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An old Mumbai art gallery draws millennials

One hopes the gallery will continue to create new urban movements. Not ones that treat millennials as lesser consumers but ones that would involve them more actively in the gallery's regular programming

Shireen Gandhy with Jitish Kallat.
Shireen Gandhy with Jitish Kallat.

Monsoon isn’t the best time to sow in this city.

But one of Mumbai’s oldest and most prestigious art spaces, Gallery Chemould, is attempting to turn the art world’s uneventful monsoon months into a fertile period. Their group show, Modus Operandi, which opened on Friday, brings together works by 29 artists (the gallery’s entire roster) at price points ranging from 20,000 to 2.5 lakh. The idea, gallery director Shireen Gandhy says, is to reach an all-new collector base—the millennials.

The modest price point isn’t the only concession. All the works are wall works, which tend to be easier to acquire and exhibit than, say, an avant-garde sound installation. While art fairs around the world have begun focused programming for “young collectors", one hasn’t seen similar initiatives by private galleries in India.

Established in 1963 by Gandhy’s parents, Kekoo and Khorshed, Chemould was once a hothouse for modernists such as M.F. Husain and S.H. Raza. Gandhy, one year younger than Chemould, joined the family enterprise in 1988. Its stable of well-known artists and an enduring legacy allowed her to play it safe with solid work by established artists over the last decade. Gandhy says she didn’t realize there was a lacuna of any sort till a 27-year-old staffer, Shaleen Wadhwana, started pestering her.

Modus Operandi is meant to showcase modes and processes of art-making. Gandhy began to see patterns once they started putting together a critical mass. One of the four broad categories that emerged, for instance, is the “body", with works by Anju and Atul Dodiya and a suite of 72 glass paintings by Shakuntala Kulkarni. “A young collector might not be able to afford a work by Atul Dodiya but for this show we sought out his working drawings, which are delightful and a good entry point," says Gandhy.

While some of the works were discovered while rummaging through the stock room, some were created especially for the show. Vadodara-based Nilima Sheikh, 73, surprised Gandhy when she opted to create new small-scale works, as did Jitish Kallat, whose full-size Wind Study works are otherwise priced in the range of 7-25 lakh.

The inclusion of this series—a Birkin for Indian collectors at the moment—makes a good case for the exhibition. It is a series that dazzled visitors in its early outing at Art Dubai back in 2015. And just three months ago, I saw these fill up an entire floor at the Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York’s hip SoHo district. This is a good chance for a young collector to bring a Kallat home. And I doubt the gallery staff will bar a 45-year-old from making their first art purchase too.

Gandhy and Wadhwana’s modus operandi to draw audiences involved reaching out to the children of established collectors. “They are influencers in their own cohorts," Gandhy reasons. To keep the distracted generation engaged, there is a flurry of collateral programming such as curated walks and a visit to Bijoy Jain’s studio (more settings for Instagram posts!).

I ask if reaching out to the young lot had been a niggling concern. “Honestly I hadn’t thought about it but Shaleen kept bringing it up. She was puzzled that the cool kids weren’t interested in gallery-hopping and wanted to create something to target them."

On her part, Gandhy modestly admits “it is not a cutting-edge show by any means". But Chemould has historically played a key role in introducing experimentation in the arts to Mumbai. Gandhy hosted Subodh Gupta’s first solo exhibition in 1999—it was here that his steel utensils first made an appearance. In a New York Times article to mark 50 years of the gallery, Homi K. Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University, says the gallery provided “an indigenous cosmopolitanism, a place for the development of a new urban movement".

One hopes the gallery will continue to create new urban movements. Not ones that treat millennials as lesser consumers but ones that would involve them more actively in the gallery’s regular programming. Why shouldn’t a 25-year-old save up to buy a three-channel sound installation, after all?

Modus Operandi is on view till 28 July at Gallery Chemould.

She tweets at @aninditaghose

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