AN ALCHEMY OF SPACE, PEOPLE, WORKS, AND IDEAS - Celebrating 40 Years of Cymroza
The Cymroza Art Gallery was born at a crucial juncture in the cultural history of late 20th-century Bombay. When this fresh initiative opened its doors to the city’s art-viewing public in October 1971, the demand of artists for exhibition spaces had already exceeded the capacity of Bombay’s only public gallery, the Jehangir Art Gallery. Meanwhile, the programming cycles of the city’s major private galleries, the Pundole Art Gallery and Gallery Chemould, had already taken definite shape around the work of specific artists. An institutional vacuum had also been left behind by the operational cessation of the Bhulabhai Institute on Warden Road, which had been governed by Soli Batliwalla and Madhuri-ben Desai, and had served as a versatile and experimental space for art: the Institute had offered studio facilities to a number of artists including M F Husain, Krishen Khanna, V S Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta and Prafulla Joshi (later Dahanukar), and hosted the celebrated musician Ravi Shankar’s Kinnara academy of music. The Institute had also been a base for the multi-faceted projects of the connoisseur, impresario and theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi, and had served as the venue for the painter Bal Chhabda’s short-lived Gallery 59, named for the year in which it was launched.
It was, therefore, with several deficits of urban cultural infrastructure that Bombay entered what would turn out to be the politically as well as culturally turbulent decade of the 1970s. The 1970 cyclone and military repression in East Pakistan would be succeeded swiftly by a war between India and Pakistan, resulting in the birth of the new nation of Bangladesh in 1971; pushed to the limit by a fractious opposition, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would declare an internal Emergency that lasted from 1975 to 1977, during which the institutions of democracy were sorely taxed and shaken; 1977 witnessed Mrs Gandhi’s precipitous fall from power, followed by the antics of India’s first coalition government, its collapse, and the former Prime Minister’s triumphal return in 1979. In cultural terms, the Emergency would formalise the adversarial relationship between political authority and artistic dissidence, inherited by the postcolonial nation-state from its colonial predecessor; the abrogation of civil freedoms and the unbridled censorship of the Emergency period had antagonised writers, painters, film-makers, theatre-makers, publishers, and many other cultural practitioners, as well as the mass media.
Of course, most of these cataclysmic events lay in the future and were of a sweeping, epic nature beyond the sway or influence of individuals; to Cymroza’s young founder, it was the deficits of urban cultural infrastructure that were most urgent and immediate, and it was self-evident to her that they would have to be met. Pheroza Shroff (who would become Pheroza Godrej on her marriage to Jamshyd Godrej in 1978) addressed the issue with her characteristic decisiveness and dispatch. If no gallery could offer space, she would open a gallery. If the Bhulabhai Institute has passed into history, she would resurrect some of its core features in new premises. Pheroza was encouraged in her endeavours by a number of notable figures on the Bombay cultural scene, among them the poet and art critic Nissim Ezekiel, the cartoonist R. K. Laxman, and the columnist Behram Contractor, better known by his legendary nom de plume, ‘Busybee’; she also received the active support of a circle of lively, intellectually active journalists, including Gautam S. G. Vora, then a young assistant editor at The Times of India, as well as A. R. Kanangi, Kulamarva Balkrishna of the Free Press Journal, and Rajika Kripalani, founder of Hi! A Young People’s Journal. Fortunately, the art scene of postcolonial India’s premier metropolis was young enough to absorb new releases of organisational energy; after all, the Jehangir Art Gallery had been established as late as 1952, while Pundole and Chemould had been founded in the early 1960s and were less than a decade old in 1971.
Thus, while Cymroza functions today as a private gallery, it was originally conceived as what we would today describe as a cultural space: a platform where artists, musicians, writers, film-makers and other individuals engaged in cultural practices could convene, discuss and present their work. The exhibitions organised by Cymroza during its first decade (1971-1981) were eclectic in their choice of media, practices and contexts, spanning painting, sculpture, graphics and ceramics, as well as design, textiles and furniture. Alongside the exhibitions, the gallery would host lectures, panel discussions and film screenings. The leitmotif of Cymroza’s second decade was a collaboration with Ebrahim and Roshen Alkazi’s Delhi-based gallery, Art Heritage: this period coincided with the first decade of the founder’s marriage and the birth of her children, so that priorities had to be juggled and a new programme of exhibitions devised. From 1982 to 1988, Cymroza shared exhibitions and co-published an annual catalogue with Art Heritage, an arrangement that laid equal emphasis on exhibition, documentation and outreach in the dissemination of the art experience to a nascent public. In 1989, Cymroza renewed itself architecturally and spatially, and inaugurated this phase of its life with a solo exhibition by the magisterial Akbar Padamsee.
