Circa 1947: How Chetana painted Mumbai's art scape

Aug 15, 2012, 08:21 IST | Soma Das

Mumbai remembers 1947 for several new beginnings � India earned its freedom, the city got its first Indian Police Commissioner, and the Chetana Art Gallery opened at Kala Ghoda. It was the first regular art gallery in Bombay. Over the years, this cultural adda attracted artists, writers and intellectuals. Though these days, it's better known for its Thalis, its historic legacy remains

Septuagenarian Chhaya Arya’s earliest memories of Chetana (means awakening) are of artist MF Hussain, cartoonist RK Laxman, author Mulk Raj Anand and poet Nissim Ezekiel engaged in a fervent discussion over innumerable cups of chai and snacks. Founded by her father Sudhakar Dikshit, who was a former editor for a daily newspaper in Patna, Chetana opened its doors in 1946 when it began as a cultural café. The Chetana Art Gallery was launched a year later.

The pyramid-shaped ceiling is decorated with artworks

Artful beginnings
Under its earlier owners, Chetana was known as the Peacock Restaurant, and was a culture centre. However, it had to shut shop, as it was a financial liability. That’s when writer Raja Rao and Dikshit took over the establishment and the rest is history.

Chhaya Arya with her father Sudhakar Dikshit at Chetana in 1983. Pic Courtesy/ Awakening

The newly-opened Chetana was spread over 2,500 sq ft of floor area; it boasted of a 17-feet-high ceiling, elaborate pillars, chandeliers, ceiling fans hanging from the ceiling and large windows looking out at Rampart Row. While one part had a bookstore, another corner was reserved as a chess corner and hosted tournaments. The walls were adorned with art converting it into a makeshift gallery for upcoming artists. The restaurant’s menu was limited to affordable vegetarian snacks, coffee, tea and a basic Thali (priced at Rs 4) and the eatery became an open forum for cultural meetings, musical soirees, poetry readings, discussions, play rehearsals and even Bharatanatyam classes.

Arya outside the present-day Chetana. pics/ Bipin Kokate 

Over the years, the structure of Chetana underwent a makeover with a clear demarcation between the eatery and the other sections. Competition from the neighbouring Jehangir Art Gallery and Chemould eroded their profit margins forcing them to convert Chetana Art Gallery into the Chetana Craft Centre in 1989 where traditional crafts and textiles are showcased. Today, Chetana is better known for its Rajasthani, Gujarati and Maharashtrian Thalis, its eclectic bookstore and the craft centre.

Historic canvas
Yet, for Arya, Chetana was all about creating a cultural awakening in the city. “It was one of the first art galleries in Bombay. It saw the rise of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group featuring artists such as MF Hussain, Francis Newton Souza and SH Raza,” she says.

Formed in 1947, the group of modern artists combined Indian themes with modern techniques. Artworks by KH Ara, SH Raza, MF Hussain, Akbar Padamsee and FN Souza were exhibited on the chattai-clad walls of the gallery.

Inauguration of Orissa handlooms by Asha Bhonsle; she  remains a loyal customer at Chetana Craft Centre. Pic Courtesy/ Awakening

“I was a student at the Sir JJ School of Art, and in those days, I would go to college by tram. Many artists (some of them my classmates and teachers) would have their artworks exhibited. We charged `400 for the space,” reminisces Arya.

In post-Independence Bombay, the gallery’s aim was to revive Indian culture and make Indians feel proud of their roots. “Chetana was the place where political reformer JP Narayan held meetings and cartoonist RK Laxman’s first-ever exhibition was held. Damu Jhaveri, freedom fighter and founder of Indian National Theatre (INT), used Chetana as a venue to sell tickets for his plays. Freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who was keenly interested in crafts, would exhibit temple sarees from the ceilings and handicrafts on the premises,” she adds.

It’s a family thing
Arya went on to marry photographer Jitendra Arya on the premises of Chetana and started travelling across the country, specifically to the rural areas: “I was always fascinated by Indian culture; I wanted to see how people lived, what were the arts and crafts indigenous to each region.”

When her father passed away in 1995, Arya took over as the Chairperson and Managing Director (CMD). “The restaurant business is a tricky thing; its not very easy to run,” admits Arya.

The remainder of its artistic past is seen within the present eatery whose entrance door is decorated with glass murals, the pyramid-shaped ceiling is adorned with abstract artworks and the walls are also dotted with artworks.

New dawn
“We are planning to revive the spirit of the Art Gallery by allowing upcoming artists to exhibit their artworks for a fortnight on the walls of the restaurant. Art for me is sadhana (practice), while I don’t paint as much as I used to earlier the aesthetic element has been transferred onto the craft section, which I personally supervise. Within the eatery as well there is a Madhubani painting in the corner and the disposable tablemats have artworks on them,” observes Arya.

In a way, things have come full circle. "In the past, people would come for the food as well as the conversation. Even then my father saw to it that every element at Chetana was related to culture and would make people think about it. For instance, the tablemats had Sanskrit shlokas on them about food. Our clientele may have changed but the spirit remains the same,” she concludes.

Did you know?
>> The Governor of Maharashtra Shri Maharaj Singh played chess at Chetana.

>> The Chetana magazine was a periodical published by Sudhakar Dikshit for 17 years.

>> The coffee table book Awakening was published in 2006 to commemorate 60 years of Chetana. In the book, journalist MV Kamath mentions how he agreed to sub articles for a prestigious journal in exchange of a free meal, an evening coffee and dosa at Chetana.

>> Artist MF Hussain terms the Progressive Artists Group as the “Chetana Group” in honour of the place where they used to assemble and exchange ideas. “Chetana was the first art gallery in Bombay. There was just Chetana and then Kekoo Gandhi’s frame shop on Princess Street. Dikshitji (Sudhakar Dikshit) played a major role in supporting art and culture in Bombay,” wrote MF Hussain in Awakening.

>> Artist Akbar Padamsee termed Chetana as “Mumbai’s first affordable art gallery”. His first exhibition of paintings was held at Chetana in 1949-1950.

>> Freedom fighter Kisan Mehta got married at Chetana and hosted an exhibition on the Indian freedom struggle at the culture hub. 

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