What it takes to keep a gallery going

Aug 13, 2017, 08:25 IST | Benita Fernando

Part hustle, part foresight — what gallery Chatterjee & Lal has to tell us about making it through a decade

The warehouse that became Chatterjee & Lal in 2007.
The warehouse that became Chatterjee & Lal in 2007.

On Thursday afternoon, Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal settle down for a quick breather. They have just finished setting up their new exhibition, The 10 Year Hustle, and are awaiting the last work, one by Nityan Unnikrishnan, to go up on the wall. Mort, as he is familiarly known about town, points to the centre of Unnikrishnan's work, and remarks, "Here are Tara and I." Around them, Unnikrishnan has made a multitude of faces, some starkly recognisable as artists and friends associated with Tara and Mort's gallery, Chatterjee & Lal, which turned 10 last week.

"This exhibition is super special," says Tara, seated in front of a wall on which hang works by Zarina Hashmi and Minam Apang. "The choice of artists and even the way we went about setting it up — everything is special about this," she continues.

What does it take for a gallery to pull off a decade in Mumbai's fluctuating, not-so-happy art market? Mort and Tara give us the answers:

Starting out
The year 2004 was when Mort, then 31, and Tara, 35, got married, and also had their first show at Ruia House on Napeansea Road. The exhibition, titled Icon, was a showcase of the Amrita Sher-Gil's final sketchbook. "We were helped by a member of the Sher-Gil family. The sketchbook helped us enter the commercial gallery world with a bang," says Mort.

Hetain Patel's exhibition, The Other Suit, was held here in 2015. Pics/Chatterjee & Lal
Hetain Patel's exhibition, The Other Suit, was held here in 2015. Pics/Chatterjee & Lal

Finding their artists
"When we opened, there was a dearth of commercial galleries in the city. We could literally pick and choose whom we wanted to show," he continues. Mort and Tara had started out with the view of showing artists from their generation.

Was this a strategised move, or the 'hustle' that they refer to in the title of their exhibition? Tara opts for the word "organic", and remembers the afternoon, 12 years ago, when performance artist Nikhil Chopra walked in. "He had heard that a gallery in the city was showing Rashid Rana, a Pakistani artist, and wanted to see the show. Our association grew from there on."

Strategically, the only artist that the gallery has sought out is Hetain Patel. "We saw him in a group show at Bodhi Gallery, New York. Soon after, we went to his home in Nottingham, knocked on his door, and said that his uncle and aunty from India were here to stay," laughs Mort.

Bringing in the boom
Before they shifted base to their present location in 2007, they worked for one year out of a gallery that Farooq Issa, the owner of Philips Antiques, had opened in his Colaba premises. Chatterjee & Lal is housed in what used to be a warehouse. When they first saw the space, it was in shambles; to envision a gallery for contemporary art from that was admittedly daunting. "Signing up for this was a big commitment," recalls Tara.

Mort goes so far as to blame their decision on "the folly of youth" and the art boom in the mid-2000s, what he calls 'The Bodhi Years', referencing the gallery that opened a 5,000 sq ft urban, loft-like space in 2006 in Kala Ghoda. "It was like a mothership had landed in Mumbai. Their Indigo [restaurant] after-parties were wild! At their Joss parties, there was proper alcohol and artists would be rolling on the streets. The scene has become super tame, now," says Mort.

Gallerists Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal. Pic/Tanvi Phondekar
Gallerists Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal. Pic/Tanvi Phondekar

In it for the hustle
In the course of the last 10 years, Chatterjee & Lal has shown contemporary artists, some of whom might be described as edgy or esoteric. We wonder if there have been those who have advised the gallerists against their choices. Mort laughs. "My dad! He told us to show something that can actually sell!"

Once the jokes die down, Tara says that while nobody has ever questioned their roster, their shows have sometimes earned the distinction of being "brave". Earlier this year, they had shown a suite of steampunk-ish kinetic sculptures by Kausik Mukhopadhyay. "We know that Kausik will be collected one day by institutions; we wouldn't be showing him unless we thought we could do something for him and his market. But we understand that this is a long term vision," says Mort.

Taking risks
Among the biggest risks that the couple has undertaken, Mort brings up censorship issues, while Tara believes that just having a gallery space in Mumbai is a risk. When they started, the gallery was more or less their bread and butter, unlike the ones established much earlier and therefore controlled by more relaxed rental agreements. "There was a sense of urgency for us and we just opened ourselves up to the city," says Mort.

In the last couple of years, the city has seen the closure of two prominent galleries — Gallery Maskara and Lakeeren. Mort and Tara say that, while the need for a white cube space may be diminishing, specially with performance art coming to the fore, there is something very potent about having a gallery space. "It would be a shame if we took the view that we could just be private dealers or art consultants. We would miss putting our sensibility out there in the city," Mort says.

Also see: Then and Now: Smriti Irani's journey from a model to Union Minister
Then and Now: Smriti Irani's journey from a model to Union Minister

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