Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An Open Letter to Prof.Rajeev Lochan, Director of National Gallery of Modern Art

Dear Rajeev Lochan,

First of all let me congratulate you for organizing a show of Rabindranath Tagore’s works at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi on the occasion of Tagore’s 150th Birth Day celebrations.

The Hindustan Times of Sunday (9th May 2010) had a half page notification ( I don’t want to call it an advertisement because Tagore does not need advertisement) about the show.

It read like this: ‘A specially curated show’ to be inaugurated by Dr.Manmohan Singh, Honorable Prime Minister of India. Open to the public from 3 pm onwards.

I am not a Bengali but I believe that Tagore belongs to all of us and the world. So I went to the NGMA by 3.45 pm on the same day. There were not too many people around.

I know the Delhi mindset. None wants to spoil a lazy Sunday afternoon by venturing out into the traffic mess. Also, people are not very comfortable with the high security protocols as it attended by the Prime Minister. You may give it a try if you have an official invitation in hand. But as you know, NGMA is very selective about its guest list.

Forget all those stuff. My interest was to see the curatorial interventions that the curator had made in the Tagore collection of NGMA.

I saw a few banners heralding the exhibition hung from the façade of the NGMA building. The scale of it was quite befitting to the grandness of the occasion and the artist who was featured.

Inside the exhibition hall I was desperately looking for the curator’s name but in vain. There is a flex board that indicates the milestones in Tagore’s life. And inside the main hall there is another flex board with a write up on Tagore’s works but is not signed by anybody, I mean, the curator.

Spread among the walls where the works are hung in the inner rooms of NGMA, there are small little boards with Tagore’s takes on art and aesthetics.

There is a film projected on the wall. It shows the works of Tagore. The audio track is barely audible and there is no ‘text’ to tell the viewer what this film is all about. I could see the logo of Film Festival of India in the projection.

I started going through the works. I wanted to know the dates of some important works that I had only seen in reproductions. But again in vain.

Once I finished viewing the whole show I asked the following questions to myself, mainly because I too wear the garb of a curator in my professional life:

1) What was I looking for in this show?
2) What did I get out of it?
3) If I was too much concerned with the curatorial intervention, what kind of intervention was that?
4) If I were the curator of it, what would have I done with the works in this collection?
5) Why did the curator refuse to acknowledge his/her role publicly?

Now let me answer the questions one by one.

1) I was looking for the works of Rabindranath Tagore and I could see them. But suddenly I realized that except for a few, I have seen most of them during several other occasions in the NGMA itself. So I was not looking for just works. I was keen to see them in conjunction with the history of early 20th century art practice, Tagore’s aesthetic philosophy, the philosophy of stalwarts like Anand Coomaraswamy, Stella Kramrisch, Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and so on.

As an art critic and curator, I have come to hear very divergent opinion about Rabindranath Tagore’s art practice from the contemporary generation of artists. Many like him but dislike his art. Many dislike his philosophy but like his art. I thought this show would be an occasion to create a dialogue between the Tagore scholars and contemporary artists.

2) Once again, let me tell you, I got to see the works of Tagore once again. Nothing more nothing less.

3) As a curator trained in one of the best colleges in the world (Goldsmiths College, University of London), with a practical experience in curating for almost a decade and an art critic with two decades of relentless involvement in art, I am really concerned about curatorial practice in India.

There is a section of art scene people in India who still believe that we don’t have ‘curators’. I don’t believe in this argument. However, I understand why that particular section thinks so. Today, anybody is a curator if he/she could ‘put together’ an exhibition. It could be a political activist or a journalist or a television reporter. What you need is the guts to call yourself a curator. Besides, the former section suffers from this belief that only a curator from a foreign country, no matter even if he/she is from Nepal or Bhutan, can deliver things to general satisfaction. I think most of the former colonies suffer from this syndrome of self-depreciation.

Coming to the point, I was looking for the scholarship and vision of the curator involved in the Tagore project. I expected him/her to create a new context to see Tagore’s otherwise well publicized works.

