Within the labyrinth of Mumbai’s docklands lie the vestiges of a sprawling, derelict warehousing neighbourhood. Although trucks laden with cargo abound, the area is equally well known for its footpath-dwelling slums, reinforcing the financial capital’s “Slumbai” tag. Surprising then, that amid these precipitous paths, dug up to make way for the elusive Mumbai metro, lies a quiet expanse of space, abuzz with creative energy. Space 118, a cluster of four artist studios, lies within a 2.5-acre compound dotted with colonial-era buildings. The brainchild of 32-year-old art aficionado Saloni Doshi, whose self-described passion for art collecting led her to embark on this small but significant experiment, Space 118 in Mazgaon offers an alternative to artists struggling to find workspaces in Mumbai. Last year, ten artists used the studios, and this year, twelve are slated to do so, including talents like Tanya Goel, Gauri Gill and Remen Chopra.

Saloni, a diminutive 5-ft powerhouse, describes Space 118 as a culmination of her “obsession” with art. The idea behind it is simple: offer young artists small studios in which to work, and in exchange, they either offer her a work of art, or pay a subsidised market rent (at this point, about Rs 15,000 per month for 300 square feet). The beauty of Space 118 is that while it is located in a forgotten, ill-traversed part of south Mumbai, it’s a boon for artists seeking proximity to Mumbai’s major museums, libraries and galleries. Saloni recently started an artists’ residency programme too, where she invites qualifying artists to come and live in Mumbai, with Space 118 bearing the cost of lodging and meals, in addition to use of the studios.

Saloni didn’t have strong antecedents in the art world. A Gujarati from Mumbai who grew up in Delhi, her parents are business people. “My mother is from Kolkata, a city steeped in Indian artistic traditions. I did the normal art classes through childhood, including sketching, but nothing more,” she recalls. A brief stint at Osians in 2001 enhanced her appreciation of Indian art (in which she has no formal training), and five years later, she was on her way to acquiring art. Yet she’s quick to stress that she only started buying art with her own salary from her job at a newspaper, not her family’s funds.

Her initial budget of Rs 50,000 immediately priced her out of the booming Indian art market of the mid-nineties. She wasn’t disheartened though, travelling to art centres across India and the world. She says she was impressed by what she saw in Baroda, Shantiniketan, Delhi’s Khoj studios and Chennai’s Cholamandal. “But I thought, ‘where are the studios in Mumbai?’” It’s a well-known fact that this peninsular city, chronically short on space, compels artists to work in isolation, sometimes in remote suburbs. Prohibitive real-estate has forced many a young artist to choose other cities over Mumbai in which to work. Despite this, Mumbai still has a strong hold over India’s art community. South Mumbai’s Fort and Kala Ghoda district were once ground zero of the modern Indian art movement, sustained by the era’s cosmopolitan atmosphere and fuelled by the Progressives. Today many of India’s best-known galleries continue to be headquartered here, which makes the idea of Space 118 all the more welcome.

“It’s a really good effort, as Saloni is giving artists an opportunity and an amazing facility,” says Sonal Singh, specialist and assistant director at Christie’s South Asia, Modern and Contemporary department. “It’s a unique platform to see artists in their own space, and interact with them.” Delhi-based artist Remen Chopra, who uses mixed media to create dramatically layered black-and-white pieces combining drawing and photography, was invited by Saloni to be a resident at Space 118. Remen says that while it was a great environment in which to work, she would’ve liked the residency to include lectures and perhaps other intellectually stimulating interactions. But she hastens to add that she felt immensely fortunate to be a part of the programme. “It’s a lovely space, and being in the heart of town is incredible. Bombay’s energy is a heady rush.”

For Saloni, who started Space 118 with only a vague idea of how it would be received, it’s a pleasant surprise that the studios are already booked through the summer of 2013. Twice a year she hosts an open house, where gallerists, curators, auction houses and collectors are invited to tour the space and interact with the artists. “It’s a good way to encourage artists to obtain feedback on what they’ve produced from other stakeholders in the art world,” Saloni explains. “For the artist, there is no pressure to sell, which is important. It’s simply a day to invite in the broader community to see their works.” Saloni is especially passionate about artist residencies, which include housing for two to three artists in an apartment in the heart of town, as a means to draw in talent from remote parts of India, such as the North East. “In the course of my travels, I’ve met a lot of artists who’ve wanted to come, but couldn’t afford to. I hope to change that.” Saloni’s eventual goal is to run an interdisciplinary arts school, houses alongside studio space, an exhibition centre and residencies. “Bombay is such a dynamic city. I want artists from around the country to be able to come here and experience it for themselves.”

(This article was published on June 21, 2012)
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