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Mumbai, India: Unravelling its vibrant art scene

By Nanda Haensel 5 September 2020

India offers infinite possibilities for travel itineraries. From north to south lies a country so vibrant, vast, and diverse—each corner of the subcontinent offers something for everyone. Indian cities are some of the most colourful and fascinating destinations on earth—true to the country’s tagline “Incredible India.” In particular, Mumbai’s dynamic cultural scene has put modern Indian art on the global map in recent years. Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra’s state, is where Indian art found the perfect environment to flourish.

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Mumbai is India’s wealthiest and most populous city. Bombay—as locals like to call it—is the country’s financial powerhouse and entertainment capital. Home to thriving creative industries such as Bollywood, animation, publishing, fashion, and art galleries, its vibrancy flows from a dynamic, cosmopolitan, and urbane culture that nourishes the creative ecosystem, encouraging talents across different industries to develop and bloom. The combination of a fast-growing economy and its incredibly rich history of art created a city that inspires enterprises as much as it does the creative community.

“India is a country with intangible cultural heritage. Our modern art is a reflection of that,” says Ranjana Steinruecke, who runs Mirchandani + Steinruecke—one of the most prominent galleries in Mumbai. “We see art buyers from abroad with a deep interest in Indian art, but there is still a huge potential for our local art to evolve on the international scene,” she explains as we walk through her latest exhibition focused on artists from Kerala, South India.

Mirchandani + Steinruecke was founded in 2006 by Ranjana and her mother Usha Mirchandani, a respected art consultant. It is one of the few galleries in Mumbai that curates and brings in noteworthy international names. ”When I moved back to Mumbai from Berlin in 2006, no foreign artists were exhibiting in India,” she points out. ”We helped to bring leading contemporary figures from Germany and the US to our country. If we want to grow, it’s fundamental to import and export the knowledge and experience of both local and international talents.”

Unlike in New Delhi, where one has to commute over long distances from one neighbourhood or mall to another, the art experience in Mumbai is very easily accessible. All main galleries are in the south of the city in Colaba—Mumbai’s unofficial arts district, similar to the London’s East End or the Chelsea art district in Manhattan. Making your way through Mumbai’s cultural offerings can be a disorienting study in interesting contrasts.

I walk from one gallery to another, in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel—the city’s iconic landmark where I am staying to experience Mumbai’s exuberance reflected in its many building styles: from Art Deco and modern skyscrapers to Victorian-era structures.

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I cross crowded streets, where the air is dense with the dust from the cars and the smell of flowers. A few blocks to the south from Mirchandani + Steinruecke is the visionary Project 88, considered one of the forerunners of established and emerging Indian artists. Its owner, Sree Goswami, embraces art across all mediums; performances and installations take place alongside conventional painting and photography shows in the 370-square-metre converted printing factory.

My exploration continues at Chemould, the city’s oldest and most prestigious gallery. Founded in 1963 by Kekoo Gandhy with his wife Khorshed, it’s currently managed by their daughter Shireen and occupies a huge third-floor space in a Prescott Road mansion. ”We've been here for half a century,” says Shaleen Wadhwana, head of sales at Chemould. ”Our legacy is being the oldest space where our local artists can congregate and be themselves.”

India is an old civilisation with many untold tales and treasures. The 1990s brought about significant changes. ”Chemould has become an institution in Mumbai,” she clarifies, ”As we started in the 1960s, we have seen many different waves of artists. Chemould has definitely contributed to shaping the history of Indian modern art.”

The economic boom and significant political changes have helped contemporary artists benefit from building their career as India’s ascent on the world stage and the proliferation of art biennales, fairs, and galleries—many of them in Mumbai—have brought some Indian artists international recognition. ”In 2008, during the market crash, young artists in Mumbai didn't have a space to show their work,” says Hena Kapadia, the founder of Tarq.

Explaining how her gallery was born, she highlights, “My primary goal is to help young artists. When I first opened Tarq, many galleries in Bombay were avoiding to show new talents due to the huge drop in art prices. It was a difficult time, but I wanted to take the risk.“

Tarq is the youngest gallery in Mumbai and yet one of the most promising. Its work is dedicated to nurturing a conversation around art from a diverse range of contexts: from the wilderness and sustainability to urban development. Tarq is housed in the elegant Dhanraj Mahal, a ravishing Art Deco palace—and a breath of fresh air in a city that assaults the senses with its poetic chaos.

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As I navigate across Colaba, I come across Chatterjee & Lal—another young gallery, an exciting addition to the scene. It sets itself apart by focusing on art that pushes boundaries.

“We target performances,“ says Mortimer Chatterjee, who founded the gallery in 2003 with his wife, Tara Lal. “We bring historical materials into conversation with Contemporary Art,“ he discloses. “Our vision is to show artists that use their bodies to express art.“

Chatterjee enthusiastically walks me through his collection of Indian modern art. “It's extremely global these days,“ he says, highlighting the importance of young gallerists in the evolution of the local modern art scene.

His advice for the best way to explore Bombay's contemporary art? “Art Night Thursday,“ he recommends, “It involves galleries and museums extending their opening hours on the first Thursday of every month. All galleries in Colaba keep their doors open until 9.30 pm. It’s a great opportunity to do guided walks, meet gallerists, artists, and enjoy Mumbai’s energetic art scene.“

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Nanda Haensel

Travel Writer

Nanda Haensel, the author of We Love it Wild, writes about remote destinations and adventure travels. She loves to go to those little corners of the world that are far from the touristic drag and sidestep away from the obvious, where remoteness exposes the original way of life. Nanda focuses her work on conservation, culture, and wildlife. To immortalise her travels, she also has a passion for photography.

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