Thanks to Face Book, I could once again read a well informed article written by none other than the Noble Laureate, Prof.Amartya Sen on Tagore. He debates Tagore’s relevance through his political, aesthetical and global views and also contrasting them with those of Mahatma Gandhi. (http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/articles/sen/ This article by Prof.Sen was posted by art critic, Amrita Gupta Singh). Simultaneously I was reading another article by the Art Newspaper critic, Tyler Green, who says how the private collection shows are an insult to scholarship and curators (http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Turning-a-museum-into-a-vanity-space/19658. This article was posted in FB by the Art and Deal Managing Editor, Rahul Bhattacharya).

While Prof.Sen reveals a special kind of Tagore scholarship, Tyler Green reiterates the necessity for curatorial interventions in museum shows. These arguments, when put together, inform us how scholarship should be incorporated into curatorial practice, which is absolutely lacking in the NGMA Tagore show.

4) The pertinent question, if I were the curator of this show, what would have been my approach.

Let us take a hypothetical situation: By default I become the curator of this show and I know well that apart from my curatorial expertise, I am not a full fledged scholar of Tagore’s art or philosophy. So what I do is that I would devise an exhibition plan, which a trained curator is capable of doing. I would take a few elements in Tagore’s repertoire of aesthetics and philosophy and work a strategy around it and use the works in NGMA collection to explain my curatorial strategies (For example Tagore and Nationalism, Tagore and Globalization, Tagore and Women and Tagore and his contemporaries- to look for convergences and divergences). And at each point I own it up by saying that I have done it and I am answerable and accountable to any questions raised by the public that comes to see this exhibition.

It is easier said than done. If I were the curator, first of all I would spend at least two months to study Tagore’s life, philosophy, literature and all what the important scholars have done on Tagore’s art and life.

I would form a committee of experts to advice me. For example I would invite the veteran art historian, Dr.Ratan Parimoo, who has written extensively on Tagores (Three Tagores). I would request the veteran artist scholar, K.G.Subramanyan to join the advisory committee. I would try to get art historians Partha Mitter, Tapati Guha Takurta and R.Sivakumar on board.

If they suggest that I could look into Tagore’s contemporaries and make an exhibition to position Tagore’s art for the new audience communities, I would immediately do that.

After that, to implement my curatorial strategies, I would form a team of young and vibrant trained art historians and critics to do research on the concerned topics.

Finally if I am not capable enough to design the exhibition the way I want, I would involve an exhibition designer, of course from India.

Now you may ask who are all these young critics and curators who could be trusted. I would produce a quick list. The members of it would not be necessarily trained curators. But this kind of involvement gives them enough training to become future curators. And some of them are already proven their worth as curators.

Anshuman Das Gupta, Soumik Nandy Majumdar, Sanjoy Mallik, Parvez Kabir, Oindrilla Maity, Monal Jayaram, Jayaram Poduval, Abhiram Poduval, Abha Seth, Santosh, Santosh Sakhinala, Amrita Gupta Singh, Shubhalakshmi Shukla, Kanchi Mehta, Rita Sodha, Rahul Bhattacharya, Akansha Rastogi, Rikimi Madhukaillya, Binoy PJ, Kavita Balakrishnan, Bipin Chandra, Chandran T.Payyannoor, Vidya Sivadas, Bhooma Padmanabhan, Avinja Bhattacharya, Swati Chatterjee, Mrinal Kulkarni, Suruchi Khubchandani,John Xaviers, Rajashree Biswal and the list can go on.

Dear Rajeev, don’t you think that given a chance, this is an army of talents that would take India’s curatorial visions forward? Then why do we hesitate in bringing them in curatorial projects as curatorial assistants, researchers or even as full fledged curators?

5) I vaguely know that there is a technical post called ‘curator’ in NGMA. I don’t know is he/she the same person who has curated Tagore show. But I strongly believe that a curator should own up his/her role in any project that is meant to be shown to the public. He/she should be answerable and accountable.

One more point to be mentioned. I am lucky enough to have visited a few international museums during my foreign trips and I have come across these fabulously equipped art shops in the museum premises. The art shops carry all the merchandise related to the theme shows happening in the museums. Here in NGMA I saw the pathetic condition of the art shop in the new wing. Except for a few reproductions of Tagore’s paintings, there is nothing about Tagore is seen there. And the general condition of the art shop gave me an impression that the shop was affected by a famine or something. You please try to refurbish this shop with adequate merchandise.

