Art of censure

Different Strokes

A sculpture at NGMA Delhi PHOTO BY GIRIDHAR KHASNIS

The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) seems to find new, if strange, ways to be in the news.  An unpleasant incident in Mumbai last month made headlines and triggered a nationwide debate about its functioning. It also raised questions on broader issues like freedom of speech and expression. 

Film actor-director Amol Palekar was one of the guest speakers ‘invited’ to the inaugural function of a retrospective show of artist Prabhakar Barwe (1936-1995) at the NGMA, Mumbai. In his address, Palekar (who, in his younger days, studied painting at Sir J J School of Art) initially spoke on the aesthetic and stylistic nuances of Barwe’s work as well as his own personal association with the renowned artist. 

He also reflected on some recent changes in NGMA’s policies (like scrapping of advisory committees and limiting space allocation for exhibitions other than NGMA’s own collections). “Many of you may not know,” he said to the audience, “that this (Barwe) retrospective will be the last show decided by the advisory committee of local artists, and not by some bureaucrat or an agent of the government with an agenda of either moral policing or proliferation of certain art commensurate with an ideological incline.”

The curator of the show, Jesal Thacker (who was among those seated on the dais) got perturbed by this and interrupted Palekar by asking him to ‘stick to Barwe’. Palekar tried to explain how raising such issues was important, but his speech continued to be interjected. At one point, he even asked: “Are you applying censorship?” As the interruptions continued, he returned to his seat without completing his address.

The episode was caught on camera and went viral on social media. The full text of his written speech also began circulating on social media. “What would Barwe have done in this atmosphere?” Palekar had wondered in the concluding part of the written speech. “I am sure he would have shown us the hidden visible through the visible present. Sorry, Jesal, if I have violated the expected decorum of celebrations or inaugurations. But I believe in speaking out, hence this lingering sad note.”

Swift reactions 

Reactions to the February 8 episode came swiftly from different quarters. Mumbai-based curator and columnist, Girish Shahane (writing in Scroll.in) felt that the institution was moving in a wrong direction. “The Bombay NGMA opened in 1996 at the Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall under the stewardship of Saryu Doshi, an energetic and committed director who made it central to the city’s visual arts scene. A decade later, the autonomy of the Bombay wing was curtailed, and it was made entirely answerable to Delhi. This misguided policy is being replicated today... I am glad Palekar aired the art community’s grievances inside the institution being undermined.” Shahane found no substance in the argument that a tribute to Barwe’s meditative art was no occasion for rabble-rousing. Chinki Sinha (writing for Dailyo.in) felt that Palekar had indeed raised an important issue, but “rather than making it about the interruptions, the art community should fight along with Palekar for the cause of art, rather than indulging in blame games.”

Facing backlash, Thacker tried to clarify: “My purpose of inviting Palekar as one of the guest speakers was because of his association and admiration of the artist. As much as I admire both Barwe and Amol, my intention was not to prevent Amol from finishing his speech, but instead, I only requested him to share more about his anecdotes and fond memories of the artist who was being celebrated so long (24 years) after his demise.”

It took three days for the ministry of culture to come out with a clarification that the advisory committees had not been dissolved (but are ‘being reconstituted’), and “the exhibitions of artists will be held as proposed (by erstwhile committees)”. NGMA also reportedly claimed that suggestions received from artists regarding the utilisation of its gallery space are being deliberated upon, and “a final decision will be taken shortly in consultation with all stakeholders.”

Earlier rows 

NGMA is not new to controversies. Ten years ago, on February 18, 2009, after years of delay and inactivity, NGMA, Bengaluru was set to be inaugurated by the then Union Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ambika Soni (of the Congress party). The event was hurriedly put together and clearly mismanaged. Many artists, critics and curators complained that they had not even received the invitation. Complicating matters, the then Karnataka medical education minister Ramachandra Gowda (of the BJP) addressed the audience and made incongruous remarks like: “Modern art has become a medium for pseudo intellectuals to insult ancient Indian culture.” Many in the audience were baffled. Artist M S Murthy openly objected by mincing no words: “You don’t know what is modern art,” he told Gowda. “Stop talking about it.”  This led to an angry exchange of words, before Murthy was shown the door. The whole episode left a bad taste in the mouth. Going back further to September 2000, one recalls how the artist community was up in arms when a much-anticipated exhibition in NGMA, Delhi faced sudden closure.  The show titled Combine was all set to present the works of 25 young Indian artists drawn from different parts of the country. However, just minutes before the opening, the secretary of Department of Culture (who was also to be the chief guest at the inaugural function), directed the organisers to remove a painting titled An actor rehearsing the interior monologue of Icarus by Surendran Nair for allegedly portraying the national emblem, the Ashoka pillar, in an objectionable manner. The Baroda-based artist decided to withdraw from the show; other artists, too, protested and refused to participate. All these had led to cancellation of the entire event.  

In his book Kora Canvas, Prabhakar Barwe wrote: “There is a mystery in the blank canvas, a question mark that floats in its expressionless emptiness. What is this emptiness, this void, this space — seems to be the question.” Artists like Palekar might like to paraphrase Barwe by replacing the term ‘blank canvas’ in the statement — with ‘NGMA’.

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