Sunday, February 10, 2019

Amol Palekar, Jesal Thacker and the Story of NGMA Seen Differently

(Amol Palekar and Sandhya Gokhale at the NGMA -M- pic Scroll .in)

I think I need to put this row into perspective considering the fact that I had the privilege to interact with some of the directors of the National Gallery of Modern Art during the last few years. What the veteran actor-director and artist Amol Palekar did on the opening ceremony of late Prabhakar Barwe’s Retrospective exhibition at the NGMA, Mumbai was simply his concern and as one of the makers of contemporary culture Mr.Palekar has all the right to do so. Curator Jesal Thacker is seen stopping him from making a sharp critique on the Culture Ministry, Government of India that has been plunging its claws into the administrative body of the NGMAs since ‘November 2018’ by abolishing the ‘local artists advisory body’ that negotiated the presentation of retrospectives and other important shows in the same facility. Ms.Thacker was curt at the same time polite asking the veteran to stick to the subject of the evening ‘Barwe’. Obviously she was under pressure and she had taken clear cues from the authorities who were sharing the dais on the occasion. The audio-visual-textual evidences on the row are available in the public domain and one could cross check the visible discomfort that the curator was feeling at that moment.

(NGMA Mumbai)

Let me talk from a curator’s point of view before I get into the administrative mishaps that have been going on in the NGMA set up. Jesal Thacker is a young curator who has been investing all her energy for more than a decade in bringing out the Barwe literature both in Marathi and English and also in realizing a retrospective of his works in the present scale. Gauging from the facebook posts that she has been making ever since the declaration of the exhibition I understand that she is elated and is quite proud of her achievement. The moment belongs to her. Hence, when she recognizes that the whole evening is veering towards a political controversy at the cost of her decade long effort, whatever her political leanings and hand in glow arrangements with the establishments (I am not accusing her of anything of that sort but playing a devil’s advocate to cite the maximum) she would put all her might to defend her project. And I believe this is what we see in the video. As it was Ms.Thacker who asked Mr.Palekar not to digress, and it was she who had been addressed by Mr.Palekar whether he was censored and so on, one could come to an easy conjecture about Ms.Thacker’s role in curtailing the free speech of Mr.Palekar. He is not the only one who has been gagged; Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Nasiruddeen Shah, T.M.Krishana, Nayantara Sehgal and many more.

(Jesal Thacker, curator of Prabhakar Barwe Retrospective)

While I say Ms.Thacker’s intervention was circumstantial for she wanted her project to be saved from getting derailed, I would say with more verve and passion that Mr.Palekar has all the rights to speak and he need not choose another occasion to vent his anxieties on the growing grip of the Cultural Ministry in the affairs of the NGMA. Mr.Palekar need not wait for or organize an appropriate gathering to say the same. Late Barwe was his close friend and as he is no more now, Mr.Palekar took the liberty to connect the fierce independence that his generation enjoyed as artists and how the things have gone wrong today. I have been told that Mr.Suhas Bahulkar and Ms.Anita Rupavataram, the former Chairman and the present Director respectively also expressed the same sentiments as Ms.Thacker which I feel was done with more vehemence and like a policy statement as the representatives of a Ministry or the Ministry’s politico-cultural ideology which definitely has been contested by the liberal and leftist intellectuals of this country.

(a work by Prabhakar Barwe)

As per the new decision by the Cultural Ministry through the Director General of the NGMAs, only one sixth of the available space will be given to the local artists to have their exhibitions; retrospectives or otherwise. It is definitely a wrong decision. It deprives the artists of the city of their rightful and pride place of exposition. However, it is high time that we ask about the nature of the shows that these local artists advisory body used to present there. The NGMA B (Bengaluru) has been interesting shows of the artists like G.R.Iranna, Madhvi Parekh, Manu Parekh, K.S.Radhakrishnan, S.G.Vasudev, J.S.Khanderao and so on. Some of the retrospective exhibitions were curated by the Delhi NGMA team and were taken to the NGMA (M) 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 Delhi 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 Mr.Adwaita Gadanayak was appointed as the Director General of the NGMAs a huge Jitish Kallat show was mounted in the Delhi NGMA. With the abolition of the local artists body what would happen to the character of the shows in the NGMAs nobody knows.

