IN CONVERSATION WITH MORTIMER CHATTERJEE OF CHATTERJEE & LAL
A few steps from The Gateway of India, tucked behind the commotion of Colaba Causeway, and dotted with a number of Arabic perfumes shops is Arthur Bunder Road, home to one of the most experimental galleries in the city – Chatterjee & Lal. Started by the husband-wife duo Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal, the eponymous gallery floated around the city between 2003 to 2007 before finding its permanent home on the first floor of Kamal Mansion, a space with warehouse dimensions and a seedy past that includes a brothel and a pool bar. We speak to Mortimer Chatteriee to know more about the gallery’s history and their work so far.
Chatterjee & Lal, Apollo Bandar, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005.
WORDS BY PAYAL KHANDELWAL
The City Story: Could you tell us a bit about the history of the gallery?
Mortimer Chatterjee: We both worked for the same auction house in India from 2001 to 2003. We then decided to concentrate more on contemporary art from South Asia. Around that time, very few platforms were open to showing experimental work like performance art, video, new media work. And that was very much the focus of our initial years. We were lucky, because there was this generation of artists who were our age, late 20s to early 30s, who did not have gallery representations. In a sense, we developed and grew with that generation of artists.
It was a moment in the trajectory of the city which was very receptive to new ideas and challenging and provocative work. We were the first gallery to show art coming out of Pakistan, for example. Also, the fact that the art market was beginning to expand for contemporary art allowed us to take risks.
Between 2003 and 2007, we were in a number of spaces. In 2007, we moved to the current gallery space in Colaba and have been here ever since.
TCS: How did you choose this place? What’s its history?
MC: This place used to be a brothel, and then it was a pool bar for some time.
This location is close enough to the existing art district in Kala Ghoda, and yet it’s slightly on the cheaper side. Especially in 2007, it was a very affordable proposition as the area had not yet gentrified.
Because of its warehouse dimensions, it was very amenable to showing art, especially the kinds of art we wanted to show. Also, a number of our friends and colleagues started showing in the same lane. Within two years, there were nearly 6 or 7 galleries at the same strip. Sadly, that’s not the case anymore.
So yes, the attraction to this space was because it was centrally located, cheap enough, and with the dimensions we needed.
TCS: Is there any particular exhibition in which you have especially experimented with the space?
MC: In 2010, artist Kabir Mohanty had mounted this interactive work where visitors were invited to walk into a kind of sandpit which had these microphones and sensors which would set off different sequences of sound depending on where you walked. It was extremely sophisticated. We had placed microphones outside the gallery which were feeding noises from the street into the artworks. So you could never be sure if you were listening to live sounds from the street, recorded sounds, or the sounds of your feet, as it were. That, I feel, was a very interesting use of the physical space.
TCS: What have been the most breakthrough shows so far?
MC: I would point to our two shows with Rashid Rana, in 2004-05 and 2007-08. Then we have done a two-part retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi back in 2004-05. We have also done major shows with some Japanese artists (2008) in collaboration with the Japan Foundation. We did a series of exhibitions called ‘Simple Tales’, where we juxtaposed classical art with contemporary. This, in my view, was the first time that a contemporary art gallery in Mumbai created an exhibition that speaks to a longer historical timeline.
TCS: There has increasingly been a shift in your gallery towards showcasing historical material.
MC: Yes, absolutely. We are now pitching C&L as a space for contemporary art and historical material. There is still so much research and historical scholarship that needs to be done in visual arts. Contemporary art galleries can have a very progressive role in spearheading that trend. Especially because contemporary artists do look to their forbears to kind of think about influences and their own practices, so why shouldn’t galleries look to earlier periods in order to inform the works of the contemporary artists they show at their galleries?
TCS: You have also done quite a few gallery swaps. What’s your view on that?
MC: We have done gallery swaps with a few galleries in New Zealand and New York. We started doing this back in 2008, when there wasn’t much of a model for doing this, and art fairs were considered a better way for galleries to travel to another city. However, in the last 10 years, the gallery exchange trend has really taken off. There is an art fair in New York called Condo in which NYC’s galleries give space to international galleries for a period of time. It allows the travelling galleries to really embed themselves in a city without the cost associated with an art fair, and they can use the existing infrastructure of their host galleries, leverage their networks, mailing lists, press contacts, etc. So it is a low cost and very effective way to reach out to a whole new demographic.
TCS: What’s the most fun part and the most tedious part about running a gallery?
MC: Interaction with the artists is what we enjoy the most.
Accounts is the answer to the second part. Also, the political situation. The freedom or the perceived freedom to show what we want has become somewhat constrained in the last 5 to 6 years. Whether that’s an imagined fear or real fear, I don’t know. But it is certainly something that has seeped into the consciousness of the community.
TO MAKE A DAY OF A VISIT TO THE GALLERY, MORTIMER RECOMMENDS: