BHULABHAI DESAI MEMORIAL INSTITUTE
Bombay, Maharashtra- 1946
To a certain vintage in Bombay, 89, Bhulabhai Desai Road – the plot at which the high-rise building, Akash Ganga, now stands – evokes a feeling of nostalgia. The address housed a beautiful one-storey bungalow with a luscious green lawn, which came to be known as the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute.
The institute was set up in 1946 by Madhuri Desai in the memory of her father-in-law: lawyer and freedom fighter Bhulabhai Desai, after whom the tony neighbourhood of Breach Candy is officially remonikered. It was managed by Desai’s aide, the temperamental Soli Batliwala, a friend of Bhulabhai’s son Dhirubhai.
It was a melting pot of different art forms, where artists of different disciplines mingled with each other. Thespians Ebrahim Alkazi and Satyadev Dubey worked on their stagecraft, danseuse Meenakshi Raja practised her classical dance, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar rehearsed in one room, Piloo Pochkhanawala created her sculptures in another, while V S Gaitonde, M F Husain, Nalini Malani and Nasrin Mohamedi created different works, nestled in their studios. Stage doyenne Vijaya Mehta, who considers herself a product of the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, defines this osmotic experience as “a connection between paint, rhythm and tone.” Collaborations with one another were inevitable. “Gaitonde, Kishori (Amonkar) and I were part of a big gang,” recalls Mehta, whose noted experimental theatre lab Rangayan was born here too.
Incidentally, the institute housed the city’s first art gallery. In 1959, Bal Chhabda, a passionate art lover and an artist in his own right, started Gallery 59. It was here that the Bombay Progressive Artists Group found a formal representation. The opening was momentous. The painters who would later exhibit their works included S H Raza, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, V S Gaitonde, M F Husain and Krishen Khanna. That evening, Raza had priced his watercolours for more than Rs 2,000 each. The show was a marker and the group sold all its work at respectful prices. “And it was Raza’s pricing factor that pushed all our prices up. We had a great party at Bal’s house in Malabar Hill that night,” smiles Khanna.
Years later, Tyeb Mehta’s wife, Sakina, ran a small bookshop on the veranda of the bungalow, which came down in 1969. The artists who were fortunate to get studios at the institute paid only a nominal rent of a rupee a day. As the legend goes, the studios had no locks on the doors. This allowed artists to flint in and out of each other’s spaces, exchanging ideas, sharing perspectives, collaborating, and thus, creating history.