The beginnings of the art movement
AMONG the European painters who came to India during the War was Walter Langhammer, an Austrian. He was a contemporary of the famous painter Oskar Kokoschka, who was professor of the Academy in Vienna in the 1930s. There was this Parsi girl called Silloo Vakil from Bombay who was studying with him and she used to say to him, ‘Walter, you must come to India one day,’ and he would say ‘Ja, ja.’ So when Hitler came along and he had to leave Austria, he wrote to Vakil, saying that he would like to come to India. And she walked into the office of Sir Francis Low, editor of The Times of India, and said, ‘I am the daughter of Rotarian Vakil and I would like you to promise me something.’ She was cheeky enough to do that. The result was that Langhammer was appointed as the first art director of the TOI. The year must have been 1936. And at the time it had the only colour annual number.
Langhammer fell in love with the light and colour of India and all the young artists. Here, he would often say, he saw a future in the modern art movement – he felt it was all over Europe. So people like Ara, Raza, Husain, Souza and Raiba, the great names of the Indian Progressive Art Movement, became his students. Every Sunday, it was open house at his studio on Nepean Sea Road.
He would tell them what makes a good painting. He would share his experiences of Europe and tell them about events in the art world, seen at first hand. They found a windfall in this readymade teacher. And he had so much love and affection for them. It was not just the artists alone – the people around them too were responsible, in a way, for the birth of the Progressives. There were factors like the excitement over the prospect of impending Independence, the feeling that now Indian artists would not have to go through Westminster, that India would have its own embassies in different parts of the world, and that we would be able to make our own connections.
Remember that in those days, Indian artists had no means of going abroad or of following trends in Europe. Of course, there were magazines, but the unexpected arrival of all these Europeans – most of them Jews fleeing from Austria – really started the Progressive movement off. Apart from Langhammer, there was Dr. E. Schlesinger and Rudi von Leyden, both German. Rudi was the chief PRO of Volkart Brothers, a Swiss trading company based in India, and he had a younger brother, A.R. Leyden, a sculptor who styled himself as a painter after Langhammer and was called ‘little Langhammer’. They had arrived before Langhammer because their father foresaw the arrival of Hitler by two or three years. They were all warm and outgoing people, generous too. The founder chairman of Larsen and Toubro, a Danish gentleman called Holck Larsen, was one of the earliest art patrons. They were also the ‘in people’ of the time. They were written about in the papers very often.
With Langhammer came a lot of professionals, doctors… a sort of mini-influx of Jews. They valued art and provided patronage. Schlesinger was so attached to Mohan Samant, one of the Progressive artists, that he would travel by local train to Goregaon to see what he was up to. They had a great enthusiasm for Indian artists – who else was interested? – and they pioneered buying. They were not the only foreigners to influence the new art movement.
Towards the end of the War, with operations ongoing in North Africa, Italian POWs were brought in by the British and domiciled in camps all over India. Captain Dust, an Englishman, decided that these able-bodied men should be put to some work. Among them were car mechanics, painters and waiters. He selected those who could use a brush and formed a separate unit in the army called MURART. The idea was to get them to paint and use their work across all army establishments in South Asia. Dust went to Mountbatten with a proposal and, imaginative as he was, Mountbatten accepted the idea and put him in charge. He was given a building at Chakala near Sahar airport. The POWs were equipped with soft boards and were asked to paint. That is how these Italian men started creating paintings here in Bombay.
Meanwhile, back on vacation from Cambridge (I never went back) during the War, I met a Belgian gentleman who had landed up in India called Van Damme. His father had been a framer and restorer of the great Flemish masters. He had heard a news story back home about the many gods and goddesses that Indians kept in their homes. He knew that India would be a captive market to sell frames. Our acquaintance led to the establishment of the Chemould framing factory in 1940. He gave me know-how, we got the finance together and my brother Rusi and I set up the factory.
Around the time Dust was putting together his idea, the Chemould factory was in a plot behind our bungalow called Shapur Baug in Chakala. The Leela Hotel stands there today. It was a very pretty place with mango and chikoo wadis. The British requisitioned the ground floor of this bungalow for MURART. Wood was scarce because it was requisitioned for the war effort. We did not know how to continue with our business. Luckily, MURART said they needed frames for all these paintings they were churning out and they started supplying us with wood. We worked exclusively for them.
