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The champion of Indian art

A new film chronicles Kekoo Gandhy’s role as a central figure on the contemporary art scene

Kekoo Gandhy established India’s first commercial art gallery in Mumbai in 1963.
Kekoo Gandhy established India’s first commercial art gallery in Mumbai in 1963.

In the 1940s, the showroom of Chemould Frames on Princess Street in Mumbai—a frame-manufacturing business run by a young Kekoo Gandhy—would be abuzz with exchanges on art. European Jewish immigrants such as Walter Langhammer, an Austrian artist—who had come to India to flee the Nazis—would drop in for a chat. This spurred Gandhy’s interest in art and he went on to establish Gallery Chemould, India’s first commercial art gallery, with his wife, Khorshed, in 1963. Gandhy, in the course of time, hosted exhibitions by Bhupen Khakhar, Tyeb Mehta, S. H. Raza, Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, and Atul Dodiya, who are now at the forefront of contemporary art.

It is this journey from a frame manufacturer to becoming one of the most significant figures on the Indian contemporary art scene that Gandhy’s elder daughter, Behroze, a well-known movie producer who shuttles between the UK and India, has tried to capture in the film Kekee Manzil—The House Of Art. It is named after the house in Bandstand where Kekoo and Khorshed used to live.

Behroze witnessed her father’s journey at close quarters but interviews with Anish Kapoor, Ila Pal, Krishen Khanna, Sakina Mehta, Salman Rushdie, Malani and Atul Dodiya introduced her to unknown facets of Gandhy’s personality. “What came across was that my father had a passion for everything new and different—something which wasn’t a part of the mainstream. He was naturally curious about people. For him, the gallery was not about making money—he was genuinely interested in individual artists. For instance, he was passionately devoted to Ram Kumar," says Behroze, who released the film last week at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, in time for Gandhy’s 100th birth anniversary.

Ever since her father’s death in 2012, she had been recording interviews with those who knew him, resulting in hours and hours of footage. Then, three years ago, she collaborated with Dilesh Korya, a Bristol-based film-maker and editor, to structure the film, and British composer Talvin Singh for the music. For them, Gandhy became a vehicle to talk about the bigger story of intersections between contemporary art, politics and history.

Kekee Manzil, which lasts for 1 hour and 25 minutes, opens with archival material from the 1940s. “We also look at the Emergency period, when people like Tyeb Mehta and Bhupen Khakhar were taking the idiom of art practice further, and my father stood by that. Bhupen had just come out at that time and openly talked about sexuality," says Behroze.

The film highlights the fact that in the 1980s Gallery Chemould was also a space for political and cultural discussions and events. These cross-disciplinary conversations served as inspiration for the intellectuals who took part in them. In the film, Salman Rushdie talks about such meetings: “I met Bhupen, I met Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, I met Vivan Sundaram and a bunch of people that made for me a long association with that generation in particular of Indian artists....and so when I was thinking of The Moor’s Last Sigh, it was only by knowing those people that I feel I had the confidence to invent a painter in the novel."

In his later years, Gandhy veered more towards tribal art and started showing work by Jivya Soma Mashe and Bulu Imam. “It was a circular journey when he moved towards something which was not quite considered at par with contemporary art at the time," says Behroze, who will be showing the film in Mumbai next month, and in Delhi and Kolkata in April.

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