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Amol Palekar on NGMA Mumbai row: 'Would organisers have pre-censored my speech if I showed it to them?'

  • Speaking at a press conference, Amol Palekar said that he was never given a brief for his speech at the NGMA.

  • He explained that the NGMA's alleged decision to abolish its local advisory committees and give limited space to external exhibitions were a setback to the art community.

  • He asked why the NGMA was raising questions about his speech instead of responding to the issues he raised, regarding the cancellation of Mehlli Gobhai and Sudhir Patwardhan's retrospectives.

Veteran actor and director Amol Palekar was repeatedly interrupted during his speech at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) on 8 February, when he criticised the Ministry of Culture for reportedly scrapping the gallery's advisory committee in Mumbai and Bengaluru. He was to give a speech at an event about a retrospective of works by artist Prabhakar Barve.

Palekar said that the Barve exhibition "will be the last show that is decided by the advisory committee of local artists and not by some bureaucrat or agent of the government with an agenda of either moral policing or proliferation of certain art commensurate with an ideological incline. As of 13 November, 2018, the artists’ advisory committees operating at both regional centres, in Mumbai and Bangalore, have been abolished." He added that he was officially inquiring about the details to verify the rumours.

 Amol Palekar on NGMA Mumbai row: Would organisers have pre-censored my speech if I showed it to them?

Amol Palekar. News18

Palekar was interrupted by many people on the stage as well as former chairman of the advisory committee in Mumbai, Suhas Balukar and event curator Jesal Thacker. They asked him to stick to talking about Barve only.

In a press conference on 10 February Palekar and his wife Sandhya Gokhale spoke about being censored. Excerpts from the press conference:

[Palekar] While I was giving my speech, I was interrupted — "requested" as they said — not to speak about this, only to speak about this. In the end, you know what happened. I was not permitted to deliver my lecture, which was a written speech.

[Palekar] The first question that was raised was over the appropriateness of what I spoke. When you are inviting someone to speak, you should mention what can be said and what cannot. I was given no such brief. Jesal Thacker did not specify what I cannot say, so how can I determine what can and cannot be said?

[Palekar] Secondly, coming to the question of the issue I wanted to speak about — the NGMA and the changes that have been instituted in its functioning. The retrospective was held at the NGMA, so why is it inappropriate to speak about this issue at the NGMA? In my opinion, objections to where the issue was raised and what issue was raised are wrong.

[Palekar] Thirdly, that Prabhakar Barve's retrospective could possibly be the last to be held in that venue is what I was told by several in the art world. I found out that this is the last restrospective where all five floors of the NGMA will be dedicated to one exhibition. It's an extremely beautiful retrospective. As per the policy decisions taken by the new director at the NGMA, four out of five floors will only exhibit works that are part of the NGMA's collection. External exhibitions will only be held in the Dome, which is on the fifth floor. This is a set-back to artists and appreciators of art.

[Palekar] Two other decisions were taken about Mehlli Gobhai and Sudhir Patwardhan's retrospectives, which were decided on by the local advisory committee, and for which dates were picked out. The local advisory committee's tenure has ended. After this, as per the new decisions that were taken (by the director), only Barve's retrospective would be exhibited, the other two were cancelled... The space allocated to external exhibitions is quite small, does it make sense to tell new artists that only so much space will be made available to them? Even for veteran artists who want to display new work, will only so much space be available? The implication is that the rest of the four floors will only be available for works that are part of the NGMA's collection.

[Palekar] As art lovers, we would like to view these pieces (from the NGMA collection), but the question that has arisen is: Why has this become an either-or situation? Such a situation has never cropped up in the past, so why was this decision taken now? These are concerns that many in the art world, including myself, share, which is why I raised them in my speech... The NGMA is an institute of repute. Why took these decisions, why were they taken — when I raised these questions, I was told not to broach this subject. Why was I told this? If not in the NGMA, where should I raise these questions?

[Palekar] Anita Rupavataram was quite upset after my speech; she said that I should have raised these concerns to her rather than publicly in my speech. To which I asked if they would have pre-censored my script, if I had provided it to them. In fact, I was speaking about censorship, about democracy, and these concerns are in the same vein.

[Palekar] She (Anita) claimed that I was being one-sided, and emphasised on the detail that it is a government gallery. Aren't government galleries run using tax payers' money? If we won't raise questions, who will? The implication of what she was saying seemed to be 'this is a government gallery, don't raise issues of this kind'. I told her I wanted to thank the Ministry of Culture for the magnanimity they have shown about Barve's exhibition being held. She replied that she does not need a backhanded compliment and left.

[Gokhale] I was sitting in the audience; I took a video of what had occurred. If it weren't for phones, we wouldn't even know that something like this had occurred. Two good things happened after his speech ended. Some senior artists in the audience came up to him and said he'd done a great thing by raising these issues. About 15 young people also came up to him to say this. We wanted to raise the same concerns, but our voices aren't as strong, these youngsters said.

[Gokhale] If senior artists don't speak up, how can we expect junior artists to? We thought it was wrong that Suhas Bahulkar tried to stop Amol. Perhaps one can understand Jesal Thacker's actions, because she spent a year working on the exhibition and may have felt that it was being affected negatively. However, she should have remembered that she is junior... None of the audience members stood up and asked that Amol be allowed to speak — and some of them were senior artists. We could have stood up together for a cause, but this did not happen. Now people are writing in and expressing support, but no one did so in the moment... Jesal succumbed to the pressure — and that was her choice to make.

[Palekar] When the event began, Anita said she does not understand art, that she doesn't know Barve either. If such people are going to make decisions about the exhibitions which will be shown, is this not a serious issue?

[Gokhale] This is not a question of which government is in power. This is about censorship and how it is undemocratic. This is not an issue about a singular party, it is an anti-establishment issue; push back needn't come from a government, it can come from anywhere.

[Palekar] I did not expect anyone to raise such objections about what I was going to say... Instead of addressing my questions, they chose to speak about how the points I raised were not appropriate. Because answering my questions would need them to speak about the issue. Jesal Thacker should have raised her voice, if she knew this was going to be the last retrospective.

[Gokhale] If Amol was told that he can't speak about the decisions taken by the NGMA, he would not have agreed to give the speech... Jesal said that she was given clear instructions that any statements against the government should not be made. Then, she said to a journalist that she was under no pressure.

[Gokhale] If no one in the advisory committee raised their voice for three months, we have to ask whether we have stopped questioning the powers-that-be.

[Palekar] Even Sudhir Patwardhan, who was present in the audience, did not raise his voice about the decision to cancel his retrospective, or ask the organisers to allow me to speak."

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Updated Date: Feb 10, 2019 18:31:49 IST