Chemould Prescott Road Gallery will celebrate its six decades through three shows, collectively titled, ‘CheMoulding Framing Future Archives,’ curated by Shaleen Wadhwana

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Once upon a September, an Austin car broke down on Mumbai’s Juhu beach in 1940. A Cambridge-returned Kekoo Gandhy and his cousin Dara stopped to help its owner, Roger Van Damme, a Belgian businessman stranded in India due to World War II. This act of kindness set off a chain of events that had a butterfly effect on the Indian modern and contemporary art world, leading to the establishment of the city’s first contemporary art gallery in 1963, Chemould Prescott Road, and now the celebration of its 60th anniversary on September 16.

The serendipitous encounter led to a Gandhy-Van Damme enterprise, The Chemical Moulding Manufacturing Company Private Limited — Asia’s first frame-moulding factory. In 1941, Gandhy and his cousin Dara entered a partnership with Van Damme at the Chemical Moulding Manufacturing Company, which was later shortened to Chemould. As documented in Chemould’s archives, Van Damme wanted to start a frame-manufacturing business after seeing the unframed images of Indian gods, ancestors, lithographs, etc., in homes here. ‘Chemical Moulding’ — a chemical composite impregnated on wood — birthed the word ‘Chemould’.

The Gandhys: Across three generations

In the wake of Independence in 1947, Kekoo opened a store, Chemould Frames, on Bombay’s Princess Street. It was one of the few establishments offering picture frames in India at the time. The freshly framed paintings lounging here by their clientele — FN Souza, SH Raza, and MF Husain — led to an informal ‘salon’ setting. It is believed that the idea for a standalone art gallery came from its store manager, Nissim Ezekiel; the English poet had accepted the stint before he went on to shape India’s postcolonial literary history.

In 1963, Chemould Gallery opened on the first floor of Jehangir Art Gallery, run by Kekoo and wife Khorshed Gandhy. Chemould gave Bombay a slice of Indian Modern and Contemporary art practices, considered radical for the times. As two of their children, Rashna Imhasly-Gandhy and Behroze Gandhy, settled overseas, their son Adil was given the reins of Chemould Frames, and daughter Shireen took over Chemould Gallery in 1988, before moving it to Queen’s Mansion in the Fort area in 2007. An extension, Chemould CoLab, opened at Sugra Manzil in March 2022 under Shireen’s daughter Atyaan Jungalwala, and Sunaina Rajan.

A common thread running through three generations of the Chemould family, however, is their unflinching support for those who dare. Kekoo and Khorshed showed the Progressives who broke away from conservative practices with nationalist leanings; gave asylum to social activists like Mrinal Gore during the Emergency in 1975; assisted Safdar Hashmi Trust (SAHMAT) with their Bombay innings; ran an art camp for children in 1992 riot-affected Behrampada basti; chased government bodies for 14 years till Bombay was granted its own National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), and so much more. Shireen supports contemporary artists vocalising socio-political realities and/or exploring video, installation, and abstract mediums that even her parents struggled to comprehend. Like her mother, Atyaan Jungalwala has started out as a gallerist promoting young artists. CoLab showcases artists under age 35 in the affordable art space, brings in new audiences, and incentivises collectors into following one artist, by collecting works from their early period, and onwards.

Shireen Gandhy: The weight of her lineage

Chemould has celebrated other milestones before. The silver jubilee show in 1988, titled ‘Seventeen Indian Painters’; 25 Years of Gallery Chemould at the Jehangir,’ saw Shireen formally join Chemould after completing an Arts Management degree from City University, London; the gallery’s roster then included SH Raza as the oldest artist, and Atul Dodiya as the youngest. Art critic Geeta Kapur and art historian Chaitanya Sambrani curated the 40th anniversary titled ‘Crossing Generations: diVERGE: Forty Years of Gallery Chemould’ at the newly opened National Gallery of Modern Art in 2003, which showcases the works of 51 artists “active on the contemporary art scene”. Kapur was invited to curate the 50th anniversary show as well, a five-part exhibition titled ‘Aesthetic Bind,’ which was tinged with poignance as Khorshed breathed her last three days after the opening.

Celebrating 60 years of Chemould are three shows collectively titled, ‘CheMoulding Framing Future Archives’ curated by old Chemould hand, Shaleen Wadhwana, over four months (September 16- December 31). In a nutshell, it is one big, fat ‘memorialisation fest’ of the Chemould family, their artists, their role and response in the Indian art world and socio-political happenings of the times. Here, memories are displayed as physical objects in two interconnected narratives: archival and art. The archival route displays facsimiles of some 15,000 items from Chemould’s well-preserved archival data sourced from the Gandhys, consisting of letters, albums, awards, catalogues, CDs, emails, invitation cards, photographs, press clippings, mounted slides, stamps, telegrams from across the world.

(from left) Shireen Gandhy, Shaleen Wadhwana and Atyaan Jungalwala at Chemould Archives 2023. Photo Harshada Mane

The art side of display has artworks of veteran Chemould artists, in the possession of the gallery’s long-standing art collectors, or created from personalised curatorial prompts issued to over 30 Chemould contemporary artists, who have revisited their own archives to recreate works in painting, sculpture, textile, film, printmaking, audio, photography, drawing, literature, and installation.

“My parents wore their activism more prominently than me,” recalls Shireen. “During the Emergency, they even turned down Anjolie Menon, saying ‘who wants to do a show at a time when we’re fighting fire?’ Later, in the 1980s, they sent me to help Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhiji’s grandson, who was campaigning in Amethi against Rajiv Gandhi, while they organised campaign funds back in Bombay. Can I follow in their footsteps today? I have great interest in politics, but I am scared. We are living in very difficult times,” says Shireen. The political themes and undertones in her Chemould roster of artists, however, tell a different story. Wadhwana, who participates in on-ground rehabilitation efforts for protest workers and riot victims, says with Shireen, “I have always had her support”.

Meanwhile, even with six decades of Chemould history to bank on, Shireen continues to look for ways to stay relevant. As one of the pioneering modern and contemporary art spaces, she’s aware being the cynosure of all eyes. “I still feel the responsibility to take the right step. I am being looked at not for direct answers, but how I respond appropriately to a situation at hand.”

Wadhwana has found multiple interventions with Chemould’s archival material, twisting and turning it inside out. First, with the title ‘CheMoulding’. The present continuous suffix ‘ing’ allows scope for continuum, as is the title of the last show. In one intervention, data was looked at metadata by studying news clippings, letter exchanges across the globe that impacted the city’s politics and in turn, events at Chemould. Like Khorshed Gandhy's handwritten letter, dated August 5, 1961, to then prime minister Indira Gandhi, chastising Gandhi, stating “…we (and I include several Indian women aware and concerned about India) look upon you as merely a politician playing a desperate game of ‘see-saw’.” A politician playing a desperate game of ‘see-saw’.”

Archiving and its limitations

Accessing exhibitions, invites and catalogues led Wadhwana to identify historical trends, such as the number of women in the Chemould roster since the 60s versus now. “It’s a flip; from a few women to now, when the scales have tipped.” Wadhawa approached theories of human motivation, from The Listener Collective’s The Indian Wheel of Power and Powerlessness to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, to demonstrate that many artists create artworks in response to something around them or in them, contending with deeply emotional topics like life and death, progressing to dissent, rage, protest with the world.

With Wadhwana’s own history at Chemould — as the Sales Director for three years till 2018, and as the ideator for the first Modus Operandi in 2018 — gives her this “insider/outsider approach/access”. “As a 32-year-old in today's India, identifying as queer, I have looked at how the margins and the mainstream have evolved in these 60 years, not only in terms of artists in the Chemould roster but art movements over time.”

Jerry Pinto, the official ‘first chronicler’ of the Chemould archives, in his book on Chemould’s history titled Citizen Gallery (2022), writes that initiatives like CheMoulding will strengthen the much “fragmented and incomplete archives”. “For instance, there is no book on Bal Chhabda, a later Progressive artist who started Studio 59. With Gaitonde, you instantly recollect his resistant surfaces and ‘suggestion rather than statement’ approach or Krishen Khanna, his malleable forms and weeping musicians. But I won’t recognise a Bal painting even if I see it.” For the book, Pinto dealt with much scattered documentation but was “completely delighted to find a godown full of boxes; mostly with handwritten letters concerning Chemould. Atul Dodiya wrote from Paris, Ambadas from Europe, Zarina Hashmi from New York…” Pinto points that archiving has its own limitations today. “Who will grant you access to their private emails now?” With the international circuit currently vying to collect Indian art, Kekoo’s pushy attitude is no longer a prerequisite. “Now, you only need good connections and one or two shows per year that are complete sellouts,” Pinto reasons.

