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Aashna’s conversations with a curator, art historian, and art critic - Zehra Jumabhoy!

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

A noted art historian, writer, and curator, Dr Zehra Jumabhoy specializes in contemporary South Asian art. The genesis of her journey in the Indian art scene, however, was a special one, which started off as an ‘unplanned’ pit-stop at her maternal grandmother’s place in Bombay; all for a Picasso exhibition arriving at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) during the directorship of Dr Saryu Doshi! She was hired as a ‘guide’, the exhibition lasted six months, which was all it took for her life to change forever. This, however, had less to do with Picasso’s work but more with the fact that she was soaking in the happenings of the Indian art scene, which was just starting to take off in the Bombay of the early 2000s.

In her words, ‘The NGMA was in the heart of the art district at that point.’

She fondly reminisces about her days as a docent with her contemporaries who would potter off for dosa and chai at Samovar café and look at all that was going on at Jehangir Art Gallery and Chemould Art Gallery. Recollecting her fascination with Sudhir Patwardhan show displaying huge gritty, scenes of Lower Parel, of factory workers, of browny-beige suburban landscapes, she often ended up at Samovar, Jehangir Art Gallery, where she met several up-coming artists and would get invited to their studios or eavesdrop on conversations about their forthcoming shows. One of these conversations happened to be of a young artist from Sir J. J. School of Art, Jitish Kallat who was having his first solo exhibition. She exclaims, “I had never seen paintings like that – it was raw; you could almost smell the traffic and Bombay streets from off these blue-grey canvases, with their grungy, sweaty protagonists.”

Adding to it, she says, “It’s hard to describe that period in the noughties in Bombay: it was a feeling more than anything else. Like something was about to happen in this scene, a feeling of intense excitement as if we were all caught up in a moment bigger than ourselves. I was hooked. I never wanted to go ‘home’ and work in Singapore after that – and everything that followed for me academically at the Courtauld (the MA, the PhD) were different ways of staying close to that scene, exploring it, probing it, holding on to that moment."

Later, she took on the role of editor of the Visual Art section for Time Out Mumbai and subsequently Assistant Editor at ART India magazine. She recalls these roles saying, “The best thing was being young and in Bombay at the time of the boom years for Indian art. I don’t think I will ever have so much fun again. But, maybe everyone says that about their twenties? Neither ‘job’ really felt like a job – more a vocation (or a crusade), and I fear I didn’t think of my bosses AS bosses. They were more like friends, who I happened to be working for.” Her role in Time Out involved building up the section from scratch since she was hired before the launch of the magazine. So, documenting the art scene, and then ‘reviewing’ Indian art shows in the galleries burgeoning all over the city mostly consisted of her work. She looks back on working with other writers like Che Kurrien and Chetna Mahadik. She narrates how Naresh Fernandes and Nandini Ramnath as editors really taught her how to write – they were incredibly committed to a vision of the city as syncretic, cosmopolitan, and liberal.

“And, while I remember all kinds of special, personal things about Time Out, it’s one of the ART India editorials that I will never forget. The Art & Censorship issue, which analysed what was going on at that point with the rise of the Right and the repercussions on the Indian art world. It was a brave issue for the Editor, Abhay Sardesai, to undertake.”

Zehra then moves to pursue her doctorate. Titled, “Homi K. Bhabha’s Concept of National Identity and Contemporary Indian Art”, the PhD thesis placed Bhabha’s ideas in conversation with the those of Geeta Kapur, India’s pre-eminent art historian. The thesis was about relating theories of ‘the nation’ to the formation of ‘the idea of India’, and its governing national myths.

“Given the rise of ethnic nationalism in the 1990s and 2000s and its negative impact on the Indian art world – not to mention its violation of the cosmopolitan Bombay which I loved – I really wanted to explore this, to try and understand if it was nationalism as a concept that was to be blamed. Did nationalism always imply and inevitably lead to a narrow, exclusionary identitarianism? Or was there a way of having a more inclusive version of national identity? I don’t mean as an aspiration – we all know that both India’s Nehru and Pakistan’s Jinnah used the word ‘secular’ repeatedly in the early days of Independence – but as a concept. Was there something inherently paradoxical about expecting and proselytising a plural version of the nation? That’s what I set out to discover."

