PROFESSIONAL anniversaries may not drive business, but they do provide an opportunity to look back on the highs and lows of the journey, allowing one to mark the special moments as a Frostian reminder of the road taken and the one not taken. Like many others, the good folks at the Chemould Prescott Road gallery — formerly known as Gallery Chemould — have always commemorated milestones with kaleidoscopic exhibitions that reflect their distinct history and legacy. On September 16, this quintessential Mumbai institution will turn 60. To mark the occasion, it will host a four-show series across three different venues. Shireen Gandhy, director of the gallery, has broken with tradition this time by teaming up with younger curators who are part of the “Chemould family” and are familiar with its illustrious past. The first of these exhibitions, CheMoulding: Framing Future Archives, will preview on September 15 at the Chemould Prescott Road gallery. This two-part show has been curated by Shaleen Wadhwana, the 32-year-old ex-director of sales and strategy of the gallery, who is now a researcher working independently as a curator and educator. The two other shows are titled Remembering and Continuum. The former strives to honour past glories through staff memories while the latter will reimagine the future through the eyes of Shireen’s 29-year-old daughter Atyaan Jungalwala and Sunaina Kewalramani, who co-founded Chemould CoLab in 2022 to nurture emerging artists.
While curating CheMoulding: Framing Future Archives, Wadhwana delved extensively into the Chemould archive, combing through 15,000 items such as letters, catalogues, photographs, awards, invitation cards, press clippings, photographs, telegrams and rare documentations from India and elsewhere. “We have looked at the archive through four paradigms — the history of pre-Independent India and the birth of Indian contemporary art, history of the Gandhy family, which is a part of Chemould’s
story, and the history of Bombay and how these four intersect through artistic responses to emotion, nurturing, society and self,” Wadhwana explains. Bringing together over 30 artists who have shared close ties with Chemould down the decades, CheMoulding aims to stimulate a unique and meaningful dialogue between different generations of artists. The exhibition will pay homage to veteran artists, such as Tyeb Mehta, KH Ara, MF Husain, Bhupen Khakhar, Rummana Hussain and Jangarh Singh Shyam, while also attempting something novel by inviting contemporary names like Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, Anju Dodiya and Varunika Saraf to respond to personalised curatorial prompts from the archive. According to Wadhwana, cues given to artists varied from “letters and personal memories of their first meeting with Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy” to even “the old Gallery Chemould floor plan!” While some artists have offered their take in the form of video installations, others have expressed it through embroidered textile artworks.
“Our anniversary exhibitions are always difficult but this one was exceptionally challenging. We were worried that we would be cutting into the organic flow of an artist’s career trajectory by asking them to create work especially for us,” notes Shireen, who since taking over the gallery’s reins from her parents in 1988, has been instrumental in making Chemould Prescott Road a major force in the contemporary art scene. She finds it hard to believe that over half a lifetime has been spent on the job already and while acknowledging that she misses her parents dearly, one surmises that she has a certain “the show must go on” optimism about her, a quality that seems to have served her well. Despite having more than three decades of experience as a full-time gallerist and countless exhibitions under her belt, Shireen remains unassuming and even admits to being nervous about CheMoulding. “I am a calm person, but I imagine anybody would be anxious about, ‘Okay, so how will this thing turn out?’ Every exhibition is a new adventure.”
For all the adventure and excitement that running a gallery may entail, Shireen Gandhy (59) reveals that a life in art was the last thing on her mind while growing up.
“When I look back and ask, ‘would I have done anything else with my life?’ I don’t think so. I feel totally rooted where I am and I would do this a hundred times over. I belong to this gallery. It’s my home,” says Shireen Gandhy, director, Chemould Prescott Road
Share this on
In Citizen Gallery, Jerry Pinto’s biography of Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy published last year, the author relates a family lore stating that Shireen “recognised a Ram Kumar painting at the age of four.” In other words, she was born to art. Yet, she maintains, “I didn’t realise art was in my genes for a long time. After college, I had the possibility of pursuing art history in Baroda. In all honesty, I was not academically inclined and didn’t want to stay in Baroda. Bombay was much more fun and I wanted to enjoy my life here.” Shireen, who enrolled at Bombay’s elite, all-girls’ Sophia College and later earned a degree in art administration at City University in London.
She turns nostalgic when we meet at her cosy back office in the Chemould Prescott Road premises, which has a view of Gothic buildings nestled along the old district of southern Mumbai. “Now when I look back,” she says, sipping tea, “I wonder if I had done things differently. For example, if I had gone to Baroda (Maharaja Sayajirao University) Gulam Mohammed Sheikh would have been my teacher. Can you believe I blew that opportunity?” She throws her head back and laughs, “I feel super regretful now.”