(Prof. Rajeev Lochan, former Director of the NGMA)

Going by the Delhi example, Mr.Gadanayak has been slumming it for quite some time. An artist with considerable repute and a strong allegiance to the RSS Mr.Gadanayak seems to have been succumbing to the political bigwigs as his organization was forced to present the ‘gifts’ that the Prime Minister had accumulated from his endless travels. Recently there was an auction of the PM’s Gifts. Definitely, these are not good indicators. The involvement of Sanskar Bharti in visual culture could drag contemporary art of India to two or three yugas backwards. However we should be aware of the fact that there has been ‘progressive lobbying’ even before the NDA Government. Till late 1990s, the NGMA Delhi used to rent out its place for private galleries. With a controversy raked up by the rightwing forces of that time, the decision was revoked and only official shows were mounted. When Mr.Rajeev Lochan came to power as long as the UPA remained in power, that means fifteen long years, there was an equal effort to snatch power from the NGMA (M) and (B) and concentrate the whole power on Mr.Lochan. Intellectuals and artist efficiently fought the move and till the end of his tenure Mr.Lochan could not hold absolute power. However, in due course of time he had liberalized the norms and had invited the private agencies to hold shows there. 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 elite almost bringing back the memories of the License, Quota Raj of Indira Gandhi’s time. I have to say that Mr.Gadanayak reversed the policy and made the NGMA accessible to people.

(Adwaita Gadanayak, DG of the NGMA. Note the background)

Take the example of the NGMA (M). As I mentioned before there have been strong resistance from the Mumbai art fraternity to the effort of the NGMA (D)’s taking over idea. 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 to 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 an 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 Mr.Bahulkar 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 Chairman appointee did not have a say, let alone a decent cabin to sit?

(the controversial moment: When Amol Palekar was asked to stop)

In my view Mr.Palekar did the right thing. Ms.Thacker also did the right thing. If Ms.Anita Rupavataram, the Director of the NGMA (M) retorted, she too was right considering the given situation. My heart goes out to both Mr.Palekar and Ms.Thacker. Before shooting down the government’s decision, let us see who all would be getting into the new projects directly appointed by the Cultural Ministry. You never know the erstwhile curators who did only curated cutting edge art and alternative practices could masquerade themselves as curators of ‘Hanuman’ images from all over India. We have to target them. May be they are among us already; it just takes a few months to see them turning coats easily.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

An Artist’s Life that You Need to Know

(MS Sudhilal)

Perhaps he does not want this story to be told by me. But a writer is always on the edge; he has to say. Writing is life and death rolled into one; one saves the other. I believe artists have a life after death and I also believe that artists have only a life after death. While living they are in the process of dying. Some are in perpetual confinement, unable to perform their best for they have already done their worst. Some get dragged into performing the worst. They get confined for life. Luck saves them, perhaps education. Judges are not always cruel. They let the artists sing a song, draw portrait or do a jig and once impressed let them go. By the time they are out of their prison rooms, times would have flown by. Looking at the mirror they find their facial hairs grown thick, voice roughened, palm calloused and mind hardened. Some may die many deaths at that moment itself. But some may see that smiling face, that innocent face just before committing that perennial error and decide to live a new life.

That is the life of MS Sudhilal put in nutshell. Yesterday when I posted his picture with me I said that he had a story to tell. I had demanded that the top art faculties in the country should invite him to be a post graduate student. I thought of recounting his story to which I am privy partially, at a later stage. The story is so compulsive that today I itself I put into words. His story goes like this:

(Self Portrait)

He is MS Sudhilal. He hails from Kannur. His parents do respectable government service. He has got a younger brother. When he came to study in Trivandrum Fine Arts College sometime in 2006, he was all eighteen years old. Shy and hesitant, he remained a silent student, picking up the lessons from the preparatory classes that stressed more on artistic craft and tried to learn the ways of the city. Trivandrum Fine Arts College, for the students coming from the Malabar region is as strange and good as Delhi or Baroda, perhaps more rigorous and challenging. They enter the gate of the college as obedient youngsters and come out as rebellious artists. That has been the history of it; but over a period of time it too has changed. Change is perhaps fundamental to all changes.