In 2018, Zehra went on to co-curate the first international exhibition dedicated to Bombay’s Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), at the Asia Society Museum in New York with Tan Boon Hui, Director of the Asia Society Museum, New York. She mentions that she wanted to do it because she wanted to vicariously revisit this period at the dawn of the Indian state, with a multi-religious Group of artists to see if the seeds of what happened after were sown at this point.

On October 25, 2018, Asia Society and Columbia University hosted the symposium The Progressive Genealogy: Art Culture in Modern India, which accompanied the exhibition The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India at New York’s Asia Society Museum. Image contains symposium participants (L-R) Boon Hui Tan, Karin Zitzewitz, Zehra Jumabhoy, Sonal Khullar, Sonali Perera, Vishakha Desai, Gauri Viswanathan, Brinda Kumar, Anupama Rao, Jitish Kallat, Kavita Sivaramakrishnan. (Image Courtesy and Copyright: Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

“The Progressives have always been considered the “quintessential Indian Moderns”; as giving visual form to Nehruvian Secularism. The founding members came from such different castes and creeds: from Muslims MF Husain & SH Raza to Christian-Goan FN Souza to Dalit KH Ara and Brahmins SK Bakre & HA Gade, that they have always been held up as a secular ideal. I wanted to probe this; to discover: was there a message of hope for us in their aesthetics?”

Images of guided tours with Zehra Jumabhoy and Tan Boon Hui at The Progressive Revolution at the Asia Society Museum. Image Courtesy and Copyright: Asia Society.

The success of this show was phenomenal and one of the best shows showcasing the PAG!

Currently, Zehra is working towards Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University’s ‘Global Classroom Summer Semester’ programme – a ground-breaking Online initiative. Rashid Rana, Dean of BNU, invited her to design a Course on contemporary South Asian art, which would be open to students from all over the world from the end of July to September 2020. Global Classroom is part of BNU’s outreach programme that aims to combat the constraints imposed because of COVID19. Zehra’s course is called “What’s in a Name?” Art, Politics Identity in ‘Contemporary South Asia. It will debate ideas of religious, national, and regional affiliation in the Subcontinent; including artists and thinkers on South Asian art and/or politics from all over the world in the mix of Guest Lecturers: “I can’t get over the amazing artists and scholars who have agreed to participate. From Rina Banerjee to Nikhil Chopra, Khadim Ali, Jitish Kallat, and Rashid Rana himself, we have the most fabulous line-up of artists as well as academics like Salima Hashmi, Julian Stallabrass and Katie Hill, who will discuss the ways in which art, culture and politics interact.”

“Sadly, ZOOM is one of the few spaces in which we can have genuine conversations across South Asia – across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and where the divisions, rivalries and traumas that divide us can be surmounted – at least temporarily.”

We look forward to all that you have to offer to the Indian art scene, Zehra and we wish you the best!


Dr Zehra Jumabhoy is an art historian specializing in modern and contemporary South Asian art. She is a writer, curator and was from 2016 to 2020 an Associate Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, where she completed her PhD on Indian art and nationalism in 2017, as a Steven and Elena Heinz Doctoral Scholar. Prior to her doctorate, Zehra lived and worked in Bombay, where she was editor of the Visual Art section for Time Out Mumbai and subsequently Assistant Editor at ART India, the country’s premier art journal. Her book, The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today was published by Random House, London, in 2010. In 2018, she co-curated the landmark exhibition, The Progressive Revolution: A Modern Art for a New India, at the New York’s Asia Society Museum. She is currently in the process of guest curating a major travelling show of contemporary Indian art, designed for US Museums, with Washington’s International Art & Artists organisation.

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