Masjid. In 1996, after revisiting the scene of the demolition, Hussain created an installation titled ‘Home/Nation’ at Chemould. Breaking from the older tradition of using a single medium in one piece of art, the artist used objects like photographs of a forgotten minaret at Ayodhya, transparent office folders with mock-ups of official documents, and glass jars containing memorabilia like a lock of hair or a plastic comb to recreate the memory of the demolition. “Rummana became an iconic artist with these installations, and her work continues to be passed around today as a model of that time,” Shireen said.
Khorshed was a political activist in her own right, who regularly wrote letters to politicians about the affairs of the country. Shireen told me about having recently found a particularly anguished letter her mother wrote in 1961 to the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, after watching the short film ‘The Story of Kashmir’, which was screened before a main feature in the theatres. In the letter, Khorshed complained that the film invoked deep hatred against Pakistan, and questioned the objective of using anti-Pakistan propaganda to build Indian nationalism. Nehru wrote back a long response, arguing that the film was factually sound, and saying that India needed to set the record straight in light of the false stories about Kashmir that Pakistan circulated.
More than 50 years later, Chemould’s Citizen Artist made direct references to citizens struggling to establish their national identity in the face of political repression, with specific pieces addressing issues in Kashmir and Palestine. Shilpa Gupta, whose work often draws attention to war and human rights, had two pieces in the show. The first, ‘1:128.4, 790 Kms of Barrier, West, West Bank’, comprised a piece of white string tightly wound between two brass nails about three feet apart on a wall in the gallery. The title was a reference to the fact that the length of the string multiplied by 128.4 was 790 kilometres, the length of the barrier separating Israel and the West Bank.
Gupta’s second work was called ‘1278 unnamed unmarked graves, Kupwara District, Kashmir, 28 hours via foot on National Highway No 1, East of Line of Control’. In it, she used marble slabs to represent the gravestones of the unacknowledged dead and disappeared persons in Kashmir, but instead of names, the slabs, which were lined up against a wall in a dimly lit, recessed hollow at the back of the gallery, had numbers etched on their surfaces. A visitor could take home a slab after agreeing to become its caretaker and filling out a form with her contact details. The form was a contract of sorts, allowing the artist to contact caretakers about the slabs’ location, and making them accountable for the pieces’ future movements. “I may randomly contact some of the people in the future,” Gupta told me. “When I do, I’ll ask about their relationship with the object, and what it represents to them over time.”
The Kashmir conflict was also represented, among other political issues, in selected photographs of a political intervention by Inder Salim, a Delhi-based performance artist who is originally from southern Kashmir. “Art se koi inqilaab nahin hota (no revolution happens through art)—but what can one do in Kashmir, except to be in solidarity, and to insert the creative angle into the protests?” Salim said to me as he pointed to an image on the gallery wall showing his performance during Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir, an open show for the people of Kashmir organised in protest against the conductor Zubin Mehta’s concurrent symphony concert at Srinagar’s Shalimar gardens in September 2013, which many locals saw as excluding the common people of Srinagar.
In another strongly political work at Citizen Artist, ‘Circadian Rhyme—2 and 3’, Jitish Kallat commented on the paranoia at international borders following the events of 11 September 2001. Forty-eight miniature figurines, each a foot tall, stood in pairs on a raised platform, arranged diagonally across a part of the gallery. On closer examination, the viewer saw that in each pair, one figure was frisking the other: pockets were being patted down, arms were raised up, and the backs of legs were being probed. The scenes invoked a visceral response, one that anyone who has travelled by air knows only too well—a simultaneous rage and shame at being poked by a complete stranger, made worse by the helplessness one feels while enduring the ritualised process.
On the wall behind Kallat’s installation were Arunkumar HG’s photographs of poor migrants in India. The Delhi-based artist, who originally trained as a sculptor in Baroda, tackled the relationship between labour and a country’s development. His photo frieze captured wage labourers standing on footpaths, waiting for contractors to drive down busy urban streets to whisk them away for a day’s work. In a short introduction to the frieze, the artist described these men and women as “toilers”, who assemble in large numbers at various spots in big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai but become invisible to the rest of the urban citizenry as soon as they are taken to a construction site. The migrant labourers gazed out of the frame, their dusty clothes and sun-worn faces incongruous against the pristine gallery wall.
Tushar Joag responded to the show’s brief by creating a participatory work involving the public. ‘Are you awake?’ was a sound installation, almost three hours long, of people living along a route the artist chalked from Nariman Point in south Mumbai to Borivali in the city’s north. It started with Joag asking people—sometimes going door to door, at other times reaching out to friends of friends—to participate in a telephonic exchange with strangers while the artist recorded the conversations. “They were asked to speak about sleep, sleeplessness or waking, interpreted as either a physical condition or a mental attitude,” said Joag, adding that he wanted to push people to think about being active citizens. In the finished installation, visitors could listen to a loop of these conversations on headphones, or read a book with the transcripts. The conversations included strangers venting their frustrations and sharing deeply intimate stories.
ON 15 OCTOBER, a sizable crowd of artists, critics and enthusiasts gathered at Chemould Prescott Road for the opening of Citizen Artist. Dressed in a black Venkatgiri sari with shimmering edges, Shireen welcomed the guests with her familiar warmth and open enthusiasm. Wine and hors d’oeuvres were soon twirling around the room as old friends and strangers struck up conversations and mused out loud about the work around them. No one could have believed that less than 48 hours earlier, the gallery had been a cacophony of saws and hammers.
The energy at the party was electric—the chatter made it impossible for visitors to listen to the sound installations, even with headphones on. Congratulatory hugs filled the room as the artists witnessed their months and years of hard work come to fruition. Eavesdropping on conversations that switched between the show on display to weekends at Alibaug homes and career options for children returning from the US, I couldn’t help but feel as if I had wandered into a family party.
Nobody who has known the Gandhys could deny that Aesthetic Bind is more than an opportunity to mark 50 years of contemporary art in Bombay; it is a testimony to the tenacity of one family’s dream, a celebration of Kekoo and Khorshed. Kekoo died in 2012, one year short of the gallery’s fiftieth anniversary. Khorshed lived to see the opening of the first show, but died three days after, on 6 September. “Mummy wrote a short note to us that said, ‘Don’t take me to the Doongerwadi [Mumbai’s Parsi community’s Towers of Silence], I don’t wish to go there. Celebrate my death, don’t mourn for me. If you like, you can sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”,’” Adil told me. At a sit-down dinner party hosted for artists and close friends of the gallery on 20 September, Adil executed his mother’s wish. “I took the song ‘My Way’ and turned it into ‘Our Way’, like Kekoo and Khorshed would sing to the crowd: ‘And we did it our way.’”
Shanoor Seervai is a writer based in Mumbai. She reports for the Wall Street Journal on subjects ranging from women’s rights to urban development and art.
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