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March 03, 2020

Meeting The Gandhys Through ‘Kekee Manzil – The House of Art’

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

Celebrating the birth centenary year of Kekoo Gandhy, the film by Behroze Gandhy looks at his incredible journey. Along with Shireen Gandhy, her sister who spearheads Chemould Prescott Art Gallery, she talks to Verve about their incredible legacy

A few days ago, I sat engrossed watching Behroze Gandhy’s production Kekee Manzil – The House of Art which she co-directed with Dilesh Korya. The 90-minute film, with music by Talvin Singh, is obviously a labour of love, one that Behroze embarked on almost 20 years ago. And it is a wonderful window into the lives of Kekoo and Khorshed who had been witness to key moments of the Indian contemporary art movement from the ’40s.

Kekoo had established the first contemporary art gallery in Mumbai – Gallery Chemould – in 1963. As Behroze says, “The story was a curious one – how my father, a casualty of the second world war – who did not complete his studies at Cambridge – landed up being one of the catalysts of an art movement, which was totally at odds with the family’s Parsi business background. It all started with a shop selling picture frames – Chemould Frames, which was launched in 1947 – and a series of curious coincidences which led him to the point of opening Gallery Chemould.” Today, Shireen helms its modern avatar Chemould Prescott Art Gallery, steering it with her contemporary vision.

Old family archives from 8 mm film trace how their tryst with art developed and shaped not just their own future, but the future of art in the country. These include clippings of encounters with Italian prisoners of war, Jewish immigrants who escaped Nazi Germany and Belgian businessmen who wanted to invest in picture frame moulding. And the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) also stars in this biographical film. Adding another layer of intimacy, are the many interviews – with family members and artists (like Anish Kapoor, Atul Dodiya, Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta and more) who speak of the couple through their personal association with them.

One morning, a few days after seeing Kekee Manzil – The House of Art, I find myself at Chemould Prescott Art Gallery to interact with two creative minds, Behroze and Shireen. In a space dotted with canvases and installations, the sisters unwind at length about the man and the woman who shaped their lives – and who also left their unique imprint on the world of art….

Excerpts from our conversation:

How did the Kekee Manzil – The House of Art take shape?
Shireen (SG):
For my sister Behroze, filming my parents has been a 20-year project; a handy-cam in her right hand, she was constantly capturing moments with her parents at their residence, Kekee Manzil, where my father lived for 93 years and my mother, for 70 years. The house has been the anchor for this film.

Behroze (BG): I knew I had to record the lives of my parents, because they lived at a very important moment in history. They were witness to the birth and shaping of the new nation. In 1990 in England, I was making a series for Channel Four called On The Other Hand with Shekhar Kapur, where we touched upon all kinds of topics related to British-Asian communities. The build-up to Ayodhya was in progress, and one of our first programs was on secularism in India. I remember how I could just pick up the phone to my father and get anybody I wanted for the series.

How did the collaboration with your co-director Dilesh Korya happen?

BG: I spent a lot of time with my parents, especially in the last years of their lives when they fell ill. And after they had both passed away, I felt I had to do something. I knew I had the material to make a documentary which could reflect the story of Indian art from a very personal point of view. This is when I decided to bring Dilesh Korya on board. I had worked with him on a film on the Kumbh Mela for Channel Four. At first he thought it was just a family film, a hagiography about my father and hence was reluctant. But, then I showed him a catalogue made by Christie’s about his art and his mind was blown. Dilesh is a Gujarati, so he realised that what we would be showing was also his history. So in 2016 we decided to do the film together – and soon, though I did feel overwhelmed at first, we became more serious and the film began to take form. After a year, he showed me a rough cut. And I felt that we had a story to tell.

With so many moments and scenes that you shot, how did you curate what finally went into Kekee Manzil – House of Art?

BG: Through a process of discussion, cutting and re-cutting. For instance at one point we began narrating the tribal story of the Warlis but soon realised that it was a separate tale in itself. So, out it went. We saw that the Kekoo-Husain (MF Husain) story was the main arc of our project – they were  contemporaries and their relationship ran parallel to the story of India. Later, when I showed one of the cuts of the film to Shireen, she was a bit wary of the Husain bits – especially where he had supported Indira Gandhi. Shireen felt that Husain had anyway got into trouble, and what we showed should not make things worse for him. But Dilesh said that it was important to talk about every nuance, as life is never simple or uncomplicated. And I’m glad he stuck to his guns, because in the end, this arc is extremely moving.

The film captures social and political developments as well, and also highlights some highly personal details. Was it difficult to show those?

BG: Well, that’s an interesting question. One of the times Dilesh and I were working together and Kekoo was in my flat in London. I have a very inquisitive and funny neighbour, who’s been a family friend. I was chatting with them and I remarked, “Yes, he was bi-polar.” I just assumed that in all the stories that I had shared, I had mentioned my father’s depression.

What were the earliest memories of being born in the Gandhy household?

BG: When I was around two or three, I remember standing on the pavement opposite our home, and thinking how lucky I was. It was a great privilege to be living in that special house, especially in those days in Bandra when there was nothing around. And I loved the fact that we had such a big family in those days. I always thought I never wanted to grow up; I loved being a child.

SG: My earliest memory was of constantly being in the gallery, more than at home. I was the fourth child, so during my childhood my parents weren’t at home much. By then, their life was the gallery. So my memories of home are actually of me being lonely. I do remember the time I spent with Behroze as being quite traumatic because she always said I was her absolutely irritating younger sister. I had no playmates because we lived in a bungalow. The watchman’s children were my friends. As a result, I ended up following my parents to the gallery. I have a clear memory of that space and the people who came and went.

SG:, A very strong early memory of art at home is of  my interactions with SH Raza, who moved upstairs when I was about 10 years old, with his wife Janine (Mongillat). It was my first close encounter with an artist. We all have our own equation with him. He knew us inside out. When I started going to college and was began studying art a more closely, I would compare every painting that I saw with Raza. So he was my benchmark of great art and nothing matched up to that – you know, my heart still kind of stops when I see a good Raza painting.

What were some lessons that you both learned around the dining table at home?

BG: We were always encouraged to express ourselves about politics or anything under the sun. We had arguments but we could always speak up.

SG: We always had guests at home. Kekee Manzil was very welcoming to anyone. People were constantly coming and going, not so much when Behroze was there, but when I was growing up.. My parents would even bring people home from the gallery. For instance, one cyclist who came to meet them at work came home and stayed with us for months. It was quite random, unique but quite welcoming. I think I have that kind of quality too – I know I annoy my family because I do end up randomly inviting people home.

Which of your parents did you turn to the most?

BG: For me, my mother was really the pillar. Between the two of them, I was much more reliant on her.

SG: We’d go to our dad when we were in in trouble or needed something because that is when he really rose to action. When my husband and I got into a bad scuffle on a road in Bandra and ended up at the police station, we called my father for help. He was the most useful person to have around because of his network. Whether it was a sweeper at the municipality, the municipal commissioner, or a police commissioner, he just knew everybody. It was natural for him to reach out and meet people. That’s something that I feel I have to do, but I don’t. My mother also knew people but she didn’t cultivate her relationships as much as he did.

How would you define their legacy?
SG: I was just thinking, ‘Kekee Manzil, the house of art’ can be easily changed to ‘Kekee Manzil, the house of love’. It is because of the openness of that home and what it provided to everyone. If I have to say the one thing they have passed down, it’s the legacy of honouring each other. Each of us carries that trait. It may be mistaken for weakness sometimes, but in the long run, it’s a huge, huge strength.

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