Editor's note: This column is a condensed version of a blog post by noted art critic and curator Johnny ML, and has been republished here with due permission.
I think I need to put the Amol Palekar-National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) Mumbai row into perspective, considering I have had the privilege of interacting with some of the directors of the NGMA over the last few years.
What the veteran actor-director and artist Amol Palekar did during the opening ceremony of the late Prabhakar Barwe’s retrospective exhibition at the NGMA Mumbai was simply his concern (over certain developments) and as one of the makers of contemporary culture, Palekar has all the right to do so. Curator Jesal Thacker is seen interrupting his critique of the Culture Ministry, Government of India, just as Palekar begins to speak of its perceived interference with the administrative body of the NGMAs. Palekar speaks of the MoC "abolishing the local artists' advisory body" that negotiated the presentation of retrospectives and other important shows in the same facility. Jesal Thacker was curt (but polite), asking the veteran to stick to the subject of the evening — Prabhakar Barwe.
I would say that Amol Palekar had the right to speak and need not have chosen another occasion to vent his anxieties regarding the growing grip of the Cultural Ministry in the affairs of the NGMA. The late Prabhakar Barwe was his close friend, and Palekar took the liberty to connect the fierce independence that his generation enjoyed as artists with how the things have gone wrong today.
As per the new decision by the MoC through the director general of the NGMAs, only one-sixth of the available space will be given to local artists to have their exhibitions — retrospectives or otherwise. [Artworks that are part of the NGMA's collection will be given precedence.] It is definitely a wrong decision: It deprives artists of the city of their rightful place of exposition.
However, what was the nature of the shows that these local artists advisory body used to present there? The NGMA Bengaluru (B) has seen interesting shows of artists like GR Iranna, Madhvi Parekh, Manu Parekh, KS Radhakrishnan, SG Vasudev, JS Khanderao and so on. Some of the retrospective exhibitions were curated by the NGMA Delhi (D) team and were taken to the NGMA Mumbai and NGMA-B. I do not think there would be much of dispute on the quality of these shows or the priorities that the NGMA-D had shown towards mounting those shows. One should also remember that it was in 2014 — after the Narendra Modi Government took over from the UPA, and Adwaita Gadanayak was appointed as the director general of the NGMAs — that a huge Jitish Kallat show was mounted in NGMA-D. With the dissolution of the local artists' advisory body, what would happen to the character of the shows in the NGMAs is not known.
Going by the Delhi example, Gadanayak has been slumming it for quite some time. An artist with considerable repute and an allegiance to the RSS, Gadanayak seems to have been succumbing to the political bigwigs as his organisation recently presented and auctioned the ‘gifts’ that the Prime Minister had accumulated from his endless travels. This is not a good indicator.
The involvement of the Sanskar Bharti in visual culture could drag India's contemporary art backwards by two or three yugas! We must, however, be aware of the fact that there has been ‘progressive lobbying’ even before the NDA government. Till the late 1990s, the NGMA Delhi used to rent out its place for private galleries. When a controversy was raked up by the right wing forces of that time, the decision was revoked and only official shows were mounted. When Rajeev Lochan took over at the NGMA as long as the UPA remained in power, there was an equal effort to snatch control from the NGMA-M and NGMA-B and concentrate it in the hands of Lochan. Intellectuals and artist efficiently fought the move and till the end of his tenure, Lochan could not hold absolute power.
In due course of time, Lochan liberalised the norms and invited private agencies to hold shows at the NGMA. For the Skoda Art Prize, the NGMA-D became a permanent venue. Overt and covert negotiations were done in order to present the artists of the ‘progressive lobby’, making the NGMA a ‘Lochan fiefdom’ — turning it absolutely elitist, and almost bringing back the memories of the 'License-Quota Raj' of Indira Gandhi’s time. I have to say that Adwaita Gadanayak reversed the policy and made the NGMA accessible to people.
Take the example of the NGMA-M. As I mentioned, there has been strong resistance from the Mumbai art fraternity to the idea of NGMA-D taking over. And they were successful. But how many ‘local’ artists’ shows or retrospectives were conducted there till recently? The crème de la crème of the Mumbai art scene was literally holding the establishment and letting only a set of curators and artists mount shows there. A few private galleries were always favored and irrespective of the quality, many group shows were mounted there at the NGMA-M during the last few years. If that is the case, we have to ask what kind of local art advisory is going on there? Who is benefitting from it? Look at the number of curators who have worked with the NGMA-M, the scholars who have been invited to present papers there; you will find the same elite team. Once I had approached Suhas Bahulkar (former NGMA chairperson) for presenting a local Mumbai artist there in the NGMA. He said there was an advisory board. And who all were in that advisory board that the (then) chairman-appointee did not have a say, let alone a decent cabin to sit in?
In my view, Amol Palekar did the right thing. So too did Jesal Thacker, as did Anita Rupavataram — the director of the NGMA (M). [Reportedly, Rupavataram said at the end of Palekar's curtailed speech: “This is only one side of the story. It is not like we have not raised our concerns already. It would have been good if you had discussed this issue with us personally and not spoken here at the public platform.”] Before shooting down the government’s decision, let us see who would be getting into the new projects directly appointed by the Minisry of Culture. You never know, the erstwhile curators who only curated cutting edge art and alternative practices could masquerade as curators of 'Hanuman images' from all over India! We have to target them. May be they are among us already; it would take just a few months to see them turning coat.
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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2019 13:15:48 IST