Winning Strokes | Verve Magazine
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Verve People
August 02, 2014

Winning Strokes

Text by Simone Louis. Photographs by Farzan Randelia

Even the best relationships often struggle under the pressures of a shared workplace…. So how did Chatterjee & Lal crack the code for both a spectacular business partnership and marriage of 10 years? Tara Lal and Mortimer Chatterjee let Verve in on their formula for success

  • Gallerists Tara Lal and Mortimer Chatterjee
  • Gallerists Tara Lal and Mortimer Chatterjee

Gallerists Tara Lal and Mortimer Chatterjee first met in 2001, when they were both working for a British auction house, Bowrings Fine Art – and it wasn’t too long before they interacted and identified a number of overlaps in their passions and interests. They both sensed – at that point of time – a need to create platforms for younger, emerging artists that would enable them to show more contemporary and experimental creations. And by 2003, the couple was not only engaged to be married, but had also launched their own business with a special focus to enable a newer generation of artists.

The couple also simultaneously showed a parallel interest in artists from previous generations, who often did not get the recognition they deserved during their own time. A case in point is Nasreen Mohammadi, now one of India’s most respected female artists. Chatterjee and Lal showed her first retrospective, or the first retrospective that had been held in more than a decade, in 2004. Ever since then, the parallel realms of classic and contemporary, together with folk and tribal art, are what have set the Chatterjee & Lal gallery apart from the rest of the Mumbai art scene. The duo has consistently uncovered great talent, being the first to host performance artist Nikhil Chopra, adding to an impressive roster of emerging talent like Minam Apang, Lahore-based Rashid Rana and Aditya Pande. The gallery is now one of India’s most treasured modern art galleries, featuring innumerable multimedia creations that include performance, video and sculptural installations.

When I step into the Victorian warehouse that is Chatterjee & Lal, I am immediately enveloped by a sense of relaxed warmth. Mortimer— or Mort, as he is fondly known — greets us first, his face lighting up even more when his wife walks in a few minutes later. The two of them share a synergetic camaraderie and their individual styles are contemporary and tremendously unique — qualities that translate into the kind of art featured in the gallery. The vibrant couple, known for their knack of recognising and discovering great talent, is most comfortable working behind the scenes.

Since they had met as colleagues, the two had it easier than most couples when transitioning into starting a business together, owning a gallery and being together 24/7. “We met as co-workers and only then became a couple, so we’ve never really known any other way of living,” Lal explains. They love working together for it brings the advantage of sharing both the successes and the disappointments, and of having someone who completely understands everything that the profession entails.

“You’re not facing anything alone or bearing a huge weight solely on your shoulders. Also it’s much more fun this way, right?” says Chatterjee expectantly, as he looks at his wife with a twinkle in his eyes. She laughs heartily, exclaiming, “Of course it is! If we’re still able to say this and mean it even after 10 long years – that, for me, proves how sweet the deal is.” The couple shares a strikingly similar taste in art, which has also helped them get along so well. Mort says, “If you put the two of us in a room with 10 different works of art, I guarantee you we will both gravitate towards the same one.”

Still, the husband-and-wife team had its share of struggles and adjustments to be done in the beginning. They would realise at times that they hadn’t taken a break in weeks or even months. When they did travel outside the country, it was work-related, and because they were always together, the urgency to go on holiday together or even take a day off together soon became non-existent. The couple now enjoys making time to travel to new interesting places, their favourite destinations being Indian ones. “More people should actually get out and discover what we have in our country, before travelling internationally in search of inspiration. There are amazing treasures to find in places like Patna and Bhopal,which are just breathtaking,” they explain together.

Working and living together raises the question about separating their work from their personal lives. When I quiz them on how they keep those separate, they riposte with another question: “With us, what is work?” Their work is art, and art has a funny way of cropping up in many different contexts… almost always in very positive ways. The twosome has also been collecting artworks for the past seven years, so the topic flows through many of their conversations, even when not at ‘work’. They have, however, found another passion in food. Cooking together has become a therapeutic ritual for them; a stress buster of sorts. “Cooking is our time to leave any sort of art-related conversation outside the kitchen and just create something delicious together,” says Chatterjee.

Lal and Chatterjee also have slightly different schedules during the mornings and go to different gyms. This exercise gives them alone time and personal space to do what they individually enjoy. So, clearly, the couple has completely settled in with each other. When I ask them if they are planning a family, their heads quickly whip around to look at each other. Tara chuckles, “It’s so funny that you asked this question right now, because we are just in the midst of discussing the same thing. The gallery has been our baby for so long – but we’d really like to extend our family. We definitely see kids in the future, it would be so amazing.”

When it comes to sharing the formula behind their success, they are quick to compliment each other. “Mort’s ability to speak to people and engage with them impresses me so much. People feel great when they talk to him, because he actually listens. I have never met anyone who can be as endearing as he is”, Lal says. Her husband, in turn, has a deep approbation for her ability to manage the various intricacies of the business and keep everything under control. “The entire organisation would simply spiral into self-destruct mode in about five minutes, without Tara’s guiding hand,” he explains.

For people who are in relationships and are considering going into business together, Lal advises first finding common ground and a shared passion before beginning anything at all — couples who haven’t met through work or in a work environment can find it quite tricky to strike a balance. Chatterjee laughs as he confidently gives us a more simplified solution for work-love success: “Find someone at your workplace whom you connect with, flirt outrageously and have an amazing office romance – that’s the real recipe!”

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