Pheroza Godrej: Mumbai’s art queen


April 26, 2016

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One of Mumbai’s leading art historians, Pheroza J Godrej, updates Ornella D’Souza about her commitments as editor, collector, curator and member on various cultural boards


Article by by Ornella D’Souza,

Your stint as chairperson of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai. ended in October 2015. Did you manage to get enough done?

I’m glad my advisory committee and I put a list of exhibitions in the pipeline, so the new advisory committee actually has it easy. But there’s never enough. We wanted no entry fee for exhibitions at the dome, as people have to climb up four floors because the rest of the NGMA is out of bounds if other shows being installed or dismantled here. On such occasions, at least six times a year, footfalls just cease. Then, a special shop at the entrance with souvenirs of ongoing exhibitions, upgrading the 30-year-old infrastructure – air-conditioning, lift and auditorium facilities, a cafeteria and toilet blocks on every floor. Because now visitors have to return to the ground floor when they need to use one. These are doable, but at times it takes forever!

You also head the committee for the Godrej Archives, which houses business and family manuscripts and memorabilia. Any latest development?

We’ll soon be out with a book on the Godrej typewriter. Before typewriters disappear like the people who sit with them outside railway stations and post offices, for those who can’t read or write. The book has photographs by Chirodeep Chaudhari, who has been documenting our typewriters for a while. Siddharth Bhatia is the editor. Contributors have written on typewriter print, history of typewriters, typewriters as props in movies or when storylines were typed on them. We had our first artist-in-residence programme last year. American artist Jeremy Mayer used few of the last Godrej typewriters to make a lotus that blooms at 9am and closes at 6pm, and two mandalas. This year, an artist from Mumbai will use Godrej almirahs as artist in residence.

And about your boutique India Weaves?
This year, we are gifting clients a day-book on India Weaves fabrics. It has my writings on India as the fable land of warp and weft and images of India Weaves fabrics, with blank spaces for jotting notes. After acquiring the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), we will gift all the copies to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahayala’s (CSMVS) museum shop.
You served two terms as vice-president of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).

I was with the Bombay Natural History Society when it needed an injection of Rs one crore. The art market was good. So with (curator) Niyati Shinde in 2007, we had an art auction at the Taj Mahal Hotel. We got Godrej, DSP Merrill Lynch, HSBC, ICICI and CitiBank, the Taj Group of Hotels and the Tatas onboard. I invited auctioneer Mallika Advani to conduct the auctions. Most artists let us have two-thirds of the sale and some, like Ram Kumar, gave an outright donation. Between the auction and the BNHS shop, we met the target. Even for the second fund-raiser in 2008, we hit the Rs65 lakh target.

I’m also part of the National Association of Friends of Trees. I love trees! I find it glamorous to associate with the tiger, the elephant, the lion, the rhino. But they need a home – the forest and its catchment areas, which, if you keep chopping down, there won’t be any wildlife left in India. I want to bring in a younger lot of environment enthusiasts – the heads of the zoology and botany departments in colleges – on board.

Was there a page limit to the weighty 726-page A Zoroastrian Tapestry you co-edited with Firoza Punthakey Mistree in 2013?

No, not even a budget limit. It took us years of research, working from 9.30 to 5.30pm, except Sundays. Writing to museums for permissions to reproduce images, inviting contributors to give original research – this alone took three years – Then reading texts, knowing where to place images, and waiting, for instance, for someone to become a navar and have his first turban tied on.We started in 1992 and managed to publish it in 2002. The book prompted Dr Sarah Stewart in 2013 to exhibit 400 manuscripts, artefacts and paintings at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, where she teaches Zoroastrian studies.

Any other exhibition that prompted a memorable overseas display?

When the exhibition Across Oceans and Flowing Silks from Canton to Bombay 18th-20th Centuries and No Parsi is an Island ended at NGMA Mumbai, Dr Michael Schuster from the East-West Center Gallery, Honolulu, Hawai’i, visited me. He wanted Mistree and me to co-curate an exhibition in Honolulu! We sent 69 items, and Schuster added period trade items of chairs, porcelain vases and a silver rosewater sprinkler. It finally opened in October 2015 and ran through January. It was well-exhibited with weekly outreach activities. We found 16 Parsis in Honululu! Everyday they gave us fresh Hawaiian lei (garlands) to wear with our garas (Parsi saris). These little interludes between major projects are a delight.

What made you open Cymroza?

In the 1960s, Bombay had only Jehangir Art Gallery and two private galleries. The Taj Art Gallery would only show artists such as NS Bendre, AA Raiba and well-known society ladies. As an artist, I never got a chance. So, I opened Cymroza in 1971. When it began to expand, especially after Akbar Padamsee’s show, Kekoo Gandhy (of Chemould Prescott gallery) told my parents, “Had I given Pheroza an exhibition at Chemould, she would have never started Cymroza.” And that’s true.

Art galleries have opened and closed, but Cymroza cruises on.

Cymroza has found its level because we don’t overstretch or underplay ourselves. We don’t just do show after show, or rent out. We display from our collection through the year, so we help our artists and make ends meet. I never say no to an artist. Only if the art is amateur, I say ‘Sorry no space, booked for many years’ (laughs).

Do you have any favourites among artists?

I cannot choose! I love Rekha Rodwittiya, but also Thakur & Tagral and Satish Gujral. I have a soft spot for the contemporary. I like both, the classical period and the figurative Progressive Movement. Over the years, I’ve tended to like many abstract painters. Laxman Shrestha has been a favourite since four decades. We have a small collection of Shrestha because everyone – Jamshyd, Navroze, Raika and I, love his work.

Can you talk about your art collection with husband Jamshyd?

Had I focused on just one period and selected its best artists, like what young collectors are doing today, my collection would have been stronger. Though Mortimer Chatterjee (C&L gallery owner), who is cataloguing the collection, feels it documents a huge band of contemporary art that exists but doesn’t show on the art scene.

But I’ve come to a stage where I really need to edit our collection. I’ll never forget the Gandhian Usha Mehta of Mani Bhavan. She only had three saris. One that she wore when she died, a spare one in her cupboard and the third being washed for the following day. I would love to go that way. No encumbrances for anyone. That’s why I gifted 100 prints to the CSMVS museum for the new prints gallery. (whispers) I’ve got many more…another 300 works on paper. When I find lacunas in my exhibitions, I take from my collection.

Are we Indians good at documentation?

We are really poor documenters. I think the people who ruled us, the colonialists, would write, draw, paint and photograph copiously. Either on waking up or if they visited the dafter, or led a regiment, then under petromax at night. They were constantly documenting India. We Indians have the awareness, but not the discipline to document. The legendary Ebrahim Alkazi instilled this in me.

Do you get overwhelmed at times, handling all these responsibilities?

Not really. I see the bigger picture, separate the roles, focus on one task, give it a framework and then move on.

So you have turned down opportunities?

(Laughs) Trouble is I haven’t said no. I always say, ‘Yes, I can manage’.

You and your husband do things very quietly.

Yes, we just get ahead with what’s in hand.

Initially, did the surname Godrej make you nervous?

It still does. Even now I say, ‘I’m Pheroza’ and leave it at that.