SHIREEN IS THE youngest of the late Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy’s four children. Her family and Gallery Chemould is largely credited for sparking the birth of modern art in India. In art circles, the Gandhys’ close relationship with the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group is particularly legendary. The story of Chemould — and how it came to be called that — starts with Kekoo Gandhy. Born into a wealthy Parsi merchant family in 1920 (he passed away in 2012 at age 92), Kekoo’s “encounter with modern Indian art happened by accident,” as Jerry Pinto observes in Citizen Gallery. And here’s Kekoo’s elder daughter Behroze Gandhy, a filmmaker based in London, summing up her father in similar terms in her documentary Kekee Manzil. “Papa,” she declares in it, “was a bit of a chancer who freewheeled through life with no grand plan, relying on random encounters and quirks of history.”
One story has it that back in the 1940s, Kekoo’s life took an unexpected turn after a chance meeting with a gentleman named Roger Van Damme who was a Belgian war refugee and picture frame manufacturer. Soon after, they became friends and decided to establish what would become Asia’s largest picture framing factory. It took a foreigner like Van Damme to see market potential for a picture-framing business in a country where practically every home offered a pride of place to gods and goddesses. And so, was born the Chemical Moulding Manufacturing Company Private Limited in 1941. Although the framing business was a roaring success there was one snag. Kekoo was getting increasingly drawn to what lay inside the frame — art. In 1963, the dreamer took a timely leap and opened his own gallery. There weren’t too many commercial avenues back then. Indeed, none that showcased modern art. Among the few that did exist, there was Dhoomimal Gallery, set up by Ram Babu Jain in Delhi in 1936 and then, there was the Jehangir Art Gallery, Artists’ Centre, Taj Art Gallery and artist Bal Chhabda’s Gallery 59 in Bombay that patronised creativity in visual arts. Just a few months before Chemould came into being, Kali Pundole, who owned a watch shop in Flora Fountain, established the Pundole Art Gallery. Chemould was a portmanteau of ‘chemical’ and ‘moulding,’ which served as a reminder of the Gandhys’ framing business and the name stuck. By all accounts, Bombay was a crucible of art and commerce in the years after independence and against this cultural backdrop Gallery Chemould sprang to life. The original gallery was located on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, and it quickly became a popular destination for artists and collectors. (It wasn’t until 2007 that it moved to its present address and was renamed Chemould Prescott Road, following a protracted legal dispute involving the rented Jehangir space).
One of the 60th anniversary exhibitions, Remembering, will run at this old stomping ground for which long-time Chemould collectors like Czaee Shah and Harsh Goenka have loaned pieces from their collection acquired from the early days of the gallery.
KEKOO GANDHY WHO is described as “God’s good man” by former supercop Julio Ribeiro in Citizen Gallery, wasn’t exactly the most business-savvy candidate to head a gallery. It’s a good thing then that his wife Khorshed — more practical than he was — joined him subsequently in managing the day-to-day operations. At a time when there was no art market, his people-friendly nature and networking skills enabled him to assemble an unrivalled network of collectors. He even befriended struggling artists such as MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta, VS Gaitonde, and many others. The Gandhys initially supported Tyeb Mehta by providing him with a stipend, so that he could paint freely. Of them all, Kekoo was perhaps closest to MF Husain whom he admired greatly. But that didn’t stop the Gandhys from criticising him when Husain sympathised with Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. The usually polite, yet strong-minded Khorshed stepped up and voiced her disapproval in a letter to Husain. The Gandhys were ardent supporters of free speech and one of the most important lessons that Shireen has learnt from her parents, she says, “is not to be afraid to take risks and stand up for what you believe in.” True to their founders’ mission, Chemould has provided a platform to politically outspoken voices over the decades — such as Bhupen Khakhar’s depictions of homosexuality, Nalini Malini’s series on the Babri mosque demolition, Atul Dodiya’s take on Mahatma Gandhi and more recently, Varunika Saraf’s powerful indictment of historical violence. “Creating spaces that can continue to showcase art fearlessly is something that Chemould Prescott Road continues to do and Chemould CoLab is trying to do. Kekoo and Khorshed would have loved to see how this generation, my generation, is shaping up and would have continued to nudge us in the directions that speak truth to power,” says Wadhwana.
At the Jehangir Art Gallery, Remembering will take viewers on a week-long journey down memory lane with an eclectic mix of public programming while Continuum, on the other hand, will spotlight younger artists from the Chemould CoLab roster. What’s more, CheMoulding: Framing Future Archives is being presented in two parts, allowing it to remain at the Chemould Prescott Road gallery for an extended period — almost until December end. In all, Wadhwana says that the 60th anniversary celebrations will serve as a perfect ground “for understanding how we arrived here, and where we are going. A crucial moment to reflect on intergenerational responses to the world around us. We are in 2023 and if a cultural institution like Chemould has been around for 60 years, it already is a micro-history of Bombay, of India, of the art movements and of how these relate to the world. It was important for us to study this history and understand the role we have played in it.”
(CheMoulding: Framing Future Archives is on view at Chemould Prescott Road till December 23; Remembering is on view at Jehangir Art Gallery till November 5 and Continuum is on view at Chemould CoLab till November 4)