RIP Kekoo Gandhy

Chemould was the first gallery I ever visited in Mumbai. Now it’s a massive Chemould Prescott Road but back then, it used to be on the first floor of Jehangir Art Gallery and it was no white cube. It was a curve of space, like a curling peel of a rather small apple. Tiny didn’t even begin to cover it. You walked in, turned and that was the end of the gallery. There is no logic by which that space should have good shows and yet, it had some superb exhibitions and some of our best contemporary artists caught everyone’s attention because of their shows in Chemould. You couldn’t set up the massive installations and spectacles that are part and parcel of so many exhibits today. But there was something about the old Chemould. It was that little crackle of excitement inspired by good art. Step in and you could feel that it was haunted by old, impassioned debates; by laughter and good, old-fashioned heart.

Somehow, the fact that Chemould was cramped worked for the shows. The different pieces in an exhibition really connected with one another. And more often than not, you’d walk in and there’d be Kekoo Gandhy. The first time I spoke to him, I’d no idea who he was. It was an opening at Chemould. The place was packed. I can’t remember anyone introducing us. It just so happened that the crowd positioned you next to someone or the other, and I rubbed elbows with Kekoo Gandhy. Whom I didn’t recognise. I just thought he was some learned Parsi gent with a beaky nose, a posh south Bombay type. He told me he had one of the lithograph stones from Ravi Varma’s press. He spoke about the importance of building a sense of community and taking part in neighbourhood causes even if one was a newcomer. He told me to have another glass of wine to drink. I decided I liked him. Later someone asked me how I’d liked chatting with Kekoo Gandhy. I blinked. Before coming to the gallery, I’d been reading about a book about modern Indian art and the chapter that my bookmark was guarding was about Kekoo Gandhy and Chemould. The book didn’t have a photo of him and it hadn’t struck me that the man I’d been reading about would be at the gallery. “I thought he was very old,” I said, like an idiot, as if that was an explanation for a man to not be at his own gallery.

On Saturday, Kekoo Gandhy (2/2/1920 – 10/11/2012) passed away. He was 92.

I didn’t know Kekoo Gandhy, though I have met him and his wife, Khorshed, on occasion. But if you want to hear his voice, there’s a sense of it here in this piece from Seminar about the beginnings of modern Indian art and his interest in it.

There was this Parsi girl called Silloo Vakil from Bombay who was studying with him and she used to say to him, ‘Walter, you must come to India one day,’ and he would say ‘Ja, ja.’ So when Hitler came along and he had to leave Austria, he wrote to Vakil, saying that he would like to come to India. And she walked into the office of Sir Francis Low, editor of The Times of India, and said, ‘I am the daughter of Rotarian Vakil and I would like you to promise me something.’ She was cheeky enough to do that. The result was that Langhammer was appointed as the first art director of the TOI. …

Meanwhile, back on vacation from Cambridge (I never went back) during the War, I met a Belgian gentleman who had landed up in India called Van Damme. His father had been a framer and restorer of the great Flemish masters. He had heard a news story back home about the many gods and goddesses that Indians kept in their homes. He knew that India would be a captive market to sell frames. …

…the Chemould factory was in a plot behind our bungalow called Shapur Baug in Chakala. The Leela Hotel stands there today. It was a very pretty place with mango and chikoo wadis. The British requisitioned the ground floor of this bungalow for MURART. Wood was scarce because it was requisitioned for the war effort. We did not know how to continue with our business. Luckily, MURART said they needed frames for all these paintings they were churning out and they started supplying us with wood. We worked exclusively for them.

For soldiers, the Italians were really good artists. They would come home on Sundays. We handed the kitchen over to them and they would prepare all these risottos. … Food was rationed at the time, but they were soldiers and had everything. They used to bake lovely cookies. We began to invite over our friends and other Indian artists. Everyone had a good time and after dinner a hat was passed around. For Rs 100 or 200, you could pick up one of the finest paintings of the time and everyone was happy.