During the eighteen years from 1971 to 1989, the first generation of postcolonial Indian artists (including such figures as Jehangir Sabavala, Satish Gujral, S H Raza, M F Husain, Krishen Khanna and Akbar Padamsee) achieved critical acceptance and a modest measure of commercial success, while the second generation had only just emerged and had yet to consolidate its position (this vanguard formation was peopled, among others, by Vivan Sundaram, Bhupen Khakhar, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Sudhir Patwardhan, Gieve Patel and Jogen Chowdhury). An air of seriousness pervaded the studio and the gallery during this epoch, and the spectrum of artistic practices across India included some remarkably diverse positions. Among India’s artists were painters like Sabavala and Padamsee, who had absorbed and digested their Parisian apprenticeship and were crafting proposals for the idealised figure or the cosmic landscape; and also Gujral, with his Mexican training, who would branch out from painting into sculpture and architecture. Alongside them were neo-Tantric painters like Biren De and Ghulam Rasool Santosh, who had taken over the idiom of abstraction from Rothko, Newman and Gottlieb and infused it with the mystical symbolism of the Yogic and Tantric systems of transcendence. And, just emerging on the scene at this point with a vigorous appetite for aesthetic and political debate, were the young fellow travellers of the Left, such as Sundaram and Patwardhan, who looked to subaltern milieux and proletarian life for inspiration. In material terms, there was very little money to be made in art during these decades, but this disadvantage was outweighed by the audacious desire of many Indian artists (and their patrons and supporters) to overcome the obstacles of a developing economy, to experiment with images and materials, and to extend the scope of both art and life.
As Cymroza turns forty, the Indian art world finds itself on the far side of the unprecedented boom of 2005-2008 and the unforgiving slump that followed the global financial meltdown of 2008. Briefly, between 2005 and 2008, Indian art had thought itself to be in paradise: support was available for ambitious art projects, prices shot skyward, galleries and auction houses began to grow more advanced in their degree of professionalisation, and frenetic activity was palpable at all levels of the art market, primary, secondary and tertiary. International exhibitions of Indian art ensured that artists from the subcontinent could now address a global audience, with some of them finding a place on the international art scene through a network of residencies, commissioned projects, museum exhibitions, research projects and biennale appearances. Art scholarship, whether in the writing of criticism, history or theory, did not keep pace, and became confined to a select set of practitioners who worked to refine their approach and ideas. Informed newspaper criticism of the kind that had once been the rule (with contributors like Sham Lal, Nissim Ezekiel, D G Nadkarni, S V Vasudev, Charles Fabri and Krishna Chaitanya) receded, to be replaced by fatuous lifestyle features.
Many artists flourished during this miraculous period; but even as they presented their work at a heightened scale and intensity to growing audiences, the accelerated pace and increased pressure took a toll on their imagination and their methods. A number of artists began to rely on assistance and the delegation of artistic labour, with the studio coming to resemble a factory assembly-line or an architect’s office. Dealers became predatory, auction houses turned into a market for primary sales, far too much art was aired far too quickly in far too many shows. The absurdly high prices were kept there, it was evident, by the interests of speculators who had entered the art market. And then, just as the party seemed to have no end, came the fall of Lehmann Brothers, New York, and the bust of 2008. Global finance capitalism, built on the unsteady ground of bankers’ fantasies and borrowers’ delusions, unsecured loans and overextended, even fictive credit, collapsed under its internal contradictions. With virtually every sector of the world economy affected, the Indian art market plunged into disarray. In the slump that followed, most gallery practices in India could not configure a solution as collectors retreated into suspicion, holdings were dumped, prices crashed, artists withdrew into fantasies of redemption, gallery reputations nosedived, and artists’ careers tanked. Art had been treated and traded as a commodity. The logic of the commodity is a ruthless one: snatch price away from a scenario in which it has been celebrated as the preeminent measure of value, and value itself is destroyed. Indian galleries are still struggling with the lessons and repercussions of this shattering experience, asking themselves what a responsible gallery can do to secure the future of its artists, rebuild its practice, restore the trust of collectors, and contribute again, productively, to the life of art.
