(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.
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.