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Three shows in Mumbai chronicle Pheroza Godrej's collecting journey

As her gallery Cymroza celebrates fifty years, the shows look back at the associations philanthropist and patron Pheroza Godrej made and the artists she mentored over time

Phiroze Shroff with Pheroza, Cyrus and Mitha in front of a painting by B Prabha at Cymroza Art Gallery in 1971. Photo: courtesy Cymroza
Phiroze Shroff with Pheroza, Cyrus and Mitha in front of a painting by B Prabha at Cymroza Art Gallery in 1971. Photo: courtesy Cymroza

In Mumbai, these days, three interconnected exhibitions are taking place, each of which takes a deeper look at the collecting style of gallerist, philanthropist and patron Pheroza Godrej. As her gallery, Cymroza, celebrates fifty years of existence, the shows look back at the associations she made and the artists she mentored over time.

At her gallery, one can see The Cymroza Chronicles, which showcases rare works and archival material from the formative years. Pundole’s is hosting a major survey, Mapping the Lost Spectrum, which investigates Godrej’s collecting style. And at Chatterjee & Lal, the first-ever retrospective of fibre artist Nelly Sethna, titled The Unpaved, Crusty, Earthy Road, is taking place. There, one can see a field of tapestries. Viewers can walk amidst them, take in details closely, and feel the tactility. A majority of the works on display have been drawn from Godrej’s collection. While the first two shows have been curated by Ranjit Hoskote, Sethna’s exhibition has been curated by Nancy Adajania.

It has not been easy to draw threads from a collection this varied and eclectic. “We have a large collection; it’s not streamlined, it’s not coherent, and it covers all the mediums, from oils and works on paper to sculpture, ceramics, photography, lithography, and more. So, to get a grip on it all, we needed discipline — because the paintings and other artworks needed to be looked at, restored, reframed, remounted, as the case may have been,” Godrej explained in a recent interview to the Hindu.

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It all started in 1971, when she opened a “gallery for young people” in South Bombay’s Breach Candy area, “and located away from the Flora Fountain-Kala Ghoda axis of the city’s art world,” writes Ranjit Hoskote in his curatorial note. At that time, Godrej (nee Shroff) was in her early twenties. He mentions that she had the complete support of her progressive family, and gave the gallery a composite name formed from theirs: ‘Cy’ for her brother Cyrus; ‘m’ for her mother Mitha; ‘roz’ for her father Phiroze and ‘a’ for herself. “From its earliest years, Cymroza would embrace artists, musicians, writers, cultural producers and viewers of every temperament and milieu into an expanding family. In the 1970s, Cymroza acted as a lively multi-arts forum for youth culture. During the 1980s, it was a forerunner of the commercial galleries that would emerge in Mumbai during the next two decades,” further writes Hoskote.

Today, Godrej’s collection is eclectic and spans diverse practices. A curator could represent it in a myriad ways. However, Hoskote’s commitment has always been to read against the grain of the canon. “The diversity speaks of the strength of the collection. If you want to see it as one focused on the high modern, you can, or if you want to see a collection that has a running record of major women artists in India, it will offer that thread too. I wanted to talk about Pheroza’s collectorial imagination, which embraced the different artistic styles and milieux of production in India,” he says. 

Hoskote has created one of the key walls of the exhibition as a manifesto and mixed into the grid works by SH Raza, the Mithila artist Bindeshwar Paswan, KG Subramanyan, Manjit Bawa, the Oraon artists Jason Imam and Salmi Tirke, Badri Narayan, anonymous Kalighat artists, Anupam Sud, and more.

Through this, he wants to showcase how the art world has been trapped in meaningless binaries and hierarchies, which are repeatedly reinforced. “These shows are an opportunity to show that here is a collection not constrained by these binaries. It is a record of taste and how it has been built on the basis of risk taking, empathy and curiosity about forms that were long under the radar,” he says.

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It’s interesting to see works in the collection by leading artists at different phases of their career. So, there is a 1952 work by Akbar Padamsee, at the beginning of his long-term residence in France, and another one from 1987. Both are in the erotic vein, and show couples. But while the first is hieratic and references sacred iconography, the second is entirely in the domain of the human. Both these works show how the artist’s treatment of a theme changed over time.

The Cymroza Chronicles and Mapping the Lost Spectrum showcase points of convergence between the gallery’s practice and Godrej’s collecting style. “Pheroza reached out to many platforms like Bulu Imam’s Sanskriti Tribal Art Museum or the National Potters Association. The collection was sustained by these dialogues. At a time when no one took printmaking seriously, she collected works by graphic artists. Ceramicists at that time had to explain they were artists too. And she was already collecting works by Ray Meeker, Gurcharan Singh of Delhi Blue Pottery, Nirmala Patwardhan, and more. This should be a model to be emulated by collectors,” he says.

A tapestry by Nelly Sethna on display at Chatterjee & Lal. Image: courtesy Cymroza
A tapestry by Nelly Sethna on display at Chatterjee & Lal. Image: courtesy Cymroza

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Through her collecting journey, Godrej also gave a platform to textile and fibre artists such as Sethna. The show at Chatterjee & Lal is a testament to that. Through The Unpaved, Crusty, Earthy Road, Adajania contextualises the various facets of this all-but-forgotten fibre artist’s practice: as a weaver, textile designer, researcher and crafts activist. In the show, she has foregrounded why Sethna has inspired her all these years. “Nelly was, to borrow that delicious Urdu word, bebaak—fearless and fiercely independent. She suffered from multiple sclerosis and was confined to a wheelchair in her 40s. She fought every adversity with grace,” says Adajania. Until now, there was only uncatalogued information and some folklore from acquaintances about Sethna. But this first-ever retrospective seeks to rectify that.

From the very outset, Adajania wanted this to be a research-based exhibition. So, she divided it into two parts—one is dedicated to the wall hangings, which are sculptural, visceral and tactile in nature, and the second is based on her research findings. On one wall, which she calls ‘Notes from my research journal’, Adajania has gathered and interpreted the evidentiary material to reconstruct a chronology of Sethna’s life and practice. She has also questioned the received narratives and created new models and frameworks within the disciplines of art history, crafts and textile design to lay the foundation for the future study of the artist’s life work. For instance, she talks about how Sethna's oeuvre can be placed at the intersection of Sloyd-inspired Nordic modernism and the ecumenical arts and crafts lineage of Kamaladevi. “I would argue that Nordic modernism enjoyed a symbiotic rather than an antagonistic relationship with the crafts,” she elaborates.

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Another important aspect to Sethna’s practice is that she collaborated with people from across the class spectrum whether it was working with her sister Roda Gazdar, her domestic Chandrabhaga, her husband the filmmaker Homi Sethna or her chief associate Roshan Mullan. “She also worked with Bhanu, a shoemaker by profession, to experiment with leather wall hangings. We have exhibition invites in which Nelly thanks her associates. This is highly unusual. Even today in the contemporary arts and crafts scene, we are wrestling with the vexed question of acknowledgement. It shows how Nelly was far ahead of her time,” says Adajania. 

The Unpaved, Crusty, Earthy Road will be on view at Chatterjee & Lal till 16 October; Mapping the Lost Spectrum can be viewed at Pundole’s till 14 September; and The Cymroza Chronicles will be on display till 19 October, 2021

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