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To run into Kekoo Gandhy, whether at the old Gallery Chemould on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai - or more recently, at its successor institution, Chemould Prescott Road, directed by his daughter Shireen - was to be drawn instantly into his latest proposal for sweeping reform in the nation's art institutions. When Kekoo passed away last Saturday, he took with him a nation-sized archive, an intimate knowledge of the epic debates as well as the invisible micro-politics that shaped the postcolonial Indian art world.
One of independent India's earliest gallerists, Kekoo was a pioneer who helped formulate the contours of that art world. Gallery Chemould evolved organically in 1963 from his frame-making establishment, itself born during the 1940s from his collaboration with a set of connoisseurs and entrepreneurs who had foreseen the rise of a class of viewers and collectors of Indian art in the aftermath of World War II. The gallery's name carries an echo of those distant origins: 'Chemould' is a compound derived from its parent company's name, Che(mical) Mould(ings). But Kekoo was not simply devoted to his own gallery. His historic contribution lies in the generosity and public-spiritedness with which he worked to create and sustain the cultural infrastructure in which modern Indian art could live, breathe and grow.
Kekoo was a committed advocate of institution-building, whether in relation to the Bombay Arts Society, the Jehangir Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Modern Art's Bombay branch, the Lalit Kala Akademi, or Triennale India. Always ready to sit on a committee, never tired of making representations to politicians and bureaucrats, he worked from an intelligent awareness of the necessary connections between art practice, enlightened patronage, responsive governmental institutions, and a liberal public sphere. He understood the importance of creating national-level bodies to present modern Indian art to the new republic's citizens, at a time when certain Delhi mandarins refused to see beyond the subcontinent's ancient sculpture. He saw merit in touring Indian art internationally, in an age when developmentalist dogma tended to derogate the claims of culture in favour of the mandate of economic growth.
As an early champion of Indian modernism, an associate of the Moral Rearmament movement (MRA), an opponent of the Emergency (1975-1977 ), and a friend of SAHMAT (the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), Kekoo put his money, energy, time and considerable network of contacts where his mouth was. An optimistic, uncompromising idealist, he acted fearlessly on his convictions. During the Emergency, this meant offering shelter to dissidents on the run from a State that had suspended civil freedoms;between 1996 and 2004, this meant openly criticising the right-wing government of the time.
In consonance with the MRA's core beliefs, Kekoo did his best to practise the 'Four Absolutes' : honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. He spoke truth bluntly to power and unhesitatingly rebuked those he held responsible for a decline in standards. He extended his legendary generosity towards a large number of interlocutors, whether callow art students, small-town artists showing in Bombay for the first time, civil-society activists, young writers, or activists against communitarian violence. He was often as autobiographically transparent and self-critical as his near-namesake and admired icon, Mahatma Gandhi. But his belief in absolute unselfishness could tempt him into forsaking the pragmatics necessary to the smooth functioning of a business enterprise.
Kekoo and his wife Khorshed ran Gallery Chemould. Or rather, Khorshed ran it while Kekoo dreamt, talked, shared his infectious enthusiasms, and formed coalitions. Married for nearly seven decades, they were the archetypal portrait of beautifully wedded opposites. Khorshed's practicality and eye for detail provided a bracing, productive counterpoint to her husband's preference for high-altitude navigation in the realms of vision and policy. Chemould's programme was inclusive: by hosting a wide spectrum of artistic positions between the 1950s and the 1990s, it helped define the main currents of postcolonial Indian art. But the Gandhys' gallery practice could also be adventurous, unpredictable, defiant of received wisdom, sometimes anticipating turns in curatorial and arthistorical practice. For instance, they chose to show the Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe, and to work with the Hazaribagh-based environmentalist and rural-arts activist, Bulu Imam, at a time when so-called 'tribal' art was met with condescension if not outright derision in metropolitan art circles.
The Gandhys extended their hospitality to literature, theatre and cinema, collaborating with writers across generations. In 1987, they mobilised the Bombay Arts Festival. Its literary events were designed by the distinguished poet and critic Nissim Ezekiel;its special focus exhibition, on emerging tendencies in Indian sculpture, was curated by the cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha. In 1990, Chemould hosted a festival of literature, Gadyaparva, and helped build a nucleus fund for the eponymous journal of contemporary Gujarati writing, edited by Geeta and Bharat Naik.
Looking back at the Gandhys' stellar contribution, including memorable exhibitions by a dazzling array of artists-among them, to name only a few, Bhupen Khakhar, J Swaminathan, Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya, Gieve Patel, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh, Mehlli Gobhai, Sudhir Patwardhan, Rummana Hussain, N Pushpamala, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Bharti Kher, Reena Kallat, Shilpa Gupta-it seems improbable that they could have staged these achievements in the cramped, kidney-shaped environment of the old Gallery Chemould. But that is exactly what they did. How remote that interior seems, as we walk through the expansive spaces of Chemould Prescott Road;and yet, its restless energies continue to circulate through the successor establishment.
(Ranjit Hoskote is a cultural theorist, curator and poet)
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