Bodhi Art led the Indian art world to unimaginable heights but the economic slowdown has cast a shadow on the gallery’s future, writes Girish Shahane.
Four down, two to go. Bodhi Art has closed its galleries in Delhi, Singapore, New York and Berlin. Its Kala Ghoda flagship appears on the verge of going under. The lease will not be renewed after it runs out in September, say people in the art world. That will leave only Bodhi Space in downmarket Wadibunder, which is likely to function as a warehouse for the considerable collection the gallery has amassed over its five-year existence.
Bodhi, the most prominent emblem of the art market’s dizzying climb, is the highest-profile victim of the market crash. When its owner Amit Judge, a serial entrepreneur who founded, among other businesses, the coffee chain Barista, turned his attention to dealing in art, he brought not just knowledge of how to run a large operation professionally, but funding of a level beyond the dreams of established galleries. “We were operating like a cottage industry,” recalled Shireen Gandhy, the proprietor of Chemould Prescott Road. “Amit upped the standards when he came in.”
It isn’t clear whether Judge poured personal wealth into his new preoccupation, raised funds from sleeping partners or borrowed from financial institutions. Judge and the gallery’s director, Sharmistha Ray, declined to be interviewed for this article. Bodhi Art opened in 2004 in Singapore, a canny move to circumvent arrangements artists had with dealers in Mumbai and Delhi. By the time its two-level Kala Ghoda space opened in early 2006, Judge had built connections with top names and decided to focus largely on blue-chip mid-career artists.
I first met him a few months before Bodhi Bombay was inaugurated. Having heard of his ruthless competitive streak, I was surprised to find a man with kindly eyes and an avuncular manner, who dressed casually, shunned the media spotlight, and possessed a talent for making people he spoke with feel important. This talent must have come in handy while interacting with artists. What also helped was massive money power, which he used not just to pamper those he courted, but to enable new directions in their careers. His first coup was arranging a residency for Atul Dodiya at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. The resulting show, The Wet Sleeves of My Paper Robe (Sabari In Her Youth: After Nandalal Bose), opened the Kala Ghoda space, previously occupied by the Bombay outlet of the restaurant chain TGIFriday’s. Bodhi’s ousting of the cash-rich multinational signalled the strength of the art market, as also Judge’s determination to be where the action was, or, better still, to be the action.
Despite the name of his gallery, he had no interest in the Middle Path. A planeload of artists was flown down from Delhi and Bangalore for the inauguration, the first of many over-the-top celebrations for which Bodhi became renowned. Instead of hiring Rampart Row, the room above Joss that had become the standard partying ground for the art set, Judge regularly took over Indigo, the hippest restaurant in town, and laid out some astonishing spreads. The bar offered high-end brands of every kind of alcohol, and the liquor kept flowing well past midnight. The buffet included grilled prawns the size of fists, steak medallions that shaded perfectly from brown exterior to juicy pink core, and a chocolate cake richer than any dessert on the restaurant’s daily menu.
All this was being paid for by the art, of course, and murmurs began about the extortionate prices Bodhi charged. Though those paintings, prints and sculptures are worth considerably less today, making for louder grumbling, Judge is not short of defenders. Sadiq Bashey, a businessman who acquired works by Anju Dodiya, Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat, Subodh Gupta and Shilpa Gupta, pointed out that every industry is vulnerable to business cycles. “I bought a sculpture by Subodh when his market was at a particular level,” Bashey said. “To those who say Bodhi jacked up prices, my question is, was anybody offering a Subodh cheaper at that time? If you checked the prices at auctions, they were higher than what Amit was charging. Besides, he didn’t put a gun to anybody’s head and force them to purchase art. I went into each deal with open eyes, and there was a queue behind me of people eager to buy if I didn’t.”
Serious collectors were being priced out of the market by a global frenzy rather than the machinations of one man. But gallerists had specific cause for complaint against Bodhi. Previously, inter-gallery competition had broadly honoured informal agreements between artists and dealers based on friendship and trust. Judge blew the system apart in his single-minded pursuit of top talent. “Relationships built over years were shaken up because of him,” Gandhy said, adding quickly, “but if artists were demanding more, they probably deserved it.” She had been seeking an alternative to Chemould’s tiny space above Jehangir Art Gallery. While her search had begun before Bodhi emerged as a serious player, it gained urgency as she witnessed artists on her roster being tempted with offers they couldn’t refuse.
