Where Bombay’s Modern Art scene meets Dishoom Canary Wharf

Each Dishoom café is built on inspiring trips to Bombay, fond conversations, cherished relationships and lifelong friendships we’ve made along the way. Friends and partners who we are so grateful to have and to know. One such friend is Mortimer Chatterjee, founder of the Chatterjee & Lal gallery in Colaba, Bombay, and author of the recently-published book Moving Focus, India: New Perspectives on Modern & Contemporary Art. In this journal post, he wanders through Bombay’s modern art history, and recalls particular pieces which can soon be seen hanging on the walls in our Canary Wharf café.

The surname Chattopadhyay doesn't exactly roll off tongues that have been marinated in the English language. No wonder that at some point during India's colonial experience it got modified to Chatterjee (a hair's breadth from everybody's favourite saucy heroine, Lady Chatterley. Coincidence?). This higgledy-piggledy co-mingling of Indian and British cultural history runs so deep that it can be hard to know - and frankly to care – who gets to lay claim to purity either in language or identity. Far better to embrace hybridity. Imagine this Chatterjee's happy surprise when, one day at my desk in the office of a Mumbai-based gallery, I received an email from someone claiming to be a senior 'Chatter-walli' (translation: one whose job it is to natter), and who, sitting in London, was signing off 'From Bombay with love'. The delicious ironies abounded. It was Dishoom writing about plans for a new restaurant at Canary Wharf blessed with a brilliant founding myth that presented an array of overlaps with long standing obsessions of my own. I jumped at the chance of getting involved.

My wife and I founded Chatterjee & Lal, a gallery for contemporary art and historical material, in 2003. Tara (the Lal) was brought up Delhi, I was born in London,  but Mumbai became home for us both because it is a city with an inexhaustible capacity to surprise and delight. As a port city, comprised mainly of immigrants, it  wears its cosmopolitanism as a badge of honour. Soon after arriving in Mumbai, we had immersed ourselves in the city's historical attachment to art.  We realised that art had exploded into peoples’ everyday lives in the mid-to-late 20th century; paintings found their way onto the walls of  galleries, homes, restaurants, churches, temples, offices, even scientific establishments. We wanted to engage with the story of how Mumbai (then Bombay) got all tangled up with art.

Both for the Dishoom Canary Wharf project and for a journey through Bombay's modern art history, there is no better place to start than at doorstep of the intimidating sounding Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which, from the mid-50s onwards, and quite apart from the being the nation's leading centre for the study of theoretical physics, set about putting together a museum quality art collection. Under the dynamic leadership of the institute's first director, Homi Bhabha, TIFR acquired supreme examples by many luminaries of the Indian art scene. We are excited to have prints of examples from the collection decorate Dishoom. The institute's campus hugs the rugged shoreline at the extreme south of the island city, and nestled amid immaculately manicured lawns and shrubbery a cluster of high modernist buildings have provided a home to the art for six decades. Academics lost in abstruse calculations wonder the corridors past priceless paintings by artists such as V.S Gaitonde, Jehangir Sabavala and the most well-known Indian artist of them all, M.F. Husain. Husain liked the TIFR so much that, upon winning an important competition to produce a mural for institute in 1962 (for which Picasso was also briefly in the running), he conspired to be assigned his own office and proceeded to hunker down in this gorgeous place for a couple of years. Dear Husain, a prolific artist, probably could dashed off the mural in a month or so if he had put his mind to it. 

By the time the 1970s rolled around, Bombay galleries had mushroomed around the Colaba and Fort area of the city (not far from the TIFR). Significant galleries of the period included Pundoles, Cymroza and Chemould, all founded by Parsis - a small community whose outsized contribution to the arts of Bombay it is impossible to overstate. Chemould, under the stewardship of husband and wife couple Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, found an early home for the gallery in a large arts complex, the Jehangir Art Gallery. The legendary cafe inside the Jehangir was Café Samovar, which, from 1964 until its sad demise in 2015, functioned as a key node in the arts ecosystem. Congregating from late morning, the art cognoscenti would spend entire days consumed in trading gossip and masala chai over brimming plates of lip smacking samosa and aloo paratha. The artist Sudhir Patwardhan has been documenting the collision of people, art, food and the city for more than fifty years. At Dishoom, the artist has kindly consented to display a print of his extraordinary cityscape 'Lower Parel', an electric work that fizzes with the raw energy of the erstwhile Mill area of Mumbai.

In the 1970s, the art gallery of the iconic and super luxurious Taj Mahal Palace hotel presented an altogether different atmosphere to that of the Jehangir Art Gallery. Apart from the gallery itself, the property was, and still is, home to one of the finest hotel art collections in the world. Impromptu pit stops for delicious Bhel Puri (eaten with silverware; diners seated upon plush banquettes and beneath sparkly chandeliers) also included the chance to gawk at world class paintings casually displayed on the walls all around. The collection is particularly strong in its holdings of artists associated with the Neo-Tantric art movement, which gained global attention in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The paintings associated with the movement are mostly abstract compositions presenting geometric shapes filled with luminous colour - imagine lava lamps in 2-D. The art at Dishoom would not be complete without an example, and we are fortunate to have gained permission from the Estate of artist Bire De, one of the foremost exponents of Neo-Tantricism, to display a print of a work in the collection of the British Museum.

Invitees to artworld dinner parties in present-day Mumbai inevitably coalesce around tables groaning with food rarely bereft of platters of steaming biryani and an array of sweet dishes (mithai). Priorities have changed little since those halcyon days at Café Samovar. As supper ends and glasses are re-filled, conversation often finds its way to everyone’s favourite artworks. In 2020, I stole the idea wholesale and invited fifty-four artists, curators and academics to give me their top five artworks made by artists living in India or by those who identify as part of its diaspora. The outcome is a just-released two volume book entitled Moving Focus, India: new perspectives on modern and contemporary art. Just like noisy late night Mumbai living rooms, the book is loud and argumentative and in its commitment to making space for as wide a range of voices as possible, it pays homage to the generous and open-spirited nature of this most remarkable of cities.

Pictured:– Kindly gifted by the Gandhy Family, who founded Gallery Chemould in Bombay. Pictured are Nergish Thanawala (the matron who ran Chemould Frames for years) guests Mr and Mrs Corty, with Khorshef Gandhy, taken in the mid '60s.

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