Feature / Moving the Guild Gallery to Alibaug / Johny ML
In a strategic move to attract art lovers and art collectors to the gallery, the famous Guild Art Gallery moved from its Colaba, Mumbai premises to the quiet town of Alibaug. Gallerist, Shalini Sawhney’s surprising move has changed the concept of the ‘Art District’. She welcomes everyone to her fabulous new gallery space located within the lush green of trees and affluent beach houses. JohnyML takes a pelican escorted boat ride to visit this new venture.
As the boat that carries more than two hundred people moves away from the dock next to the illustrious Gateway of India you get a different view of Mumbai from the undulating waves, providing you with a temporary vantage point. The legendary Taj Hotel slowly recedes from details into full view, the mighty Gateway tilts slightly as the boat’s keel looks for grip on the watery road. On your left you see the concrete lace of Mumbai which has high rising buildings of the city for beads. If you do not remember the opening shot of many a film based in Mumbai, you are not a culturally inclined person or you are too distracted by your mobile phone or your own obsession with selfies with watery expanses for the background. Your boat passes huge ships, speed boats, private cruises and some Mumbai coast guards. Suddenly you think of 26/11, Ajmal Kasab, Victoria Terminus station, burning domes of Taj Hotel, piles of dead bodies and brave police men. It was through the same ocean that the merchants of death had come wielding their automatic weapons. That is past. Mumbai is a different city now minus its beef. Mumbai is on its slow decay. Rich and powerful of Mumbai who could afford to have farm houses in Alibaug, a full forty five minutes boat ride from the Gateway of India, have found their weekend havens in this tourist beach village not only to find their rhythm with nature but also to avoid the stench of this city, which has been slowly putrefying by its own socio-religious and cultural fundamentalism.
Shalini Sawhney, one of the gallerists in India who has reserved a cordial smile for even an art critic who visits her gallery or office (I remember another gallerist recently declaring openly that as gallerists they no longer needed art critics. May be she is absolutely right till she realises it was a major folly) seems to be the first one in the Indian art scene who has seen and recognised the decaying of big cities where cultural activities find fewer patrons. That must be the reason why she decided to open her famous Guild Gallery in Alibaug to the surprise of her fellow gallerists as well as her own gallery artists. She opened the new base of Guild Gallery for the public in mid-March with a lavish lunch thrown for the artists and well wishers who came for the opening. A show was ready for viewing and the works culled from her gallery collection was put together by curator, Ranjit Hoskote. Though Alibaug is her new space, Shalini does not completely believe that the bustling city of Mumbai has lost its art patrons and they are not ready to visit galleries. “Life has changed, traffic has increased, realignment of cultural perception has taken place in the cities,” says Shalini. “Hence, the patrons take their own time to visit art shows. They no longer feel the urgency to catch up with the latest in the art scene, which was a hallmark feature of the modern times. But now times have changed,” she adds.
That means, if patrons are not coming to the galleries, the works of art could be taken to their doorsteps for private viewing. Is that so? Shalini does not dispute it and she justifies her move to Alibaug as a way to get the real patrons to the works of art without forcing them or making even the invitation to an art show look like a burden. “Alibaug is not the place where people will just come on a week day to see some good art. It is a weekend place for the rich and powerful patrons. They come to relax here. Relaxing does not mean that they will spend the whole time in a pool or beach side or in garden or bars. They will go for walks, they will stroll around to catch up with the village life, they will go out shopping for fresh vegetables, and they find it quite rejuvenating. And if they happen to see an art gallery there, what could be their reaction? They will definitely walk in,” observes Shalini. And she found it so surprising that she found her patrons in Alibaug who equally expressed their surprise in seeing her gallery there. “A few of them walked into the gallery told me that they could not visit my gallery during the last sixteen years and now in Alibaug they could see the contemporary works of art in my gallery,” Shalini smiles.
Many may find it odd; if you are not exhibiting art for the public then why are you calling it a gallery? Why can’t you call it a private viewing room, they may ask. And Shalini has been facing these questions since the day she opened the gallery. She, however is happy to be the pioneer in taking art to the patrons, at least in Indian art market. This is a new concept and marketing this new space needs new strategies. As it is the one and only gallery there in Alibaug, after sometime the patrons themselves may find it a bit boring as Shalini cannot be showcasing all what is happening in the Indian contemporary art scene. But she is hopeful about her move. “Many will follow this path. While I do not look for another art district here in Alibaug or cluttering of its verdant scenario with a lot of art galleries, I am sure some of them would start their experimental spaces here and it would invite more attention to Alibaug as an art destination,” Shalini is optimistic. She does not find that such a move of other galleries will be seen as cutting into her own business. According to her, for healthy business growth one needs ethical competition and the presence of equally enthusiastic galleries around.