For soldiers, the Italians were really good artists. They would come home on Sundays. We handed the kitchen over to them and they would prepare all these risottos. They were lonely people, far from home, so we tried to help them by selling the private work they did, not the ones they made for MURART. Food was rationed at the time, but they were soldiers and had everything. They used to bake lovely cookies. We began to invite over our friends and other Indian artists. Everyone had a good time and after dinner a hat was passed around. For Rs 100 or 200, you could pick up one of the finest paintings of the time and everyone was happy.
Collecting art was really started by a few individuals. Though there was no art movement or recognised artists around, Bombay’s first generation of collectors were quite generous. Ratan Tata’s father, Naval Tata, was a very kind man. We had a party at his house in Juhu and in one night sold 10 or 12 paintings, some of the private work of the Italians and some by our own Indian painters. Bombay then had the right mix of socialites and patrons. We were, of course, trying to make it a fashion statement, so that people would feel that it was the in thing to buy art. Since there were no galleries then, all this was done at our homes.
Much later, in the early seventies, when Holck Larsen was still chairman of Larsen and Toubro, I remember telling him that Jamshedji Tata believed that by picking out talented people from across the country and nurturing them, he was doing the greatest service to the country. Immediately, he told me to name an artist and he would look after him. So a Bangladeshi refugee called Bhushan was installed at the factory, supplied with materials and told that all he had to do was create art. He stayed for three years.
But coming back to the early forties, one Christmas I was at Porcupine Point in Matheran and I met Schimmel, another Austrian. When he learned that I ran Chemould, he asked me to meet his good friend Langhammer as soon as I got back to Bombay. In those days, we were making mouldings for paintings, but Langhammer asked us to make frames. And he explained to me his vision for Indian art. He really believed that contemporary Indian art would make a mark and have an impact on the art scene in the world. He even compared it in terms of impact to the French Impressionist movement. When he said ‘Indian art’, he was referring to the various schools – the Bengal school, miniature paintings, the influence of Indian sculpture. India had a great store of inspiration to draw from and the colours and light of India would make the difference, he felt.
Meanwhile, the Progressive artists were working hard to establish their own identity. They were working on a very deliberate policy of establishing their own personalities and not using past traditions to express themselves. At that time, the J.J. School of Art had two sections – Indian and western – with different principals. Jagannath Ahiwasi looked after the Indian section and at the western section was Charles Gerrard, a Jew from England. But the question on everyone’s mind was: where do we go from here?
People like Souza and Ara were not sticking to the academic conventions of painting and nor were they students of the Indian section, which concentrated on miniatures. All the encouragement from Langhammer and his circle of art collectors at the Bombay Art Society, a most vibrant and prestigious body, gave them a place of their own. They said, we are what we are. We don’t want to copy the West. We are products of our immediate environments and want to establish our identity by being contemporary.
The Bombay Art Society was set up in the latter part of the last century by the masters of academic painting, most of whom were traditional artists from the academies of the West. There, artists were taught to take a canvas, prime it, grind colour and be responsible for the painting right up to the varnishing stage. For the Indian artists who were learning from them, all this was very new. Oil paint was not part of the Indian tradition. The Indians were experts at watercolours on cloth, or murals and frescoes.
This was one of the earliest exchanges between the West and India in art. The society had an annual event, a gold medal for the artist of the year, and without doubt it was the most prestigious art award. Artists before the Progressives like Durdhankar, Haldhankar and Pithawala had won this award. Later, artists like Husain and Amrita Sher-Gill were also honoured.
Leyden introduced me very enthusiastically to Ara. Ara came from a humble background and I remember Gallery Chemould sponsored his first exhibition at Chetna in the late forties. Rajeswar Rao, the writer, came down from Paris and Mulk Raj Anand was back from London, and we were keen that it should be a big success. I remember inviting people down the road from my home – doctors, dentists, people we knew personally, we told them to go and they bought paintings for Rs 200 or so.
Leyden supported Ara for a long time. When Ara made some money from the exhibition, he wanted to give it to Leyden. But Leyden opened a bank account for him with that money and told him that he was on his own.
Ishared a close personal relationship with Hebbar. I first met him at Langhammer’s studio and we shared a lot of enthusiasm for the independence of the country. We hero-worshipped Nehru. But after the Chinese conflict we could not possibly go on like that. We remained great friends, despite the fact that our ideologies had changed. He was the one who introduced me to Gerrard, who was then Dean of the School of Art.