I am sure that this open letter would disappoint you. Perhaps, I will never be able to do anything in NGMA. But I am not worried, Rajeev. I believe that I talk on behalf of a nation and as professional curator I have the right to speak to you, and as a tax paying, passport holding Indian citizen, I have the right to know what is going on in this apex institution of art in India.

You must be remembering, in 2008, when I endorsed Girish Shahane’s campaign for a separate director of Mumbai NGMA, you asked me why I write such things without knowing the real facts. Then you had told me that you spent a lot of time running between NGMA and Sastri Bhavan with files.

I respect your work as the director of the NGMA. I understand India is a victim of red-tapism at the bureaucratic level. But as an artist and an art administrator with this many years of experience, don’t you think that by this time you should have found out a way to deal with things?

Here comes the relevance of a team of young experts. You assign them jobs, pay them well, respect them, treat them with dignity and trust them. They will do their job for you and you will get enough time to do the negotiations with the bureaucracy as an art administrator.

Once again, nothing personal about it in this letter. You are the only person I know in the NGMA. And I know you since 1995, as an artist, as professor and then as the director of NGMA. I take that freedom to write this letter to you and I make this public because this issue of curatorial practice is to be debated widely for the common good.

If I have gone wrong in any of the previous points, I am ready to correct myself.

With best wishes



p said...

Extremely important, and good you say all you do, Johny!

I was horrified when I went to see the Nandlal Bose show a HUGE blow up of Sonia Gandhi's compliments on the opening of the New Wing...I mean not just curatorial lack, but artistic integrity begins to be the issue...

sudhir said...

Hey Johny,
Its good to read such critical comments on a significant show from this end of the world. I bet you are right and that makes lot of sense. Good on you. Keep up the artistic spirit my friend. Thanks for sharing your views on behalf of the artist community.

arunkumar said...

you have spoken many minds! like the openness. thank you!

manoj said...

Johny, it's good that somebody is taking pains in communicating views of a lot of art-lover's.Manoj

usha ramachandran said...

Good to read this. All the best.

rikimi said...

Dear Johny, Very pertinent letter at this moment. I have served NGMA, Delhi as an assistant Curator for around eight months along with other two assistant Curators (Savita Kumari- Art History and Jyoti Tokas-Museology, both from NMI)and an Exhibition officer (Sujata Parsai). We were hired as contractual staff with a peanut kind of renumeration. We were initially happy to serve such a giant organisation (though some artist and critic friend were surprised and laughed at me). And ofcourse the position of curator sounded quite prestigious. I was damn excited about handling such a blessed collection from across the country. The eight months experience (whatever it was), involved a huge exposure almost to the entire collection. I had wrote a number of pieces also for various purposes(ghost writing). Gradually exhibitions kept on happening in the galleries, in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai also. But we were never involved in the curatorial works apart from typing, editing and translating captions. Most of the time, we were assigned and made busy with scanning and downloading images, sending emails etc.

Finally after the first contract got over in six months, all three assistant curators quit NGMA. We being young professionals, the market had opened up with various opportunities. We are still criticised by the NGMA authorities, according to them, we have used and exploited the platform of NGMA.

But for me being associated with a place, as a curator (assistant) where all the shows are so called "specially curated" and i am not a part of the curation, I could not sustain.
May be through this couple of lines, i have expressed my anxieties stored for for than a year now.

somudesai said...

i think if we wants to see India and Indian art respected internationally. this kind of openness guts and honesty is required. i am agreed to all this points. i would proudly congratulate you for this kind of vision for the nation. and one more thing lots of people are working really hard and if any responsible government instituted is careless about there responsibility, and when you take this initiative to open this discussion you are taking on behalf of all the hardship people are putting in Indian art scene.

waswo x. waswo said...

Your letter is spot on. And good you posted it in public. I've seen too many poorly constructed exhibitions mounted by major institutions that fail primarily for the reason you discuss...lack of proper curation. Seems every show has a curator's name attached these days, but by the looks of these shows a person must wonder what the curator has actually done. For example, the recent Krishan Khanna "retrospective" at the Lalit Kala Akademy in Delhi. It was a horrible mish-mash, looking as if the work had been thrown up on the walls without a thought. A sad state of affairs.