A forty five minutes boat ride from the Gateway of India will take you to Mandwa jetty harbour. Shalini does not send an Audi or BMW to take you to her gallery. Whether you are a very rich businessman or an art critic, she would send only an auto rickshaw driven by Mr.Mane. “Shalini Madam has brought a difference to this place. She informs me not only about her arrival by boat but also the arrival of her guests. My job is to pick them up and take them to the gallery. I am her personal auto driver here,” says Mane to us as he takes us to the gallery in his auto. The auto is not so old and creaky. The rear engine auto is spacious and in good condition, and in that rural atmosphere the ride really feels like a ride in a well maintained high end car driven by a uniformed chauffeur. Mr.Mane shows us his home, a good single storied house, shows us the fresh vegetable farms and many other natural attractions of the village. We do not see too many cars or buses. A few buses are operated by the same boat service companies and they run on stipulated times synchronizing with the schedule of the arrival and departure of boats from the other shore. Mane tells us that there is a land route to Alibaug from Mumbai but it takes three and half hours drive. Who would like to spend such a boring time at the wheels when a good forty five minutes could bring you here by boat? If you shell out Rs.150/- you get an upper deck Air conditioned room. But it is foolishness to travel in an air conditioned cabin when such a beautiful view and wind is outside there on the shaded upper deck for Rs.135/- I need to say here that during our to and fro journey we paid for the air conditioned cabin and travelled in the shaded open upper deck watching seagulls accompanying us and making acrobatic dives to catch snacks thrown at them by the passengers in the mid air.
If we had left with our own devices to find the Guild Gallery, we would have passed by the newly built gallery taking it for a private tropical house. A not so imposing building yet sprawling in nature, it stands in the middle of a newly carved out clearing. The banyan trees that flank the road give an additional shade to the total look of the space and the courtyard is yet to be laid. Shalini later on tells us that she would like to plant a lot of trees there in the courtyard. This is a double storied building using the traditional Kerala costal architectural style as its visual base. Self designed with the help of a structural engineer, Shalini is proud of her achievement. The walls are given a mud finish and a long running veranda functions both as a sitting space and if need be a display corridor. There are two office spaces; one for Shalini herself and the other for her staff. She has employed staff members from the village itself. A thousand square feet gallery space has two halls with a good lighting and ample floor and wall space. At the other end of the building there is a special hall where Shalini has plans to display traditional antique artefacts and curios, which would complement the contemporary art works. On the second floor, Shalini has developed a gallery cum store room where she could display and store her permanent collection. The building materials like roof tiles and doors and windows are sourced from old buildings and they look really solid and in tune with the general architectural feel.
Was Alibaug in her mind for a long time? Shalini says that everything started eleven months before. When she closed down her Colaba art district gallery near Radio Club, many people thought that recession had hit her badly. But it was not recession but the general lack of enthusiasm for contemporary art that drove Shalini to pull the shutters down there. She started operating from her 3rd Pasta Lane office in the same area and was facing too many questions about her next move from her friends, colleagues, artists, well wishers and even competitors. Shalini kept everyone guessing. Famous for her reticence to talk about her business moves and her interest in knowing more about what others are doing in terms of art, exhibition and business, Shalini kept her cards closer to her chest till March 2014. “In fact, everybody thought that I was keeping a secret. I did not have a secret as I was clueless about my new move. I wanted to open a gallery in New York, but my daughter Renuka was not ready to head it. She is more into art history and writing. So I thought it was good to pretend that I have a secret,” she smiles. Then suddenly she thought of her own property in Alibaug and the home that she has been building there. “If I have a home there and if I prefer to spend my weekends in the calm village of Alibaug, and if everybody who could afford it is doing the same, why shouldn’t I have a gallery there, I asked myself. Soon things fell in place. Now you have the Guild Gallery here.”
Isn’t she worried about the general public not coming here on a regular basis? “It is a question of time. If there are good art activities, people will definitely come. It will be a day out for them and at the same time they could see some good art. But for the time being, we have to take things realistically. The patrons are not coming to see art. This is the only way to take art to their door steps without losing the dignity of the artists as well as the art. And I am sure it is working.” Shalini has different plans for her gallery. Monsoon being quite severe in this part of the world, she prefers her gallery to be a residency during those months. She would like to tie up with international residency programs so that the visiting artists could live and work here. During the winter and summer months she is planning to do curated group shows and solo shows of her gallery artists. Also Shalini has plans to tie up the local entrepreneurs to start art weekends and theme programs to the benefit of all who are involved. Already, Shalini has developed friends in the local circles and she takes her guests to a home restaurant named ‘Bohemiyan Blues’. Exuding a total Latin American feel with its facade and hammocks, exotic interiors and seat, and obviously of an array of exotic items on the menu, this place is run by a middle aged couple. Sunanda, the lady of Bohemiyan has travelled the world to learn a variety of cooking specialities and her most favourite items are her Turkish and Lebanese breakfast. Shalini takes us there and we have a wonderful lunch, complete with fresh orange juice and a little bit of exotic chat.
A rare but bold move that Shalini Sawhney has made in taking art to the place where the patrons go for weekend unwinding is to be commended as many in future would follow the same path but adding their textures and complexions to the style of their journeys. Mr.Mane is ready with his auto. We say good bye to Shalini and wish her all the best for her forthcoming shows. Shalini tells Mr.Mane to book her return ticket in the last boat that leaves for Mumbai. Mane takes us to the jetty and we seat ourselves in the upper deck. Jonathan the seagull follows us, showing his tireless ability to catch snacks in the mid air. I tell him, “fly high my beloved bird, till you reach heaven. We are just riders who grow wings only when we write and dream.” Soon Gateway of India and Taj Hotel come together and hit us in our faces. Alibaug looks like a Latin American dream now.