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News and Notices - A Renaissance man

THE HINDU METROPLUS, CHENNAI, 12th Jan, 2015. Soli Daruwala, who founded the oldest art gallery in Chennai, is best remembered for nurturing a genuine love for art and business.

Date: 12th January 2015

A man is remembered for his deeds and Soli planted kindness wherever he went. For his grace, charm, exemplary conduct and deep friendships, all artists, friends and patrons of the arts mourn his passing and unanimously express their love. "He was a Renaissance man," says Asma Menon. Gallery owners must have a sharp nose for business, but Soli was one of the rare few who also nurtured a genuine love for artists and art. Amitabh Sengupta, senior Kolkata artist recalls him saying, "What? You've come alone? Without any painting? A painting is a symbol of love and affection, not just something to sell.' Soli would keep my paintings in his room and look at them for a long time. In this way, I almost became a part of his world."

In 1971, Sengupta was surprised to find a contemporary art gallery in a city more traditionally entrenched in the arts. Daruwala was a sole person carrying on, holding exhibitions and bravely facing criticism for his modern ideas. "He lived with faith and intention of what he wanted to do."

It needs a certain climate to make art and on the other end, a patronage for it to prosper. A visit to Pondicherry's Aurobindo Ashram sowed the seed in Soli, a Parsi from Bombay, working at Gallery Chemould. He decided his two girls would be educated in Pondicherry and arrived soon after with his family. Finding Madras a bigger city and better established, he began his gallery here in 1965 along with a framing business. It grew synchronously with Cholamandalam, established in 1966. Artworld owner Sarala, Soli's daughter after whom he named the gallery, says, "The very first gallery was in Safire Theatre. Then, it shifted to Connemara. I remember a pentagonal room, which later shifted to a poolside location. Dad used to sell art and antiques there." Other moves were to the Willingdon Club and to the Belgaumwaala's in Nungambakkam.

Senior critic, Geeta Doctor brings memories. "The Daruwalas did not just sell art. They created a lively space for artists and art lovers to meet together in an atmosphere heady with experiments and innovation. South Indian artists were still new to the business of choosing, framing and displaying their works in a manner as to attract a sale. The Daruwalas had the style and the flair to attract a new clientele of persons who might buy 'contemporary art' with wine and cheese evenings, when wine and cheese were rare items. For the most part, it was mostly rum and peanuts for the artists, tea for the ladies and stronger beverages for the more Westernised members of the cocktail crowd." While artists sometimes frowned on this discrimination, by the next morning they realised the formula had worked. Their canvases or bronzes had actually been sold and they were ready to be friends again.

Soli was a frequent visitor to Government College of Arts, scouting for fresh talent, genially calling out "Koi hai?" When K. Muralidharan's batch had a final-year show in 1977, Soli landed up and slipped something into Murali's pocket. "It was a hundred rupee note!" exclaims Muralidharan. "This is not for your painting or anything. I want you to have fun!' he said." Muralidharan kept the note for a long time. Magnanimous in nature, godfather to many, the first to focus on Madras artists, Soli was also close to Surya Prakash and Laxma Goud, artists from Hyderabad. Many got their first break with him.

In half a century, Daruwala's vision, the contemporary art cornerstone of Chennai, today tucked away in a little side street off Cenotaph Road, has hosted the works of premier artists such as Munuswamy, K.M. Adimoolam, R.V. Bhaskaran, Alphonso Arul Doss, P. Perumal and Richard Jesudas. Soli Dariwala shared panoramic relationships all over India right from M.F. Husain. "He epitomises a quality which we always remember," states Shuva Prasanna, Kolkata's eminent artist. "Unless you are very passionate about the arts, you cannot grow. There is no other criterion," emphasises Surya Prakash, who had associations with Soli since 1968. Beyond conviction in self, Soli Daruwala had staunch belief in humanity, and with this, he widened and strengthened the circle of artists and the sphere of contemporary art in Chennai. We will miss him.