JohnyML said...

Thanks Waswo for saying that. An opinion against this shoddy treatment should be formed and the people who are holding the forts now as if they were their inherited properties should be made accountable in public. Thank you again. jml

layered said...

Important points of viewing art articulated without any jargon.

History & Arts said...

Congrats Johny... Excellent. It is true that many don't understand the difference between Curation and Coordination. As for NGMA s contribution or rather non contribution to art practices in India,one can write a 3 volume book on the subject :)

LotusEater said...


Excellent post; in fact it is not a post but the scaffolding on which we need to prop some of these people up and hold them up to our - the art viewing and critic community- standards.

That said, a word about the lenghty posts. In the internet world when 140 characters ( some russian novels have more characters!!)define the limits of attention....

kanchi said...

Thank you JML..!
for being a voice for all of us...
Apart from the lack of institutions in India, it is sad that the ones that exist are not given proper attention to.
They would rather get people from outside the country to put together an exhibition rather than use the rich resources we have here itself,..!
However, i am always hopeful for the arts in India. We have so much potential, and such passion. Only if we were given a chance, we can create a masterpiece..!

Onami said...

Dear Johny. While reading your lengthy essay,all the while, I was thinking about one thing: what happens to the opportunities to JML at NGMA once this is published. we have been conditioned to think on a one-to-one parochial manner. i know u dont care much for it. but catch this point: the disaster at NGMA is much more intense than what happened at art history dept at baroda a couple of years ago. only thing is, this which u have pointed out doesnt hold that 'sensationalism' of the baroda disaster. slow death is no death.

should the art community always wait for a 'sensational' element, to react? perhaps the question is not to be addressed to NGMA (for the one reason: dead bodies cannot say hallo to u). this question should be shot back to the art world itself: how bourgeoisie have we become? right? why isnt the art world reacting to a crisis, devoid of sensationalism?

more than that, going by your description, it is not a disorganised tagore show, but an insult to tagore. If we should accept that whole heartedly, than the concerned NGMA should be put to stake of discourse. one thing i realise with NGMA: shame is not sharp enough a tool to even draw your attention. my final question is: is there any difference between fossils and NGMA? and the right person to answer should be no other than the director himself. could u address this to him on behalf of me?

gopika nath said...

I have't seen the show yet and was looking forward to it. I think you have made some very pertinent suggestions which are not just relevant to the NGMA but a lot of galleries would do well to understand the scope of professionalism that should be involved in putting up shows.

JohnyML said...

Dear Onami and Gopika,

Yes, what you have articulated in your responses are really pertinent. I believe we all should (leaving all our personal likings and dislikings behind) come around to address this issue.

I strongly believe that this issue should not end up with a blog and a few concerned comments.



rikimi said...

Johny, it feels good to read everybody's reaction. I agree to what you have said and also acknowledge the fact that i have learned and gained a lot. What I have been listening from people for the last three years(since I have professionally stepped into the field) a complaint about my generation that we always crave for MONEY and ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. I want to know, is it BAD?? Shouldnt we atleast get paid well if not acknowledged? Do these giants of our fields (after earning huge figures throughout their career) work without bothering about these factors? Why do they get so much pissed off when someone by mistake use "OO" in their name instead of "U"?

JohnyML said...

Dear Rikimi,

Money is one thing that gives a lot of confidence to a young professional. But money is not the only thing. Recognition and appreciation also matter a lot. This complaint that the young generation craves for money is an all time complaint. When I came to Delhi almost 16 years back and plunged into the scene right away, people criticized me also for talking about money. But that time, I was talking about how money corrupts art. And corrupts absolutely. Perhaps, the economic realities of our country was different then. Things have changed now. My perception or my generation's perception on money has also changed and matured. We have learned a lot.
Now money is not a dirty word; it should not be. It helps people to do what they want. I believe that each and every person on the face of this earth has the right live dignified life. Money helps to lead that like. Especially for a young professional like you, dignity is supremely important. I spent my twenties in the 'Jhola Kurta Dirty' syndrome. Now you cannot afford to do that. You need to look presentable. You need to feel confident in a crowd. You need to equip yourself with all what you need to be a professional. And all these things need money.
So my dear friend, don't worry. Fight it out and demand. Respect those people who respect you. You need to get your rights, by all means necessary. Spelling mistakes are highlighted when people become cynical and avoid the content. Don't worry about that too.
I wish you all the best....


waswo x. waswo said...

