Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal on pushing the boundaries of contemporary art


Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal on pushing the boundaries of contemporary art

And running a gallery in the Instagram age

By Krutika Behrawala  April 24th, 2020

From the glass window of Chatterjee & Lal, a gallery that sits serenely in a corner of Colaba in south Mumbai, I spot an under-construction road lined with attar shops. “This lane still retains more character than other parts of Colaba,” observes co-founder Mortimer Chatterjee, as he goes on to paint a vivid, sepia-tinted scene for me. “In the 1850s, this would have all been the sea. The ships would have moored right outside to load and unload coal and cotton from these windows,” he adds.

 

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As I marvel at the gallery’s original, exposed brick masonry that testifies to the building’s past as a warehouse, artist Mark Prime’s aluminium sculptures in his on-going solo titled, Heavy To Light, Light To Heavy (till April 11) pull me back into the present. A table-top sculpture comprises a tangled mess of wires coiled around a concrete block. “It reflects the everyday life of Mumbai, which is chaotic but has a centred core,” notes Chatterjee as his wife and co-founder Tara Lal nods in agreement.

 

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This seamless sync of the past, the present and the future has been the couple’s endeavour since they launched the gallery in 2003. From hosting one of the early solos of Pakistani artist Rashid Rana in India to showcasing works of the then-emerging artists such as Minam Apang and Sahej Rahal, the couple has been instrumental in creating value for contemporary art.

Lal met Chatterjee in 2001, while working at the British auction house Bowrings Fine Art. While she was based in Delhi then, the days spent together—cataloguing consignments and organising sales—led them to bond over common interests. They quit their jobs, birthed Chatterjee & Lal and married a year later.

 

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With fewer galleries dotting Mumbai’s art map in early 2000s, the couple had a bigger canvas to play on. “We were like kids in the candy store. We could ring up any artist and ask them if they’d like to have a show,” chuckles London-born Chatterjee, who moved to Mumbai in 2001. Lal adds, “The sheer excitement of doing something new outweighed the apprehensions.”

As she recollects Nikhil Chopra’s performance-based show, Yog Raj Chitrakar—Memory Drawing II, the gallery’s vacant floor fills up with the image of the artist inhabiting this space back in 2007 for 72 hours at a stretch. “It’s a show that people still remember,” agrees Chatterjee. “You could walk in at any time and he could be awake, asleep or going to the bathroom. There were no barriers between the audience, the art and the performer.”

Chatterjee & Lal

And while purists may scoff at the idea of a pop culture icon appearing in an art gallery, the couple didn’t have qualms welcoming a Spider-Man sculpture as a part of UK-based visual artist Hetain Patel’s show, The Other Suit (2015). “Even if it’s political in nature, we prefer works that use humour to deliver the message,” explains Chatterjee, whose go-to source for humour is PG Wodehouse.

 

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While Instagram helps with the outreach, it’s made their job as gallerists more challenging too. “There’s an assumption that once you’ve scrolled through the exhibition online, you don’t need to make the effort to visit a gallery…” he rues. Lal interjects, “That’s a disadvantage because then, you can never know the impact of an artwork.” Their unfettered spirit and diverse choices reflect in the gallery’s curatorial calendar, which is increasingly seeing exhibitions related to historical material. Their recent exhibitions have shone the spotlight on lesser-known artists such as Riten Mozumdar and Rustom Siodia. “The Indian art scene has been so focused on five-six names that it has missed out on a rich history. We enjoy teasing out these forgotten stories and hope to keep doing so,” says Chatterjee.

On Chatterjee: Cotton jersey t-shirt, technical silk jacket, cotton faille pants, canvas and clear mesh sneakers; all prices on request, Dior
On Lal: Silk dress,  INR 3,50,000, gold-plated brass ring, INR 25,300, palladium-plated brass ring, INR 26,300; all Louis Vuitton. Shoes, Lal’s own.

Photograph: Sahil Behal, Styling: Samar Rajput; Hair and Make-up: Saba Khan/ Eficiente Artist Management; Assisted by: Srishti Kumar (Intern)