A multisensory book

Established Chemould artists have made interventions with three individual shows under CheMoulding titled ‘Framing, Futuring, and Remembering’. Desmond Lazaro has linked his architectural motifs of Kekee Manzil to family portraits. Varunika Saraf has portrayed the Indian feminist movement looking at socio-political truths dispelled by the outspoken Khorshed in her many letters. Sharing a 20-year bond with Chemould is Mithu Sen, who first showcased at Chemould in 2002-3, in a group show titled Artist Proof, followed by her first solo at Chemould was Drawing Room.

Sen says her artist-gallerist equation with Shireen is that of a married couple. “Neither of us were super impressed with each other on Day 1. It took years to build trust. We cry, fight, but will never split up. I cannot work with people having differing political views. Thankfully, we’re on the same page there. But because I always create new work and keep changing my style, it puts her in trouble given her own aesthetics and collectors’ base. Still, I am never pressured to produce something she can easily sell. She likes the challenge, and says I always surprise her.”

No surprise then that Sen has involved Chemould in celebrating her own milestone of completing 25 years in the art world; she aims to co-publish the monograph of her oeuvre by five art writers towards the end of the year. For CheMoulding, Sen has not exactly stuck to the theme, but instead done a word play on the number ‘60’ — sixty seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 countries in IZA, base 60 system or sexagesimal, 60 as age of retirement or life 2.0. “It is my attempt to revisit the conceptual idea of time, how time can be language and more,” she says.

Dinosaur Egg, 1999, LN Tallur. Photo courtesy of the gallery

LN Tallur, who shuttles between India and South Korea, has assessed his equation with Shireen using AI. “I am creating a multisensory book, like the yearend school assessment, using several AI softwares for suggesting ways to improve my artwork.” Tallur was 22-something when he met Shireen, and was undergoing training at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) museum after graduating in Museology. “I had approached two galleries with some 20 packets of pop-up boxes meant to provide multisensory experiences. Like your own personalised science museum, lucidly deconstructing complex theories. They didn’t want to fund the production costs, but Shireen immediately gave the green signal,” he says. That interaction gave Tallur direction. It culminated into the show, Past Modern, which won the Bose Pacia Emerging Artist award in New York. It made Tallur see loopholes in his arts education, which he changed with a post-graduation in Contemporary Fine Art Practice at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK.

The new ways of seeing

Meanwhile, 10 CoLab artists, as part of Continuum leg in CheMoulding, have responded to works by senior Chemould artists; Gurjeet Singh and Pallavi Sen will respond to Atul Dodiya and Dhurvi Acharya, Jayeeta Chatterjee will interpret Nilima Sheikh’s iconic series When Champa Grew Up (1984), which addresses atrocities against women. Photographer Divya Cowasji chose Chemould artist Pushpamala N’s photo-performance series, Phantom Lady or Kismet (1996-98), to portray her paternal grandmother as the protagonist. It is a project close to Atyaan’s heart. “Some of these photos were taken at my house, Kekee Manzil,” she says.

A special week-long event, Remembering, will pay tribute to deceased Chemould art greats such as KH Ara, Bhupen Khakhar, Rummana Hussain, Jangarh Singh Shyam, at its old address, Jehangir Art Gallery. This momentary return curated by the gallery staff, is befitting, for their adeptness with diverse art mediums and installation techniques after decades spent at the gallery. Most of these artworks are sourced from art collectors, many of whom began their collecting journey with Chemould. Like art collectors and husband-wife duo Jehangir and Shakira Nagree, owners of The Living Room furniture store. Mondays, their weekly off, were earmarked for visiting Chemould and Pundoles.

“The Gandhys never told you what to buy. Instead, they gave you new ways of seeing, and let you soak in the idea till you made it your own. Or you could look, not react, and walk out. Kekoo even gave us paintings, saying ‘Dikra, le ja (Darling, take it, in Gujarati)’. Pay me later if you like it’. He had great trust in us, as we did in him.” Through Chemould, lifelong friendships were forged with MF Hussain, Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee, who involved the Nagrees in their “intellectual discourses, as they were generous with sharing knowledge.” Shireen, says Shakira, “has the sensibility to spot artists who just have it right. With time, we have learnt to trust her taste.”

CheMoulding | Framing Future Archives is a two-part exhibition, with Framing (September 16-October 28) and Futuring (November 14-December 23) at Chemould Prescott Road. Remembering (October 30-November 5) at Jehangir Art Gallery by Chemould staff. Continuum (September 14-November 4) by Chemould CoLab

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