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