Sudhilal spent his days trying his hands on drawing and clay modeling and so on. And it was time for him to go for the vacation during the Onam days. How happy he was to get back to his home. Something was however brewing in the cauldrons of time. Sudhilal’s father had a tiff with some youngsters in the neighborhood. Those were festival days and some were tippling hard. Started off as a mere teasing the tiff reached a physical assault. Things were settled for the day. But at night the guys came prepared. They came home knocking violently at the door with clear intention to kill. They assaulted Sudhilal’s father before his eyes. He responded as any self respecting and father loving son would respond. He did not know that he had so much of power in him; the power of his love for his father, the power of his righteousness and the power of his morality.

(Sudhilal during student days)

Sudhilal counter attacked the boys. In the meanwhile, his father stabbed one of them. He died two weeks later in hospital. Both father and son were accused with murder and assault. When the case came to the court both of them were sentenced for life. Pleas went thick, high and far. The judge took pity to the young boy and allowed him to continue with his studies. Sudhilal came to Fine Arts College in Trivandrum now as a jail bird. Many did not know. He kept to himself. Prof. Ajayakumar was the Principal then. He invited me to give a seminar there. “Your speech gave me confidence and the fundamentals about art. It reassured me to continue with my studies,” Sudhilal said. He was coming against me as I got down from a state transport bus. I did not know who he was. He extended his hand towards me. I could see the smile in his eyes and the benevolence in his face. Some kind of relationship that lives through ages and lives. I held my hand out and held his for a long time.

The sun was throwing fire balls on our heads. There was no shade to move into. But the heat of the moment could beat the heat of the sun. It was soothing and transcending at once. I took him for another young facebook friend, which he was. But then he spoke with the smile on his eyes and lips and said the above words. As he said he finished his BFA from this college I just asked him what he was going to do next. He said, a post graduation. He asked about Delhi College/s. I said Baroda, Santiniketan and Hyderabad are better. Perhaps I am biased. Then suddenly he said he was not working for a long time. How long, I asked. Till October 2018. Goodness. What were you doing all these days? I was in jail. I was not shocked but I felt a lot of love for him. He narrated his story. We had forgotten that the sun was screaming at us to move. I felt more love and care for him. I told him that he did the right thing. His father had done the right thing. Sometimes killing someone looks so just. It was happening at that moment.

(MS Sudhilal)

I am thirty now, Sudhilal said. ‘But that is not a problem in our field, no?’ he asked me. I touched his shoulder and said, ‘No, you are much better equipped to study art than many already in the art schools.’ Yes, he said. I asked him whether he was still traumatic about the whole thing. He said he had reconciled with the past and he has developed spiritual inclinations. I said, ‘do not opt that spiritualism that makes you alien to people.’ No sir, he said. I am in that spiritualism where I feel a lot for the people around me. It was the right time for me to ask whether the guys who had assaulted him and his father still around. They are still around, said Sudhilal. But they too have now learned their lessons. Sudhilal’s father is in the open jail still serving his life sentence. The family has learned to live in truth and reality. I asked him to send me his images. ‘I have not painted for long. And whatever I had done don’t look pretty now. I am going to start now,’ Sudhilal said.

At that moment I knew that I did not need to see his works done so far. What I want to see are the works that would come out from him now onwards. He has an exceptional life experience. I had asked him whether he tried to do painting in the jail. He said he couldn’t. He was just trying to adjust his life there still appalled at the turn of events. Sudhilal needs to study. Upon hearing his story a friend of mine spoke out the names like ‘Caravaggio’ and ‘Jean Genet’, who had crime and prison terms. Goa’s painter Norman Tagore was once implicated of a crime that he had not done and had to undergo prison term. Today Chintan Upadhyay is in jail for a crime which only he knows whether he was a party or not. Here is a young man shining like a sun after going through the fire test. He needs a post graduation, a career and life. If Indian art institutions cannot give him that who else would?