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Framing the contemporary at Chemould

As Chemould turns 60, a series of shows delve into its archive to understand what it means to be ‘contemporary’

Bhupen Khakhar (right) with friends, photographed by Nilima Sheikh. All photos: courtesy Chemould Prescott Road
Bhupen Khakhar (right) with friends, photographed by Nilima Sheikh. All photos: courtesy Chemould Prescott Road

At Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, archivist Harshada Mane and curator Shaleen Wadhwana have been poring over 15,000 archival items, such as letters, catalogues, cards and films, for months—each tells its own story of the 60-year-old journey of this contemporary art gallery. A lot of this material references not just India but Switzerland, Italy, Afghanistan, UAE, Germany, UK, USA and Australia as well.

Mane takes me on a virtual tour of the archive, which contains invitation cards, old stamps, and objects belonging to the gallery’s co-founder, Kekoo Gandhy—such as his Padma Shri, glasses, passport. It holds some iconic frames from the past—samples, box frames, ornate ones, others featuring names of artists like K.K. Hebbar.

Chemould, started in 1941 as a framing company, grew into a contemporary arts space in 1963 after Gandhy and his wife, Khorshed, opened it on the first floor of Jehangir Art Gallery. In 2007, it relocated to its current home on Prescott Road under the leadership of Kekoo and Khorshed’s daughter, Shireen.

Three shows are being held to celebrate Chemould’s 60 years: CheMoulding: Framing Future Archives, Remembering and Continuum.

In CheMoulding, Wadhwana has used the term “frame” as a metaphor to hark back to the origin of the gallery as well as to place it in the ever-evolving context of Indian contemporary art. She uses the archive as a starting point to look at both the past and the future of the arts space.

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CheMoulding will be held in two parts, from 16 September-28 October and 14 November-24 December, at Chemould Prescott Road. She makes it clear that this is not an archival show but an exhibition about the archive itself. For instance, over 30 contemporary artists, such as Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, Anju Dodiya, Varunika Saraf and Nilima Sheikh, have responded to curatorial prompts from the archive. There is also archival memorialisation of veteran artists such as Tyeb Mehta, K.H. Ara, Bhupen Khakhar, Rummana Hussain and Jangarh Singh Shyam.

(above) Gallerist Shireen Gandhy (left) and curator Shaleen Wadhwana going through the archives; and Bhupen Khakhar (right) with friends, photographed by Nilima Sheikh.
(above) Gallerist Shireen Gandhy (left) and curator Shaleen Wadhwana going through the archives; and Bhupen Khakhar (right) with friends, photographed by Nilima Sheikh.

“The mediums explored are painting, sculpture, textile, film, printmaking, audio, photography, drawing, literature and installation. Reflecting on the gallery’s public institutional role and its internal everyday idiosyncrasies, this exhibition connects the Indian Art Movement and its relationship with Bombay, with India and the rest of the world,” states the curatorial note.

Wadhwana’s association with Chemould Prescott Road is not new. Between 2015-18, she worked as its director of sales and strategy, learning about exhibition installation, curation, and more. She then worked as an independent curator, teacher and curriculum designer, looking at pedagogical material in depth. “I could finally delve into the archives with wider perspectives on what I can take from it to storytell for my generation,” she says.

Wadhwana shows me the multi-nodal timeline she has created as a framework for the show. It looks at four different aspects: the Gandhy family tree, milestones in the gallery’s history, the key sociopolitical events of the past 60 years in the city, the country and the world, and the evolution of the Indian art movement. Information and data points have been gleaned from the archive itself. “If you look at the title of the show, I have added the suffix ‘ing’ to make Chemould a verb—an act of creating fearless spaces for artistic freedom, something which has become severely compromised in today’s times,” she explains.

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Take, for instance, the gallery’s representation of Khakhar at a time when homoerotic art was frowned upon, even protested against. “I have looked at artist participation records from 1963 through price lists and invites and studied photographs of artist collectives as the nation came to be. It is evident that women were not visible participants in the 1940s but as we hit the late 1980s, we arrive at a certain equilibrium with gender participation,” she adds. “Aside from Bhupen until the 90s, it is harder to trace the visibility of queer art-making in the mainstream commercial art history.”

M F Husain, Begum Ali Yavar Gang and Kekoo Gandhy at the opening of Swaminathan exhibition, 1971
M F Husain, Begum Ali Yavar Gang and Kekoo Gandhy at the opening of Swaminathan exhibition, 1971

As part of CheMoulding, one can see the first ever invite issued by the gallery for its inaugural exhibition in 1963. It states: “Today there is a widening gulf between the painter and the lay public. Conscious of our responsibility in this field, we hope to make our own contribution through an intelligent choice of paintings that we hold in our gallery.” Instead of using artworks, as convention dictates, Wadhwana has used archival material to bring an artist alive.