Husain was a favourite of Wayne Hartwell, who was the librarian at the USIS, opposite Khadi Bhandar. You could walk straight into his office off the pavement. This was in 1946 and he was one of the most consummate buyers of our set, as well as a very good friend. He and his wife loved the work of Husain and Chavda. Don’t forget that Husain was a nobody then. He was to rise to great heights later, but at the time it was Chavda who was sought after. He had a powerful personality. Unlike most of the others, he was an educated, sophisticated and quiet person. One of Husain’s paintings, Doll’s Wedding, was part of a Chemould exhibition and was picked up by Hartwell. He took it home with him and we heard that it had changed hands. It was finally sold for $35,000 in the mid-eighties and I know Wayne had bought it for Rs 300 in the 1940s right here in Bombay.
Ican’t say honestly that I was interested in art to begin with, or that I had any great knowledge of it. I got interested through my friends Langhammer and Leyden, after seeing their great enthusiasm for contemporary Indian art. I was moved by their belief in the future of Indian contemporary art. And once I began interacting with the artists – they were such beautiful, trusting people, Ara and Raza and Hebbar – I felt I could be a go-between. As a Rotarian, I was meeting a certain class of people, and I felt I had a distinctive role to play and, in particular, a vested interest in the framing of their art.
I had a vested interest in seeing a picture transformed by a frame, when it would stand a better chance of finding a buyer. Indian art then had no market, and it gave me a lot of satisfaction to be part of a process that sold paintings. There was no commission in those days. Then came a time when artists would leave their paintings – Raza, Palsikar, Ara, Gade, Raiba. Raiba was so badly off that we had to give him a job at the framing factory. But the great thing was that they trusted us.
They would all leave their paintings with us. We had a place called Haroon House next to a stationery mart behind the Reserve Bank. There, we displayed some of the paintings that came to us for framing. The Metro Cinema opened with a lot of fanfare and we took a portion of the wall on the first floor and called it the Metro Art Corner. When people came out after the show, they would see the paintings. And we had a window on the first floor of the Taj from 1944 to 1948. Then we realised that we needed a bigger place, since we were selling a fair number of paintings there. My father had a godown on Princess Street, which we turned into a framing shop. Roshan Kalapesi showed initiative in displaying art and framing all the paintings. The Progressives made their first sales through this shop and the Artists Centre at Rampart Row.
So that became the first regular place for display, where we showed all these paintings that the artists had left behind. Then Homi Bhabha, who was setting up the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, came over after lunch and started examining our frames with a great deal of interest. He was very meticulous about framing.
We soon recognised discerning and interested art patrons and started holding private exhibitions. We had previews for Homi Bhabha, which is why the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) has the best private collection of forties art. The contagion spread among our set from Langhammer and Leyden to Homi Bhabha and Farookh Mulla, PRO of the Tatas. They were all patrons of the Chemould shop.
At our first Husain exhibition, I looked out of the window and saw my wife’s uncle, the founder-owner of Parsiana magazine, passing by. I just pulled him in and said we needed a crowd. The poor man had no idea what was going on. But Husain sold so well that we were flooded with work from artists all over India. After that exhibition, our sales of frames and art shot up from Rs 5,000 per year to Rs 20,000 per year. That is when Mulla, Langhammer, Leyden and I got together – Sir Cowasji Jehangir was there too – to discuss how we could handle this sudden growth of interest. The implication was that artists in Bombay needed a gallery. So we put this to Sir Cowasji Jehangir, who was already a patron, and though a political person (he was a crucial mediator between Gandhi and Jinnah and was active in the Legislative Assembly), he also bought art.
He hailed from a long line of visionary benefactors. Two hundred years ago, his great-great grandfather had founded the Bombay University Hall, the next generation gave the city the building where the National Gallery of Modern Art is housed, and the next sponsored Elphinstone College. He granted the funds for setting up the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1951-52. The museum gave the land and they had a tripartite agreement. He had the foresight to put nominees of the Bombay Arts Society on the management committee of the Jehangir Art Gallery; the idea was to differentiate the promotion of art from the sale of art.
We were invited by the committee to set up a gallery on the first floor. We started the Chemould art gallery in 1951. I was persuaded by artists like Souza and Chavda not to do this. They said, ‘You will never recover your investments.’ Somehow, we did not make losses but our profits from the framing company certainly fell. Since I was already with the Bombay Arts Society set, I was really in the thick of things and with the help and support of my wife Khorshed, we continued to promote art independently as the proprietors of Gallery Chemould.
It has given us great joy to support the art movement and see it grow from strength to strength. Today we continue to support exhibitions like the one my wife put together called ‘The Portrait of a Community’, which opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art in October 2002. We have both retired from the running of the Gallery Chemould, which our youngest daughter Shireen continues to run, and the framing factory has been taken over by our son Adil.
* As told to grand-daughter, Anisha Imhasly.