MUMBAI: Long before art was viewed as an investment, valued as arbitrarily as a high-rise flat (with plunge pool), there were two small art galleries in the city, Chemould and Pundole. Both opened in 1963, in old-world Fort, before Flora Fountain became Hutatma Chowk. Both were run by Parsis, the Gandhys and the Pundoles who, also coincidentally, started as framers. Both shared a healthy rivalry and a simple motive--to nurture artists and sell paintings.
At the recent Christie's auction, where the sale of a Gaitonde painting broke all previous records in contemporary Indian art, much of the art came from the late Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy's private estate. Yet, it is likely that Kekoo himself would have balked at words like "painting sale smashes historic high". His daughter Shireen Gandhy, who runs Chemould Prescott Road, recalls how often her father would jeopardize a potential sale by diverting the customer's attention to some other artist he had just discovered and infuriate her mother, the more practical businessperson.
Kekoo was known for his consistent role in bringing people together--artist, patron and critic. "In those days, the stories revolved around the artists, not around numbers," says Gandhy. "Now, after this auction, I will once again have to start fending off calls from people saying, 'Please tell me about art as an investment'," she adds with a twinkle.
Gandhy, who took Chemould from being a cozy little gallery on the top floor of Jehangir Art Gallery to a vast roomy space off D N road, says that change in the art world was inevitable and comes with its fair share of good and bad. What she does miss, however, is watching the way artists used to interact with one another. "That doesn't exist today." She recalls how every week, in the days before he was a hot ticket, Tyeb Mehta would come by train, walk to the old Chemould, call his wife Sakina to tell her he'd arrived, and then call his buddy Bal Chhabda to join him for a romp. "The artist Barwe would meet his gang every Thursday, see a couple of shows and then end up on the steps of the Jehangir Art Gallery to discuss the art. It's really important for artists to dialogue with one another."
Dadiba Pundole recollects the day his father Kali Pundole opened the gallery, with an exhibition featuring S H Raza, Jehangir Sabavala and Badri Narayan. "The relationship between gallerist and artist was more one of friendship, not just a commercial one." People like Akbar Padamsee, M F Husain, and others would just drop in for a cup of tea and a chat. In fact, in the early days, business was miniscule."
Pundole has represented Gaitonde since 1975 and is now publishing a book about the artist, which will be out next year.
At the time, Gaitonde had said to me, 'You know why I paint? Because your father pays me.' I found his words baffling and didn't question him further, but understood what he meant years later. In the mid-80s, Gaitonde had an accident and gave up painting briefly. I met him in Delhi and said, 'Gai, why don't you get back to painting?' He said, 'I continue to paint. But in my head. Why should I waste the limited energy I have to put paint on canvas?'"
Artist Gieve Patel said, "High prices for art are an economic reality across the globe. I see no reason why India should lag behind. About what this does to an artist's psyche is a matter of individual character. It will destroy some artists, but I think the ones with real grit would be able to take this phenomenon in their stride."