A second show, Remembering, is being curated by the Chemould Prescott Road team and will be held at the original home of the gallery—the first floor of Jehangir Art Gallery. This week-long nostalgic showcase (30 October -5 November) will be a time capsule of sorts. To achieve this, Shireen Gandhy, director, Chemould Prescott Road, started a WhatsApp broadcast group for all its old staff. “Through Remembering, we are trying to highlight the part that each one had to play in bringing the space alive. Through their memories, we are trying to recall stories of what the collectors had bought at that time and why. Whether we get hold of the collector or that particular artwork is another matter. But it is those memories that matter. The show is still being developed and will feature artwork sold from that gallery space,” she says.

In CheMoulding, the milestones in the gallery’s journey are juxtaposed against significant moments—from Kekoo and Khorshed’s experiences in the Emergency to artist responses to the Babri Masjid demolition (1992), communal riots in Mumbai (1992-93) and Godhra riots (2002). Each is elucidated through archival photographs. “We showed Rummana’s Home Nation, which was in response to the Babri Masjid demolition. Vivan (Sundaram) did Memorial based on the Bombay riots. Material from this will be shown in a special space within the exhibition called Room For Resistance And Resilience,” says Shireen. While many of the artists, who have passed away, have been memorialised in CheMoulding and Remembering, she has made it a conscious choice to not add Sundaram to that list. “It is too recent and too brutal to put him as an artist ‘who was’. For us, he is an artist who continues to be present in his voice,” she adds.

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Continuum, to be held from 13 September-4 November, will be showcased at Chemould’s youngest space—Chemould CoLab—started in 2022 in the historic Sugra Manzil to nurture young artists. As part of the celebrations, emerging voices too will be given prompts from the archive to create newer conversations on contemporary art.

Each show will shine the spotlight on Kekoo and Khorshed as pivotal characters in the contemporary art movement. Chemould got its name from “chemical moulding’, the process through which the frames were made. In his book, Citizen Gallery: The Gandhys of Chemould and the Birth of Modern Art in Bombay, Jerry Pinto states that artists would come to the shop to have their work framed and found in Kekoo a friend. “He, in turn, could connect them to the expatriate community and to the few rich buyers there were because he moved in those circles. Kekoo moved with chameleon-like ease between worlds.”

The book quotes several critics, writers and artists, who have been associated with Chemould over time. Art historian and curator Geeta Kapur, for instance, emphasises on how the Kekoo-Khorshed duo made Chemould an institution and a movement. “...they were protagonists of Indian modernism—from the Progressives to the most contemporary, including figural artists pushing at the edge, like Bhupen Khakhar. The Gandhys tried to understand the context of the art they showed, the way it would interact with the world around.”

One wonders what the term “contemporary” means today. Wadhwana admits it is a question she continues to grapple with. “But I always remember something that Shireen said, which her father also used to say, that contemporary simply means ‘of your time’,” she says.

Shireen answers this question with an anecdote about an exhibition of M.F. Husain’s work that the gallery hosted in 1969 to mark 20 years of his practice. “This was a completely installation-based show. Husain brought his own car—a Fiat painted by himself—into the gallery. It was a very contemporary thing for an artist to do. That sense of the contemporary has always remained, even when I took over the gallery in 1988,” she says. Over the years, Chemould Prescott Road has shown artists like Sundaram, Nalini Malani and Rummana, who chose to work out of the frame of canvases. “This focus on being ‘present in the moment’ was very organic in the 1990s. But 2007 onwards, it became a conscious decision, and we continue to hold on to it even with Chemould CoLab,” adds Gandhy. The CoLab is helmed by her daughter Atyaan Jungalwala with Sunaina Kewalramani as a space for young artists, curators, writers and researchers. Sugra Manzil, a historic building in Colaba, has been converted into artist studios and an exhibition space.

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Wadhwana has found this interesting—getting into the history of the nation told through the lens of art at Chemould. She points to the Shutter series by Atul Dodiya and City of Desires by Nalini Malani as poignant reminders that art speaks volumes when other spaces can’t. “Whether it was the Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971 or Maharashtra Floods in the 2000s, within and outside the gallery, fundraising and rehabilitation efforts were made by the Gandhys. This speaks to their engagement through art with the world around them. This oeuvre continues even now with Varunika Saraf's work detailing women-led protests and how they are shaping the country I am in,” she says.

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