A fun-loving and personable mainstay of the Bombay art world, Bal Chhabda told a tight story of his life as a filmmaker, art gallerist and collector, and artist. The story hinged upon the contrast between the central role he played in the art world as an intimate friend to artists who emerged in the 1950s, and the infrequency of his solo exhibitions as a painter. Chhabda first showed his painting in 1958, participated frequently thereafter in international group shows, and twice won awards from the Lalit Kala Akademi. He did not hold a solo exhibition of his work until 1985, however, and just two other solo exhibitions followed in his lifetime. Bal Chhabda talked expansively about the social life of art, emphasizing the friendships at the core of the Bombay art world of the 1950s and 1960s. But he was reticent about his artistic practice, despite its origin in one of the most significant moments of Indian modernism.
Born in 1923 in pre-partition Punjab, Bal Chhabda’s family moved to Ahmedabad in 1930, where his father built a successful business operating cinema halls. Obsessed with films, Chhabda traveled to Hollywood just after Indian Independence to observe film production. He used his connections with New York distributors to gain entrance to the set of a Cary Grant film on the United Artists studio lot. Chhabda cut a dashing figure, sporting a neat suit and an ascot in photographs with Samuel Goldwyn and David Niven, whose film, Enchantment (1948), was the second production he observed. Chhabda returned to India and directed and co-wrote the screenplay for Do Raha (1952). The story featured a woman caught between the two paths of love and art. By art, Chhabda decisively meant modern art, which he had become interested in when he was in New York. Chhabda famously selected the work of M. F. Husain for the film, after asking Kekoo Gandhy for names of artists at his frame shop on Princess Street.
Perhaps Bombay film audiences did not share the filmmaker’s entrancement with art. As Chhabda told me in 2003, even at the first showing of the film he knew something was wrong. Asking for the crowd’s reactions at the paan shop outside the theater, the paanwala replied, “yeh ladki kaisa pyaar chodengi ek painting ke liye?” Do Raha was a flop.
Chhabda attributed his move from film to art to a chance meeting with Husain three or four years later. Husain invited Chhabda to visit the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, a multi-disciplinary space for contemporary art where he met many of the artists who would become his close friends. A number of the artists were extraordinarily poor at this time; Chhabda described how Tyeb Mehta would wait for Gaitonde to arrive at the institute so that the two of them could share a cup of tea. Chhabda’s stories of this time are tinged with glamour, however, describing fun-filled nights at the Volga nightclub, Ambassador Hotel, and other Bombay hotspots. Artist friends remember meeting at Chhabda’s newly built high-rise apartment, nicknamed “Seventh Heaven” because it was on the seventh floor. And although the Bhulabhai Desai Institute included among its ranks some of India’s most important female artists, Chhabda’s parties were unabashedly masculine and mildly hedonistic. A Husain-designed metal sculpture of a female nude with a wine bottle set the tone.
Chhabda was a generous collector at a time when there were very few, and works by V. S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, S. H. Raza, Pilloo Pochkhanawala, Adi Davierwala, and M. F. Husain graced his apartment for decades. The financial hardships confronting artists in the 1950s were very serious. Chhabda opened Gallery ‘59 in the Bhulabhai Desai Institute in late 1958 to try to increase the visibility of modern art and encourage collecting. Prospects for the gallery’s financial success were frankly thin, and the space was open for only one year. Yet Chhabda always said that he closed the gallery in a fit of pique following the use of the space for dance practice, not for material reasons.
In the midst of all of this socializing, Chhabda began to sketch and then to paint in oils. His work shows seriousness about formal concerns. Composition, particularly the relationship between figure and ground, and the properties of color were especially crucial. Many of Chhabda’s paintings were female nudes that he worked by building blocks of color until the figure became barely discernable. Chhabda’s work exemplifies the “semi-figurative” classification that Partha Mitter uses to describe post-Independence Indian painting. Mitter sees the Progressive Artists Group and their contemporaries as negotiating between abstraction and figuration, understood through two overlapping distinctions: the large-bore, Cold War conflict between U.S.-associated abstract expressionism and Soviet-associated socialist realism and a more specifically Indian conflict between abstraction-as-modernism/modernity and narration-as-tradition. Mitter finds that Indian artists of the 1950s and 1960s, in general, walked a fine line between abstraction and narration, and Chhabda’s painting is best understood within that framework.
It is instructive to trace Chhabda’s approach back to the late-1950s moment when he taught himself to paint, which was an extraordinarily productive time for his friends, as well. That moment is well represented in the works that Chhabda collected, as well as in the collections of the National Gallery of Modern Art and Tata Institute for Fundamental Research. All of the artists of the time, including Chhabda, were committed to developing an individual style, prizing the uniqueness of their approach. He also shared the same underlying concerns with the structures of painting that appear in the work of Husain, Raza, Khanna, and Gaitonde.
Chhabda’s handling of paint, which left intensely pigmented blocks of sometimes chalky color, is similar to Husain’s and Gaitonde’s in that era. But Chhabda never tied his subjects to rural life as did Husain nor committed himself completely to abstraction as did Gaitonde. Like Padamsee, Chhabda betrayed an interest in the erotics of painting, but unlike him, his subject matter was deliberately effaced. The contrast between his work and Raza’s is particularly revealing, for unlike the Paris-based artist, Chhabda’s work left aside the legacy of the School of Paris to be informed instead by a post-Abstract Expressionist treatment of the canvas. Chhabda’s paintings never maintained the window-like framing convention of easel painting in this period, as Raza’s did before his work became more thoroughly abstract in the 1970s. Chhabda’s most disciplined works very deliberately undermine the distinction between figure and ground, and invest in a sense of flatness and surface.
His first important painting, The Devil’s Workshop, was selected for the Lalit Kala Akademiexhibition. Chhabda carried the painting to Paris, where he entered it in the Salon de la Jeune Peinture, and then the painting was sent to the Tokyo Biennale, where it was awarded a prize. The painting is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Despite the success of this painting, Chhabda decided not to continue to push his work in that way, telling me in 2003 that he had not wanted to “enter the rat race.” Nevertheless, Chhabda went on to win two National Awards from the Lalit Kala Akademi and, in 1972, a Rockefeller Foundation grant to travel to New York.
Those who knew Bal Chhabda tended to appreciate his extraordinary sense of humor and style. His ability to pull together a group of strong artistic personalities was also a marvel. But a study of his work reveals his seriousness as an artist, finding him engaged with fundamental issues of painting. To read his work comparatively is not meant to diminish his originality. It instead uncovers the same ties that Chhabda enjoyed tracing in his stories of the illustrious group of artist friends in the painting he was less immediately eager to discuss.
Notes Partha Mitter, Indian Art (Oxford University Press, 2001), 205-207.
Published in Art India, July 2013. Image courtesy: DAG Modern