The key question that the art world must address at this date is not how to resurrect the glories of the boom, for this is impossible, but rather, how to restore value. In this context, it is vital to remember that a gallery is not merely a space for exhibition; it is, in fact, a laboratory for creative engagement and critical exchange, where curiosity, mutuality, discovery and trust may all be nurtured around the negotiations between artistic vision, curatorial desire, exhibition architecture, pedagogic structure, and the textures and temperaments of a mutable audience. As I wrote on the occasion of Cymroza’s 35th anniversary exhibition, in 2006, “a gallery is not merely a site; it must aim to be a process”. This is a responsibility that Cymroza has served in many ways, through the four decades of its activity.
Memorably, Cymroza has been hospitable, not only to the long-privileged idioms of oil on canvas and the formal sculpture, but equally to drawings, watercolours, graphics, studio pottery, ceramic sculptures, photography, design, the installation, and the contemporary manifestations of traditional crafts. For several years, the gallery brought out significant portfolios of graphics in collaboration with the XAL Praxis Foundation: this represented a major affirmation for printmakers at a moment when support for them, whether official or private, was negligible. Cymroza was also one of the first galleries in Bombay to host lectures, discussions, workshops, camps and film screenings on the arts and culture as a matter of course. During the formative decades of the 1980s and 1990s, Cymroza invited distinguished critics and commentators such as Ezekiel and Alkazi to address audiences at the gallery: such interactions between experts and viewers helped the audience to locate modern and contemporary art within its larger cultural and political horizons.
As I look forward with anticipation to the next 40 years of Cymroza’s presence and activity, I find myself, also, looking through my library for an appropriate manifesto of self-renewal for a gallery. I find it in a conversation between the Paris gallerists Nathalie Boutin and Solène Guillier of gb agency, and the editor and curator Andrea Bellini. I have Cymroza, in its utopian moments during the 1970s and 1980s firmly in mind as I read, and hear, Boutin and Guillier observe: “The gallery is a living organism, constantly interacting with artists and the public. In a certain sense, it’s a world that has no rules, and that can dream its own dreams and create its own priorities. What needs to be done is to help production, spread ideas, and make it possible for works to last for a long time. ... Never accept compromises. A gallery is an alchemical combination of form and content, space and ideas: Never separate them out. Work with artists who have a wealth of humanity. Don’t give in to the pressures of time, to the effects of fashions; take your time and remain apart.”
(Bombay: October, 2012)
Ranjit Hoskote is a cultural theorist, curator and poet. He has authored more than 20 books, including The Complicit Observer: Reflections on the Art of Sudhir Patwardhan (Sakshi Gallery/ Eminence Designs, 2004), The Crafting of Reality: Sudhir Patwardhan, Drawings (The Guild, 2008), Zinny & Maidagan: Compartment/ Das Abteil (Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt/ Walther König, 2010), I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Penguin Classics, 2011), and Dom Moraes: Selected Poems (ed., Penguin Modern Classics, 2012). Hoskote’s essays have appeared in numerous volumes, including Elena Filipovic et al eds., The Biennial Reader (Hatje Cantz, 2010), Maria Hlavajova et al eds., On Horizons: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art (BAK, 2011), and Sølveig Øvstebo ed., Marianne Heier: Surplus (Bergen Kunsthall/ Sternberg Press, 2012), as well as in the catalogues of numerous international exhibitions, most recently, Indian Highway (Serpentine Gallery, London/ Walther König, 2008) and India: Art Now (ARKEN Museum, Copenhagen/ Hatje Cantz, 2012). With Nancy Adajania, Hoskote is co-author of The Dialogues Series (Popular/ foundation b&g, 2010). He has curated 22 exhibitions, including a mid-career survey of Atul Dodiya (Japan Foundation, Tokyo, 2001) and a retrospective of Jehangir Sabavala (National Gallery of Modern Art, Bombay and New Delhi, 2005-2006). Hoskote co-curated the 7th Gwangju Biennale (Korea, 2008) and was curator of India’s first-ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2011).