I love the fact that we have a chap called, of all things, Van Damme to thank for the fact that there is any contemporary art in India today. Without Kekoo Gandhy and his frame shop, there wouldn’t have been a fraction of the art that we bounce up and down about today. From a little frame shop in 1941 to the little gallery in Jehangir Art Gallery that started in 1963, Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy’s Chemould provided a platform for some of India’s most brilliant artists. (Chemould Prescott Road opened in 2007.) The little curve that was Chemould was a crucible for contemporary Indian art, thanks to Khorshed Gandhy’s ability to run a gallery and Kekoo Gandhy’s passion for this business that he’d stumbled upon. From the Progressives (particularly FN Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, KH Ara) to newer names like Bhupen Khakhar, Atul Dodiya and Jitish Kallat, we can thank Chemould. Of course the credit for the more recent names goes to Kekoo Gandhy’s daughter, Shireen, who took things over in 1988, but in the beginning, there was Kekoo Gandhy who saw himself as a “go-between”.

At our first Husain exhibition, I looked out of the window and saw my wife’s uncle, the founder-owner of Parsiana magazine, passing by. I just pulled him in and said we needed a crowd. The poor man had no idea what was going on.

We started the Chemould art gallery in 1951. I was persuaded by artists like Souza and Chavda not to do this. They said, ‘You will never recover your investments.’ Somehow, we did not make losses but our profits from the framing company certainly fell. Since I was already with the Bombay Arts Society set, I was really in the thick of things and with the help and support of my wife Khorshed, we continued to promote art independently as the proprietors of Gallery Chemould.

There are two lovely tributes that have been written for Kekoo Gandhy. One is by Ranjit Hoskote in Out of Print

To many of us, he was a warm and affectionate mentor figure, a crusader for diverse important causes who acted as a reference point for responsible citizenship, and a vital bridge to an earlier and formative period in our collective life as a society and an art world. His memory will be cherished, and will live on in the institutions, initiatives and impulses that his children, Adil, Rashna, Behroz and Shireen Gandhy have inherited.

Jerry Pinto posted a charming little snippet of memory on Facebook. He wrote:

Kekoo Gandhy is gone. That means a large chunk of India’s art history has faded into the night. He was there when there was no market. He supported artists when there was no commercial reason to. And he did it for love. Chemould Prescott Road Bombay is a small memorial to a huge spirit. I remember, Kekoo, at a public meeting, urging all the dowagers and duchesses of Bombay to rise to their feet and promise never to cut down a tree. With some hefting and some sighing, the silky ladies soughed to their feet and promised never to harm a tree. Then they settled down again. One of them said, “Parsi chhe,” to another. The other replied, “Kekoo chhe.” They nodded their blue-rinsed heads solemnly and fell back into wondering when tea would be served.

I feel like a bit of an ungrateful fool for not having written anything about him last week. The world of art is no longer my “beat” so there was a flurry of non-arty activity that had me scooting around the place like a wind-up toy. It wasn’t just that I didn’t have time. It was also that this was not a man for whom I wanted to write a rushed 200-word piece and be done with it. I wanted someone to write about him the way he deserved to be written about — with eloquence, erudition, wit and elegance. And I knew I wasn’t the person to do it. I don’t know enough (and the moment at which a man has died is not the best time to go about asking questions) and I didn’t know him.

But I saw him at Chemould openings and over the years, I saw him go from standing with a slight stoop to sitting in a corner. His voice became softer and his hearing dulled. His eyes became more cloudy. His nose, though, remained as beaky as ever.

This isn’t the stuff that makes an obit and fortunately, there are wiser writers doing that part. You often hear people say that Indian contemporary art is too young to have a history in the conventional sense. But it isn’t. Because now that Kekoo Gandhy has joined the league of those artists and critics who have slipped into the past from the present, there’s no doubt that today, there is such a thing as the history of modern Indian art. Now, there’s a wealth that belongs in our past and let’s hope we don’t forget the stories that people like Kekoo Gandhy told, enacted and lived, just because we’re so busy with the present.

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