Frames to fine Art: Mumbai’s Chemould Gallery turns 60, a look at its dynamic history

The work is part of CheMoulding: Framing Future Archives—the first of the two-part exhibition (to be held over the next four months) that marks the gallery’s 60th anniversary
L-R Shaleen Wadhwana, Shireen Gandhy, Atyaan Jungalwala
L-R Shaleen Wadhwana, Shireen Gandhy, Atyaan Jungalwala

Art thrives on illusions and metaphors. Walk across the stony floor of Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road gallery, on the third storey of the Queen’s Mansion, and the ground morphs into a white mosaic expanse. It stretches into a wall bang in the middle of the space to create a narrow passageway. Those who have been to Chemould’s old home (from 1963 to 2007)—the first floor of Jehangir Art Gallery—will recall the unmissable aisle that leads to the art in all its glory. With a new architectural intervention, Jitish Kallat has recreated the iconic corridor to bring the old and the new on the same plane. 

The work is part of CheMoulding: Framing Future Archives—the first of the two-part exhibition (to be held over the next four months) that marks the gallery’s 60th anniversary. “The present-continuous suffix ‘ing’ makes Chemould a verb, an act of creating fearless spaces for artistic freedom. The show contextualises that reality for the present where such spaces are threatened,” says curator Shaleen Wadhwana. The show digs into the gallery’s archives and lets nearly 20 of its contemporary artists—Gigi Scaria, Meera Devidayal, Varunika Saraf and Atul Dodiya among others—to reflect on its history, both in the social and personal contexts. 

The curving wall in Kallat’s work bears an exhaustive timeline of the gallery that Wadhwana has juxtaposed with the milestones in the history of Indian art. “The exhibition recognises the art frame moulding company (Chemould started as Chemical Moulding Manufacturing Company in 1941) as the genesis of this gallery that is a catalyst in shaping the past and present of Indian art,” says Wadhwana.

<em><strong>No Snakes, Only Ladders by Meera Devidayal</strong></em>
No Snakes, Only Ladders by Meera Devidayal

The overlapping in Kallat’s piece finds resonance in Archana Hande’s digital installation featuring two works—both titled Whitewash; one made in 2009 and the other in 2023. In the first, a TV/monitor screen is suspended upside down over a tray of water. The reflection reveals an image of what looks like an illustrated map of Mumbai dotted with markers of trade routes in history, resulting in the present-day cityscape. There’s the Vasai Fort, which was once an important base of the Portuguese; then there’s the baobab tree, an African-origin deciduous plant that has now become a characteristic feature of Mumbai’s topography. 

In the more recent video, a man is seen painting a wall white. With a literal and linear message, the work talks about the whitewashing of history. Hande’s work is bold, brave and the need of the hour, a sentiment that has been fundamental to the spirit of Chemould. 

In the early Nineties, the gallery was the informal headquarters of the Delhi-based SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) in Mumbai. In a collage of photographs, posters, letters and other paraphernalia, titled Home and Chemould (1992-2023), photographer and one of Sahmat’s founding members, Ram Rahman, recalls the journey of the two institutions through the passage of history. The artist writes, “Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy (gallerist Shireen Gandhy’s parents and founder of Chemould) were key supporters of SAHMAT from our first event—The Artists Against Communalism event in Shivaji Park in 1992.

<strong>Whitewash (2009) by Archana Hande</strong>
Whitewash (2009) by Archana Hande

Kekoo handed over the Bombay Civic Trust office next to the gallery as our staging office for both the 1992 event and 1993 Anhad Garje programme on Marine Drive through Julio Rebeiro even though Bombay was under night curfew after the post-Babri Masjid demolition rights.” Continuing her parents’ legacy, Shireen turned coordinator for SAHMAT’s Enslaving Expression exhibit in 2015. “Theirs (parents) was a model of wearing the badge of authenticity and truth, which were big shoes to fill. I continue to honour my parents and this space they created when there was no art world, all those many years ago,” the gallerist says, even as she gradually prepares to hand over the baton to her own daughter Atyaan Jungalwala, who is the gallery manager at Chemould Co-Lab, an extension programme that discovers emerging artists.

Continuity seems intrinsic to the gallery, whether it is in the way the art, the space and the ideas have been passed down from one generation to another, or how its artists have evoked lessons from the past in their modern or contemporary art. With its vault-like appearance, Ritesh Meshram’s Time and Memory looks akin to a fantastical portal, And, in a way, it is. The wood used is from different parts of the Kekee Manzil, the Gandhys’ home. “This is the artist’s understanding of what family memory looks like. Here, Meshram has physically taken material from the past and given life to it,” says Wadhwana. 
The fact that the work is among the final pieces in the well-rounded show, also makes it a sort of doorway to the next part of Chemould’s 60-year exhibition titled, Futuring, which will look at the gallery’s years to come vis-à-vis the changing narratives in Indian art.  

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