Anju Dodiya’s Throne of Frost was a case in point. In 2005, Gandhy took a show to Baroda that included a tribute to the painter Bhupen Khakhar by Atul Dodiya. Atul and his wife Anju travelled there for the opening, as did Amit Judge, who had already collaborated with Atul Dodiya on the Wet Sleeves project. Until that point, all of Anju Dodiya’s solos in Mumbai, starting with her 1991 debut, had been with Chemould. As she walked with Atul Dodiya and Judge around Baroda’s Lukshmi Villas Palace, she remarked that in Europe such a space would have been put to use as a showcase for contemporary art. Seizing the moment, Judge suggested that Anju Dodiya’s paintings would fit well within the palace’s mix of local and European styles. She was intrigued, but doubtful. “I’m not very ambitious,” she said. “It was Amit who pushed me into a larger dream.” Within days a proposal was made to the palace trustees; the architect Rahul Mehrotra, who had devised Bodhi’s Kala Ghoda gallery, brought in as consultant; and a designer hired to take care of technical problems. The show would travel straight to Mumbai after its Baroda opening, dispensing with the Singapore alibi.
As Anju Dodiya immersed herself in a series of double panels, charcoal and watercolour on one side and embroidered fabric on the reverse, she felt the pressure to create something that would stand out within the opulent Durbar Hall. Judge was on hand to assist with every detail. He noticed, for example, that the massive room’s chandeliers were too dim to provide adequate illumination. Bulbs with higher wattage were put in, though it meant rewiring the entire hall because the antiquated fixtures couldn’t take any additional load.
The opening of Throne of Frost in March 2007 was conceived on the scale of a tycoon’s wedding: business class tickets to Baroda, rooms in luxury hotels, chauffeur-driven cars and a lavish banquet on the grounds of the palace, which was specially lit up for the occasion.
It was possibly the most expensive solo show in India’s history. It demonstrated how seemingly bottomless coffers could aid the production of memorable work, as had its predecessor in the Kala Ghoda space, Subodh Gupta’s Start.Stop. Gupta had, by 2007, become the first Indian artist to achieve name recognition across the globe. As part of Start.Stop he produced a museum-quality piece titled Faith Matters, a hypnotic assemblage of multi-tiered tiffins placed on a sushi belt moving endlessly up and down a metal table. Since nothing like it had been made in India, the work was fabricated in Singapore and shipped to Mumbai.
Bodhi had begun functioning in Manhattan’s Chelsea art district in the autumn of 2006 and, as prices across asset classes peaked a little over a year later, Judge decided to test the European market by opening a branch in Berlin. As artistic director, he appointed the British curator Shaheen Merali, formerly head of the department of exhibition, film and new media at Berlin’s House of World Cultures. In New York, he hired Arshiya Lokhandwala as associate curatorial director. She had run Lakeeren gallery in Mumbai in the 1990s, shifted to London to study curatorial practice, and then moved to Cornell for a doctorate. Merali and Lokhandwala were typically bold choices, both interested in politically engaged media art.
In India, meanwhile, Judge was expanding the profile of Bodhi to include older artists with whom he was familiar from his days as a collector. He gained commitments for solo exhibitions from Nalini Malani and Sudhir Patwardhan, both of whom had shown with Sakshi gallery for years. The arrangement with Patwardhan was a quid pro quo. The Thane-based artist, who had always been interested in a viewership beyond the SoBo crowd, dreamt of putting together a survey of Indian modern and contemporary art that would travel to towns across Maharashtra. As soon as he heard the idea, Amit Judge agreed to underwrite the entirely non-commercial project.
In October 2008, Vistarnari Kshitije (Expanding Horizons), two years in the making, began the journey from Mumbai to Amravati, Nagpur, Aurangabad, Solapur, Kolhapur, Pune and Nasik. By that time, the wheels had come off the world economy. Prices of stocks, commodities and real estate nosedived, as did art sales. Bodhi, the most overstretched Indian gallery, felt the pinch more than others. The whole big-spending enterprise had been predicated on the boom continuing for years to come. When that proved a false hope, everything crumbled.
A few people in the art world are now gloating over Bodhi’s failure, off the record. Our business is not like selling shirts or coffee, they say; it requires a passion that sees you through bad times. Artists, meanwhile, are completely convinced about Judge’s deep commitment to art, and hope that the gallery will survive and flourish. Patwardhan alluded to the Vistarnari Kshitije experience in an email, “Though the exhibition period coincided with the economic downturn, the show continued to receive unstinting support from Amit, who saw it through to its fruitful conclusion,” he wrote. “ I am truly grateful to him for helping me realise the project.”
Mercenary, visionary or a combination of both? I’m tempted to say the jury is still out on Judge, but the line’s too predictable to be clever. Bodhi reflected the excesses of the era gone by, but did so with panache, settling for nothing but the best, and offering Mumbai’s art lovers some of the best exhibitions mounted in the past decade.