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Mumbai gets a new frame

A 130-year-old building in Colaba provides a new setting and a new perspective for one of the city's most exciting contemporary art galleries

Amrita (left) and Priya Jhaveri at their new space. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Amrita (left) and Priya Jhaveri at their new space. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

In the photograph, a man appears to be casting a brilliant blue net over Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus, enabling a view of the monument through a filter we have never used before. This image of an insect-screen vendor holding up his wares, shot by Raghubir Singh in 1991, is one of the first works you encounter in What’s Essential, the inaugural exhibition at Jhaveri Contemporary gallery’s new space.

While in the Greek island of Hydra earlier this summer, I learnt about the art exhibition space in the island’s old slaughterhouse, run by the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art. It is a stone building on a cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea. Why is it so marvellous for an island with no motor vehicles to be hosting some of the most cutting edge European art? It is because the setting matters. Art is a lot about framing.

This is why Jhaveri Contemporary’s sun-washed new space in Colaba’s Mereweather Road is good news. It is in a 130-year-old building with high ceilings, visible beams, and obscenely large windows that let in light—along with views of the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea. If you lean out and happen to be hungry, you might catch the whiff of kebabs roasting at Bademiyan. A far cry from the gallery’s former location in a residential building in Malabar Hill.

When I meet Amrita and Priya Jhaveri, the sisters who co-founded the gallery, a day before the show’s opening on 1 September, they say they made the move because “everything around was being bought up by the Lodhas". It also made business sense to move closer to the cluster of galleries in Colaba that now band themselves under initiatives like Art Night Thursday.

What makes for a perfect art space? “It depends on your programming... Amrita and I have always valued light, a sense of airiness...we knew we wanted something a little different from what we had. And artists get tired of limitations," says Priya. They knew what they didn’t want: An industrial space or one room that would reveal itself all at once, preferring instead to have a space that turns and bends.

Jhaveri Contemporary is a young gallery, founded only in 2010, but it is distinguished by its boutique programming. Many of the artists on the gallery’s roster—Rana Begum, Monika Correa and Raghubir Singh—aren’t shown anywhere else in India. “We had to do that," says Amrita. “We were late to the game."

Amrita, now based in London, wasn’t late to the game herself. Starting off with a bedroom-office, she established Christie’s in India in the mid-1990s before setting up her own consultancy. In 2010, they brought Anish Kapoor’s works to the country for a pioneering exhibition at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios.

In the exhibition notes for What’s Essential, there is an excerpt from the Mexican writer Octavio Paz’s memoir In Light Of India. It describes his first view of Mumbai from a boat in November 1951. The Taj Mahal Hotel, he writes, is “an enormous cake, a delirium of the fin-de-siècle Orient fallen like a gigantic bubble, not of soap but of stone, on Bombay’s lap."

In what ways does the great megapolis elicit wonder? The works by the 21 artists in the exhibition, some of which are new or specially commissioned, reflect different readings. There are Mrinalini Mukherjee’s bronze sculptures that capture the ambition of the city, still forming but rising tall. There is Manisha Parekh’s Waking Up series of graphite works that show an abstraction of a city always alive. There is romance in the depictions by the foreigners—most notably Lionel Wendt’s photographs of swaying palm trees or the one titled Men Walking Along The Seashore, captured in 1930. There is nostalgia in Simryn Gill’s series of five colour prints. Gill, an NRI who splits her time between Australia and Malaysia, focuses her lens on the flotsam washing back on shore. Can we get back what is lost? There are nebulous dreams in Ali Kazim’s Cloud series. There is sleaze in Prem Sahib’s green neon light sculpture. And, of course, there is chaos, in Mohan Samant’s riotous watercolour titled The Man, The Moon, The Mirror And The Miracles (1996).

Mumbai doesn’t lend to easy definitions. The building itself has been a centre of both drug trade and missionary activity in the past. Now, while high-art elevates its third floor, curio shops and cheap hotels continue to flank it.

This fits with what the sisters say is at the centre of their inquiry as gallery owners. “We want to see how the old speaks to the new," says Amrita. Her favourite exhibition space of all time is Raven Row in London, housed in a 17th century building. “This is the closest we come to it in Bombay," she says. “I get really excited seeing contemporary art in used, lived spaces, like the old Frith Street Gallery in London. But most of the galleries the world over now have moved into, you know, car showrooms."

There is merit in old architecture adapted for contemporary use. “It changes the way you perceive things," says Amrita. Indeed, for a moment, a new frame can make us all Paz in the boat, seeing Mumbai for the first time.

What’s Essential is ongoing at Jhaveri Contemporary gallery at its new address at Mereweather Road, Colaba, Mumbai, till 29 September.

Anindita Ghose tweets @aninditaghose

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