In memoriam: Kekoo Gandhy (2 February 1920-10 November 2012)
To run into Kekoo Gandhy, whether at the old Gallery Chemould on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay—or more recently, at its successor institution, Chemould Prescott Road, directed by his daughter Shireen—was to be drawn instantly into his latest scheme for civic improvement or his latest proposal for sweeping reform in the nation’s art infrastructure. When Kekoo passed away on Saturday morning, he took with him a nation-sized archive, an intimate knowledge of the epic debates as well as the invisible micro-politics that had shaped the field in which many of us, his younger contemporaries, have chosen to plough our paths: postcolonial Indian art.
Kekoo was a pioneer who helped formulate the contours of the postcolonial Indian art world. He was one of independent India’s earliest gallerists; his creation, Gallery Chemould, evolved organically in 1964 from his frame-making establishment, which had itself been born as a result of 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. Indeed, the name of the gallery carries, within itself, an echo of those distant origins: Chemould is a compound formed from its parent company’s name, Che(mical) Mould(ings). But Kekoo was not simply a gallerist devoted to the refinement and expansion of his own practice and its economic contexts. Rather, his historic contribution lies in the public-spiritedness and generosity with which he identified, helped create, and worked to sustain the cultural and infrastructural contexts in which modern Indian art could live, breathe and grow.
Kekoo was a committed supporter of institutions and an advocate of institution-building in the domain of the arts as well as in civil society, 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 or lobbying politicians and bureaucrats, he worked always from an intelligent and precise 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 mandarins in Delhi thought culture to be synonymous with 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. He was a man who acted fearlessly on his beliefs and convictions, with untarnished optimism and uncompromising idealism. 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 supporting the activities of vocal critics of the right-wing government of the time. In the summer of 2007, when a number of us, galvanised by the artist and activist Tushar Joag, came together to organise the ‘Free Chandramohan Committee’ to demand the release of a Baroda art student brazenly arrested by the police on grounds of obscenity and communal provocation, it was Kekoo who addressed the assembly from the steps of the Jehangir Art Gallery, calling in his characteristic ringing tones for the defence of cultural freedoms. And at all times, he would urge those of us whose destinies were linked to the NGMA Bombay to re-dedicate ourselves to that institution, whose unconstrained efflorescence remained one of his cherished dreams.
In consonance with the core beliefs of the MRA, Kekoo did his best to practise the ‘Four Absolutes’: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. While the pursuit of honesty often meant that he spoke truth bluntly to power and unhesitatingly rebuked those he felt to be responsible for a decline in standards, the pursuit of love meant that he extended his legendary generosity towards a large number of interlocutors, whether callow art students, artists from small towns showing for the first time in Bombay, civil-society activists, young writers, or activists against communitarian violence. And if the mandate of absolute purity meant that he was often as autobiographically transparent and self-critical as his near-namesake and admired icon, Mahatma Gandhi, his belief in absolute unselfishness could lead him to forsake the pragmatics necessary to the unruffled working 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 and platforms. Through the nearly seven decades of their marriage, and their close partnership in the gallery, they came across as a portrait of beautifully wedded opposites. With her practicality and eye for the details of contracts and execution, Khorshed provided a bracing and productive counterpoint to her husband, with his preference for high-altitude navigation in the realms of vision and policy. Chemould’s programme was inclusive, taking in a wide spectrum of the manifestations of modern Indian art between the 1950s and the 1990s, embracing practices that were variously abstractionist, figurative, narrative, allegorical, minimalist and conceptualist in their orientation.
Chemould’s gallery practice helped define the main currents of postcolonial Indian art. But it could also be an adventurous and unpredictable practice: it could be counterintuitive, defiant of received wisdom, sometimes anticipating turns in curatorial and art-historical practice. For instance, Kekoo and Khorshed chose to show the work of the Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe, and to work with the Hazaribagh-based environmental activist and convenor of tribal women artists, Bulu Imam, at a time when so-called ‘tribal’ art was met with condescension if not outright derision in metropolitan art circles. In 1987, the Gandhys conceived and sponsored the Bombay Arts Festival, held at the Nehru Centre in Worli, with a special focus on emerging tendencies in Indian sculpture curated by the cultural theorist and film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha (I remember this event with affection; it was where I gave a public reading of my poems for the first time). In conversation with writers through the generations, such as the distinguished poet and critic Nissim Ezekiel (who briefly worked as manager at Chemould’s framing factory, in the course of a long and variegated life), the Gandhys also extended their hospitality to the other arts, especially literature, theatre and cinema. In 1990, Chemould hosted a festival of literature, ‘Gadyaparva’, and helped build a nucleus fund for the eponymous journal of contemporary writing in Gujarati, edited by Geeta and Bharat Naik.
Looking back at the stellar contribution of the Gandhys between the 1950s and the 1990s, including a series of 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 all these achievements in the cramped, kidney-shaped environment of the old Gallery Chemould. Looking further back, we see, in the mind’s eye, the Gandhy family warehouse on Princess Street that Kekoo turned into Chemould Frames, which was not only a shop for frames but also an early meeting place for the Bombay artists of the 1950s, the Progressives among them. Indeed, these spaces seem already to be distant memories, when we walk through the elegant, high-ceilinged, expansive spaces of Chemould Prescott Road; but their energies continue to circulate through the successor establishment.
A large number of relatives, friends, colleagues, associates and fellow pilgrims from the diverse theatres of his life came to pay Kekoo Gandhy homage at his funeral on Saturday, 10 November 2012. 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.