40 years onwards…
40 years in the life of an institution unravels many events during its journey. Cymroza Art Gallery, established in 1971, continues to attract artists from all over the nation and on several occasions, the artists from the Indian diaspora have responded whole-heartedly in exhibitions and other events such as symposiums, seminars and even film screenings.
The birth of the Gallery was not by accident and in today’s times, one can even mention not a commercial motivation. It was truly a desire, passionately pursued to fulfil a dream. A dream dreamt not by one individual, but by many others in the profession. In the 60s and 70s Mumbai, erstwhile Bombay, was a very different city in which the art market was evolving. There were few exhibition spaces and these could be counted on the fingers of one’s hands. Naturally there were different categories of exhibition spaces, purely on the basis of which they operated – those that were rented out for exhibitions and the more commercial ones were galleries that invited artists and retained a commission on the sale of the work. Whilst the former helped serve a laudable purpose, there were not too many options for artists who had never exhibited, and here I am referring to several of my colleagues who were fresh out of Art school and had nowhere to exhibit their work. There was always the same refrain from gallerists to “first participate in some shows and then we will give you an opportunity and dates to display and promote your work in our gallery”. The commercial galleries picked and chose those artists who were commercially viable to them. In either scenario, unless you had some influence or a patron, as a young artist or even as a new artist or as an un-established artist, you had nowhere to go.
Over many hours of discussion with veterans who, unfortunately, are no longer with us today, such as, JehangirSabavala, B. Prabha, PillooPochkhanawala, NarenPanchal, K.H.Ara, AdiDavierwalla, including many of those who are still with us, the dye was cast and a dream started to materialise in the form of Cymroza Art Gallery. Those were tough times but, nonetheless, exciting times. As always, finances were limited and ideas were a-plenty, but one thing was never lacking; the support of the Art community and, indeed, as the years have gone by, the citizens of Mumbai and even those living outside the metropolis.
Every business needs to be successful and by success, I include profitability. In the sphere of Art – is it only profitability that drives us, and, have we lost the other? By the other, I mean, our values and our sense of ethics, whilst simultaneously proving to be a lucrative business. The volatility in the financial markets saw many dreams crash in the art world. This was a tragedy. And, I hope, as the years go by, we will see a balance restored.
Modern & Contemporary Indian Art has witnessed many desirable developments. As the nation has transformed itself over the last 20 years, so have our cultural aspirations. The younger generation of artists are taking powerful and adventurous steps as they evolve in the context of a global world. Very often it is asked, “What is Indian about Contemporary Indian Art?” The appropriate response would be that, “in the past 100 years, Art has had no nationality, hence, it has no boundary”. For us in India, it changed in the early 40s, when it was considered the “done thing” to study in Paris or London, if one wanted to be internationally recognised. Today, this is not the case. Indian artists are regularly featured in International Fairs, Biennales and Triennials. They are engaged in experimenting with different medias of work with new found boldness. Just as the renowned Progressives had set pioneering trends in the 40s and 50s, the Contemporary artists of the 70s and 80s chartered their own artistic trajectories. The artists of the 90s and the turn of this century are a different generation, altogether and we are too close to the period as Art Historians to categorise them either as Modern or Contemporary. They belong to a different generation following their own intuition and beliefs.
In 2009, just as Cymroza was about to enter its 4th decade, I was privileged to have been invited along with eminent Art Historian, Dr. Saryu V. Doshi, by our former Ambassador of India H.E. Mr. Talmiz Ahmad and Director General of ADACH, H.E. Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, to curate an exhibition of Indian Art in Abu Dhabi. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to showcase an historic survey of over a 110 works in the UAE. The exhibition aptly titled “SPECTRUM – Indian Art in Abu Dhabi” itself describes the range. The purpose was to open up Indian Art in its totality to the world outside. As RanjitHoskote aptly put it in his essay, “The Scale of Change”, we intended ‘Mapping a New Atlas for Cotemporary Indian Art’. I personally feel we have found new freedom and this movement is going to evolve over the years into something quite different from what we have witnessed in the past.
Having completed our 40th year, I look forward to the next decade with greater enthusiasm and passion. The city has changed dramatically and the art scenario is more vibrant and so is Cymroza Art Gallery.
Shabash, Cymroza ! I am proud and humbled by our achievements !!
Pheroza J. Godrej