Creative spirit

29 Jun 2006 by business traveller

If you're in Mumbai in February and happen to visit the famous Jehangir Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda, you'll spot rows of children's paintings and drawings displayed along the road. There may even be a few young heads bent over their latest masterpiece – these are the future MF Husains and Tyab Mehtas, today's leading lights in Indian art.

For this is the season when the entire district of Kala Ghoda comes alive with the Festival of the Arts, which is played out in scores of establishments that have made the event a crowd drawer.

Art aficionados could easily spend an entire day in Kala Ghoda – meaning "dark horse" after a long-gone granite statue of King Edward VII astride a black stallion that once stood in the city – and not cover close to half of the ateliers. Landmarks within walking distance include the Artists' Center (Mumbai's oldest art hub, set up towards the end of the 19th century), National Gallery of Modern Art, Gallery Chemould and Prince of Wales Museum. Many shops occupy gazetted buildings harking back to the Raj.

Gallery Chemould is one of those iconic places that has passed onto folklore. Owned by Kekoo Gandhy, now 86, it started in 1945 as a mere frame shop on Princess Road, exhibiting the early efforts of KH Ara, Siavax Chawda, SH Raza, KK Hebbar and MF Husain, names who went on to figure prominently in the Indian contemporary art movement. MF Husain, one of its leading lights, held a solo show there in 1951 when he could not find a proper venue.

"We survived then because of the photo frame business," Gandhy recalls. "Selling paintings could not sustain us." Later, Chemould moved to the first floor of Jehangir Art Gallery, where it remains today.

Gandhy admits he was not keen on art in the beginning. He credits painter and then art editor of The Times of India, Austrian-born Walter Langhammer, for his epiphany. "He roped me into displaying the works of artists in specially designed frames."

He goes on: "Then MURART, a unit of the British Army at nearby Chakala, was employed to produce pieces of art work by the thousand. This coincided with the emergence of the Progressive Artists Group as well as the migration of a number of European Jews, escaping Hitler's onslaught. All these factors helped create a market for art in Mumbai."

Earlier, the Bombay Art Society had created the Artists' Center, the earliest exhibition space in the city. It held competitions, with the gold medallist crowned Artist of the Year. MF Husain and Amrita Sher-Gill were repeat winners.

Art became fashionable. "Post-Independence, we used to throw parties in order to sell paintings," says Gandhy. "We made it appear like it was the fashionable thing to do." He adds: "The Parsee community was always the biggest buyer. It still has the best private collections."

Besides its reputation for being business savvy, Mumbai is acknowledged for its appreciation for the arts. Years before Bollywood entered modern lingua franca, the country's top artistic talents were either locally bred or gravitated to the city, where they revelled in an environment that encouraged creativity and performance.

As India hurtles towards its inevitable destiny as an economic powerhouse, this side of its culture is continuing to grow. Galleries from other cities have opened branches in Mumbai and a steady stream of individuals of all types of artistic persuasions and mindsets are heading for this pulsating gateway.

Riyas Komu is one such newcomer. He says: "I am here to learn more. The ambience, galleries, professionalism and institutions [of Mumbai] play a big role in attracting anyone who's interested to practice his art."

He, along with Jitish Kallat, Komu, Baiju Parthan, Bose Krishnamachari and TV Santosh, are some of the personalities making up India's new generation of artists who are calling Mumbai home.

Kallat says: "There is an edge to Mumbai that's missing elsewhere. Maybe its because it's the seat of (India's) commercial power, glamour and entertainment. There's an irreverence, a playfulness about life here."

He adds: "Why, half of Delhi would be sleeping while we're talking, but Mumbai is alive and kicking. And not just in terms of traffic. There's a vigour to this city which life draws on. Art draws on life and regurgitates it."

Among the latest venues to have opened, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke and Bohi Art trace their roots to Delhi, while Project 88 started in Kolkata. More new enterprises are expected.

If anything, the two outstanding facets of Mumbai – art and commerce – complement each other well. Commerce means there are more than enough buyers to snap up the works of promising newcomers and the established icons who, by the way, command stunning prices these days.

At a recent auction, Tyeb Mehta's Kali was sold for a handsome US$221,090, while another work, Mahishasura, holds a record at US$1.35 million. Christie's New York, the auction house that sold the piece, said that it was the first time a piece of contemporary India art had fetched more than US$1 million. The previous record was in 2002 for a painting by the same artist (Celebration), which sold for US$317,500.

Renowned painter Akbar Padamsee points out that many local businessmen collect, not just for speculation, but a genuine love of the arts. Yet he believes institutions such as the Jehangir Art Gallery need to improve.

"They have a five-year long waiting list for anyone who wants to display his work there, but the works in other places are sometimes better than there." Others voice the same opinion: that the establishment, a must-see part in any whirlwind city tour, has of late been lacking in quality control.

Padamsee says Sakshi Art Gallery in the Shri Ram Mills Compound, Lower Parel (sakshigallery.com) and the Nehru Centre Art Gallery in Worli (nehrucentermumbai.com) are worth a look. He says: "Sakshi is very selective about what they allow to be displayed."

He feels, however, things can only get better. "After all, there was a time when a photo frame was more important than an artist's work. The paintings were just incidental for the ornate photo frames they were mounted in."

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