Protests over Venkatappa Art Gallery may sully culture, and a revered institution, in Karnataka - Firstpost
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Protests over Venkatappa Art Gallery may sully culture, and a revered institution, in Karnataka

The Karnataka state government’s ‘Adopt a Destination’ scheme involving the corporate sector in 46 of the state’s 319 tourist attraction spots, has run into rough weather. One of the MOUs signed, for the Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG), has raised the hackles of a section of the artist community to the extent that they have been on a war path for the past several days.

While their protest has been all about VAG, the issues at hand are much larger and a lot bitter.

The crux of the matter is that the Government of Karnataka (GoK) which enthusiastically splurges on populist schemes, including mid-day meals, Re 1 rice, mangalsutra dispersal, mass marriages, free sarees, dhotis, etc is in no position to invest in cultural activities. Some of these activities received state and royal patronage in the past. However both sources have dried up and the only way to keep culture alive is to harness the CSR schemes of corporates in as many ways as possible.

To this end the GoK realised that tourism was one area that it could ramp up substantially with Public Private Partnership (PPP). Its study revealed that Karnataka had the potential to be the number 2 tourism destination in India with spin-offs being employment for 4.3 million and a revenue yield of Rs 83,000 crores by the year 2024. For this an investment of Rs 73,000 crores with 50 per cent of that funding coming from GoK in the form of infrastructure, destination and mobility was required.

The Venkatappa Art Gallery in Karnataka. Getty Images

The Venkatappa Art Gallery in Karnataka. Getty Images

A Tourism Vision Group (TVG) headed by Mohandas Pai and comprising members from various walks of life including corporates, artists – performing and visual, media, bureaucrats, etc was put together and they identified 46 destinations for adoption: Badami, Pattadakal, Banashankari, Mahakoota, Aihole (Bagalkot district); Kittur (Belgaum), Hampi, T.B. Dam (Bellary); Bidar Fort (Bidar); Gol Gumbaz (Bijapur); Kemmannugundi (Chikmagalur); Vani Vilasa Sagar (Chitradurga); Shanti Sagar (Davangere); Lakkundi (Gadag); Belur, Halebid, Shravanabelagola (Hassan); Raja Seat, Abbi Falls (Kodagu); Anegundi (Koppal); Kokkarebellur, Srirangapatna, Brindavan Gardens, Ranganathittu, Balmuri Falls/Sangam (Mandya); Talakad, Somanathapur, Nanjangud (Mysore); Raichur Fort (Raichur); Jog Falls (Shimoga); Malpe Beach, St. Mary’s Island (Udupi); Tagore Beach, Murudeshwara (Uttara Kannada). Venkatappa Art Gallery, Aquarium, Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, Tipu Palace Fort, Visvesvaraya Museum, Freedom Park, Muthyalamaduvu, Bannerghatta National Park (Bangalore Urban); Shivagange (Bangalore Rural); Nandi Hills, Tipu’s birth place (Chickballapur) and Mekedatu (Ramanagaram), with the last 12 named being in or very near Bengaluru.

While the TVG has a number of objectives, their motto was to provide a better experience to tourists from ‘before arrival to after departure’ and to this end a whole lot of facilities, infrastructure and services needed to be upgraded through PPP.

The GoK agreed to be transparent and to retain ownership of the sites even as they enter into MoUs in tranches of five years.

Thus far three MoUs have been signed: VAG with Tasveer Foundation, Belur & Halebidu with Cafe Coffee Day and Government Museum with Jindal Foundation. However, only the VAG MoU has kicked up a storm and has divided the artist community, some of whom have formed a VAG forum to protest. They claim that the GoK’s initiative to promote tourism is “an eyewash and the government, in the garb of adoption, is quietly trying to grab the property located at a prime location.”
Well-known artist Balan Nambiar said: “I don't know who the government is trying to fool. This venture is a platform being raised for minting money. I agree that Abhishek Poddar (of Tasveer Foundation) is a patron of art and an efficient businessman, but at the same time, he is a shrewd profit maker who has stepped in to develop it as a business venture."
The irony of these protests is that VAG itself came into being in 1971 following protests by artists who were unhappy about the lack of a gallery to exhibit their works. Venkatappa (1887-1962) after whom the gallery is named, was a court painter of the Wodeyars. In 1966 the state government decided to construct a gallery in his memory and to house his paintings. But they did little subsequently until the agitation forced them to complete the task five years hence.

VAG is centrally located in verdant Cubbon Park at close proximity to the Government Museum, Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum and the Aquarium, all among the Bengaluru projects earmarked for PPP. The TVG aims to develop the entire area in and around Cubbon Park into a veritable tourist hotspot.

VAG had two floors dedicated to the paintings of Venkatappa and another genius, Kattingeri Krishna Hebbar Rao, besides space for lectures and art exhibitions.

The late Hebbar (1911–1996) who lived and worked in Mumbai most of his life and counted SG Vasudev and Yusuf Arakal among others as his protégés, donated 69 of his paintings, including his celebrated Nagamandala works, to VAG.

Subsequently, in 2004 the KK Hebbar Foundation spent Rs 16 lakh to upgrade facilities of the KKH Wing of VAG. In 2011, to commemorate his birth centenary, his daughter Rekha Rao, trustee of the KKH Foundation, organised a ‘Retrospective’ at the three Central Government-run NGMAs of New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru for which they borrowed the paintings from VAG. These were returned after the tour but instead of exhibiting them the second floor of VAG was used to store these and the paintings of Roerich much to the consternation of SG Vasudev and the KKH Foundation. None of the other artists bothered and the KKH Foundation had to approach courts to save the paintings.

“The VAG is a dump which has had only mild activity since 2008,” said the city’s well known architect Naresh Narasimhan. “The building is in bad shape. The roof leaks and the whole place stinks. If Poddar wants to invest and manage the property he must be encouraged. The city deserves a world class art gallery.”

Prakash Belawadi, theatre personality, came out strongly against the protesters. “This is an artificial protest. Many are government-maintained artists and intellectuals. Except that the government cannot afford to maintain them any longer. Their resentment springs out of the need to blindly oppose any work.

“Any reasonable person can see that the MoU is only for five years and reviewed and renewable after that. Asset title is not transferred. Some of the artists approached me to join the agitation. But after going through the vision statement, Poddar’s blue print for VAG and pros and cons involved, I know that this is the game changer Karnataka tourism has been waiting for. I explained this to them but I guess their agenda is different.”

The MoU which has come through a partnership between the Department of Tourism, the Department of Archaeology, Museums and Heritage, Government of Karnataka and the Tasveer Foundation is not set in stone, according to those opposed to it. But the fact remains that if this effort falls through, culture as we know it is doomed in Karnataka. The simple truth is that the government has limited resources and its priorities are different. Supporting culture is not one of them. The VAG protest has the potential to spiral out of control and singe all the 319 properties.

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