Established in 1936, Delhi’s Dhoomimal Art Gallery was the first-of-its-kind platform through which many Indian modernists reached out to prospective buyers and made a name for themselves. Bhumika Popli writes about India’s oldest private art gallery.

 

Not many remember today that Delhi’s art scene began with a small stationery store back in the 1930s. The store, which opened in 1936 in Connaught Place, was called Dhoomimal Dharamdas Stationery and Military Printers, and it was owned by Ram Babu Jain, an art aficionado. Jain supported many local artists by providing them with colours, paper, brushes, at a minimal price, or sometimes pro bono.

Often his artist customers, in a gesture of gratitude, would repay the shop-owner with their paintings. In around two years after the store’s inauguration, Jain had amassed a sizeable collection of art. The owner needed a larger space for these. So he took a decision to establish India’s first private gallery, which he decided to name the Dhoomimal Art Gallery.

It has now been more than 80 years since the Dhoomimal gallery was first established. And its history is intertwined with the history of Indian modernism. In its catalogue, the gallery boasts of its decades-long association with artists like Francis Newton Souza, Jamini Roy, Sailoz Mookherjea, Abdur Rahman Chugtai, Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal, and Ram Kumar among others.

Artist Sohan Qadri being interviewed by Doordarshan during his first solo exhibition at
the Dhoomimal Art Gallery in 1970.

“It was a different atmosphere altogether,” says Uday Jain, the grandson of Ram Babu Jain, who heads Dhoomimal’s new branch in Connaught Place’s G-Block. “I have heard from my family that it was a given that during that time, every afternoon, around eight to ten people would join us for lunch, so preparations were done accordingly. Grandfather did all he could to support the artists. It was well-known that [A.R.] Chugtai worked on a specific paper which was not available in India, so my grandfather got that imported from abroad. A group called ‘Kalakar’ was also formed here, which brought like-minded people, interested in poetry and music, together. We started with the old A-Block gallery in Connaught Place, which is still up and running.”

When Dhoomimal was first set up, Delhi didn’t have a visual arts culture. There were no platforms that budding artists could utilise. So Dhoomimal’s presence alone made a significant difference, and motivated the local art community.

But it took the gallery owners a long time to establish their name. Brand Dhoomimal reached its peak popularity in the 1960s. Uma Jain, Uday’s mother, says, “Indira Gandhi did a lot to promote art. The diplomats visiting India were given gifts in the form of a painting bought by Dhoomimal. Many expats posted here were also quite interested in Indian art and they often used to visit the gallery. As compared to their country, art was cheap here as well.”

Uday thinks that the artist Jagdish Swaminathan played a crucial role in bringing in the best names in Indian modernism to the gallery. He says, “It was around that time that he joined the gallery. I often say Swaminathan and my father shared the best kind of artist-dealer relationship, so much so that during that time they brought the entire art world together. Swaminathan mentored and introduced a lot of artists such as Arpita Singh, Paramjeet Singh and so on. The art was noticed and the transactions were happening.”

Portrait of Ram Babu Jain, by Jamini Roy.

After a golden period of success that lasted till the 1980s, the good fortunes of Dhoomimal took a hit when the competitors came along. Uday says, “The competition rose. The art scene scattered. The leadership was reduced. My father passed away, followed by my uncle. So the kind of dominance Dhoomimal enjoyed prior to all this has still not been achieved. We are planning a revival.”

The gallery is now beset by a multitude of difficulties. One problem is that most artists these days prefer selling their artworks themselves through the Internet, or through art dealers. Uday says, “Right now, it has become too much of a dealer model. Someone, for instance, has bought the work 20 years back and he often is not ready to sell the work at a profit of Rs 2-3 lakh. So in a way when there are just a couple of dealers, they control the entire market. One can stock shares in such a model but for art it is dangerous. You need to work with an artist; you need to nurture them for over a period of time. When the dealer market becomes strong, it is a loss both for the artist and the gallery. The dealer model is attractive but not conducive to art.”

Just as before, Dhoomimal continues to work directly with artists, and over the long-term. Uma Jain started the Ravi Jain Annual Awards for young artists in the memory of her husband, Ravi Jain. Every year six artists are awarded a scholarship under this programme, which includes mentoring sessions by senior art critics and established artists. Uday says, “It is required that the gallerists also work with new names. When everyone wants to buy those 15-20 names, it creates a pressure in the market which leads to the emergence of fakes. Moreover, you can’t make much profit on the already established names especially if you buy their works from high-end auction houses as the price is already given there. The new names, if rightly nurtured, can also bring immense profit in the long run. Here, investment to return ratio is higher.”

Uday now wants to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps with an eye to the future. He is looking to build an atmosphere which would open doors of an art gallery to lay people. He also has plans to sell art online. “We are designing interesting interactive programs which will include showcasing artists’ documentaries, poetry sessions and so on, so that everyone can be a part of the arts on a regular basis. We are also toying with the idea of doing something in terms of public spaces in art.”

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