As long as the subject of money has been brought up, I feel I need to add this. It seems that support for the arts in India is still seen as either a) a luxury that benefits an elite, or b) a charity that supports artists, who in the context of this mindset are seen as peripheral if not tonally irrelevant to the needs of society.

To make any progress these views must change. Communities around the world have learned to see the arts as integral to economic development. The classic example is the Guggenheim Bilbao, which was used by Bilbao's city fathers to put Bilbao on the world map as a thriving city and tourist destination. The opening of Tate Modern in Britain was part of an overall plan to revitalize a neighborhood. Art institutions worldwide are seen as income generating, money attracting, resources in their communities.

As you know, people queue in long lines to enter not just the Louvre in Paris or the Art Institute of Chicago, but many lesser institutions as well. Yet when a person visits the NGMA one is surprised if there are as many as two or three people in front of you at the ticket counter. Clearly the NGMA has failed not only in exhibition standards, it has also failed in marketing itself as a world-class destination and a part of Delhi's economic infrastructure.

Sorry for thinking like a capitalist Johny, but (in the world as it is) money always manages to become an element in a search for solutions.

LV said...

You have said what I, and definitely many others, have been mulling around with in our heads. And you have said it brilliantly.

We are fighting to do something with the Bangalore NGMA..

Thank you!

Lina Vincent

bm said...


chandrima said...

Thanks for voicing our concerns Johny.
I think the NGMA needs a revamp from top to bottom. It hold's national treasures but I feel ashamed to suggest to anyone to visit the place. If I ever do, I caution them by saying 'expect very less'.
As far as curatorial efforts, there is none.

jbangani said...

Dear Johny,
I found it extremely significant and indeed a voice of each creative person.

arunab said...

Hi Johny!,
I first read your remarks as quoted in this fourth issue of Bhavna's Take on Art magazine. I am SO happy that what I've been incorporating in my columns for years has been echoed in greater detail and brutal frankness at long last. Technology makes it possible!
In the Indian context,however, there is one doubt that I have in mind about art in general,its role and place in our day to day life, in patterns of growth and developement, its integration within the framework of society at large. For instance, we seem to desensitise towards art beyond the spaces of the gallery. The condition of our areas of work, living,public & private areas do not spell any sensitivity for art/aesthetics/order/discipline :balance/perspective/value, in their COMPOSITION.
No sense of art is manifest in these vital areas of our society. The reasons are many. But unless we are able to begin at the beginning,learn to LIVE LIFE as an ART, mere curatorial expertise and practice, my dear, will remain only the tip of the iceberg-and you know that it is a huge-HUGE iceberg..don't you? Oh, my dear, that leaves us altogether with SO much to curate!Wishing us the Best.
Very proud of you,
Aruna Bhowmick.

arunab said...

Hi Johny!,
I first read your remarks as quoted in this fourth issue of Bhavna's Take on Art magazine. I am SO happy that what I've been incorporating in my columns for years has been echoed in greater detail and brutal frankness at long last. Technology makes it possible!
In the Indian context,however, there is one doubt that I have in mind about art in general,its role and place in our day to day life, in patterns of growth and developement, its integration within the framework of society at large. For instance, we seem to desensitise towards art beyond the spaces of the gallery. The condition of our areas of work, living,public & private areas do not spell any sensitivity for art/aesthetics/order/discipline :balance/perspective/
value, in their COMPOSITION.
No sense of art is manifest in these vital areas of our society. The reasons are many. But unless we are able to begin at the beginning,learn to LIVE LIFE as an ART, mere curatorial expertise and practice, my dear, will remain only the tip of the iceberg-and you know that it is a huge-HUGE iceberg..don't you? Oh, my dear, that leaves us altogether with SO much to curate!Wishing us the Best.
Very proud of you,
Aruna Bhowmick.