NGMA Palekar controversy

Art and dissent

Print edition : March 15, 2019

Amol Palekar, a file picture. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Amol Palekar’s experience at the NGMA and certain decisions by the gallery are indicative of the current regime’s intolerance of dissent and disdain for independent art.

THE veteran actor, activist and painter Amol Palekar was speaking as the chief guest at the opening of a retrospective of the late Prabhakar Barwe, a well-known modernist painter, at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Mumbai, when he was suddenly interrupted by the artist Suhas Bahulkar and the museum director, Anita Rupavataram, who told him to stay focussed on Barwe.

Palekar had started talking about the “loss of independence” the gallery was experiencing and a few other issues regarding the gallery, such as the decision to reduce the space given to external shows and a move to dissolve the advisory committees that comprise local artists. 

Not one to be cowed down, Palekar continued to speak. However, when other audience members began to heckle, he cut short his speech. The incident caused outrage in the creative and activist communities, which flayed the censorship of Palekar, calling it yet another attack on freedom of speech.

Palekar is a noted actor and is well respected for his views. To ask him to stick to the topic while he was speaking was not just disrespectful but indicated how the establishment was curbing critical voices, an artist present at the event said. “The censorship situation is worsening,” he added.

Palekar put the museum in a spot, forcing it to explain the decisions regarding shows and the advisory committees. In his criticism, he highlighted an issue that has the potential to cause irreparable damage to freedom of expression. Following media reports, the NGMA, which is headquartered in New Delhi under the Ministry of Culture, put out a clarification regarding the concerns raised by Palekar.

An official release from NGMA Director General Adwaita Gadanayak stated: “Regarding recent reports in media pertaining to NGMA Mumbai, it is clarified as under: the advisory committees of NGMA Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi have not been dissolved. Their terms have ended recently and they are in the process of being reconstituted. The recommendations of the previous advisory committee will be honoured and exhibitions of artists will happen as proposed. The new advisory committee will take a decision relating to future exhibitions.”

In his defence, Palekar told the media: “I came to know that without any communication to the committee, the next two retrospectives have been cancelled by Anita Rupavataram. I wanted to raise these issues.”

According to him, the gravity of the problem was that with the dissolution of the committee, there was a great loss of independence for the gallery, as exhibitions and other decisions would now be solely at the discretion of the Ministry of Culture. Until recently, the artist community played a vital part in the functioning of the NGMA. 

Rude interruption

A video of Palekar’s speech, posted on several websites, showed him speaking primarily of Barwe’s work. When he started questioning the NGMA’s decisions, the interruption occurred. Anita Rupavataram and Bahulkar both asked him to stay on topic. A visibly shocked and irritated Palekar turned to the panel and said: “Are you trying to stop me from speaking and applying censorship on my speech?”

He added: “Recently, Nayantara Sahgal was invited to speak at an event and her invitation was withdrawn at the last minute since her speech was slightly critical of the current situation we are living in. Are you trying to create a similar situation by stopping me from speaking here? If you don’t want me to speak, I won’t speak.”

When the interruptions did not stop, he said: “You say you are not censoring. You say you are only requesting… Don’t speak this, don’t speak that. Don’t eat this, don’t eat that.” In spite of some clapping and support for Palekar in the audience, he had to end his talk. 

Here are some excerpts from Palekar’s speech: 

“Many of you may not know that this retrospective will be the last show that is 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. 

“As of November 13, 2018, the artists’ advisory committees operating at both regional centres, Mumbai and Bangalore, have been abolished, is what I have learnt. I am in the process of officially inquiring about the details so as to verify the hearsay. Till now, which exhibition will be held at which space of the two NGMA branches was decided by the local artists’ advisory committees. Each committee operated for three years. There was direct participation of local artists in deciding the theme/content of the exhibition. 

“I have also learnt that as of November 13, all these decisions would be taken from Delhi by the Ministry of Culture. No new committee has been convened after the expiry of the old committee’s tenure that ended on October 25.

“On November 13, another disastrous decision was apparently taken, namely, ‘all future exhibitions of artworks not from NGMA’s own collection would be allotted only 1/6th of the area in NGMA Mumbai restricting those only to the Dome area’. Does that mean that the remaining area will never exhibit new artists’ works or veteran artists’ new works beyond NGMA’s own collection?

“The proposed retrospectives of Mehli Gobhai and Sudhir Patwardhan scheduled respectively in March-April and December 2019 were cancelled. We will be deprived of seeing 300 or more fascinating works of Mehli Gobhai, who is no more with us. 

“Why are these unilateral decisions taken? What is the real intention behind such restrictions? Isn’t this another level of censorship on artistic freedom? I am truly disturbed…where is it going to stop? This sea of freedom is receding day by day, gradually but incessantly… why are we silent about this? What is more upsetting is that those privy to such unilateral orders did not speak out, protest or even question it.” 

After the controversy erupted, Palekar said on various platforms that he stands by his views. 

Reacting to the controversy, Adwaita Gadanayak said in an interview: “If I was in the situation, I would have allowed him to finish what he was saying and then explained the facts to him. After all, the NGMA is a space for artists, they should be allowed to say what they have to say.” 

Explaining the advisory committee situation, Gadanayak said that the NGMA was waiting for the committees at all the centres to end their tenure before it appointed new members. He denied that the committees would be disbanded.

With regard to the space given to external artists, Gadanayak said that the NGMA wanted collections from other centres to be viewed in Mumbai. He said that the top floor of the NGMA in Mumbai, which was earmarked for external artists, was not a viable option and that he would take a look at that decision. Gadanayak clarified repeatedly that artistic expression and support to Indian art would be a priority. 

Gadanayak is perhaps making the right noises to calm the situation. However, informed sources said that Gadanayak, a sculptor and former head of the School of Sculpture at Bhubaneshwar KIIT University, was handpicked by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) top brass to head the prestigious NGMA. In 2014, he was the convenor of the BJP’s Odisha Art and Culture cell. 

Taking art to the people

According to information available from the gallery, the idea of the NGMA was conceived by former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was supported by former President Dr S. Radhakrishnan, who believed Indian contemporary art needed a substantial platform. The NGMA was founded at the imposing Jaipur House in New Delhi in 1954. The Mumbai centre came up much later. 

Located at one end of Mumbai’s heritage district, it is housed in Cowasji Jehangir Hall, a beautiful stone building constructed in 1911 and funded by the wealthy Parsi philanthropist Cowasji Jehangir, who helped make it a prominent venue for music gatherings, art exhibitions and political meetings.

When the Jehangir Art Gallery came up in the same area, the Cowasji Jehangir Hall lost its patronage and eventually deteriorated to a state of disrepair. 

In the early 1990s, the well-known collector Kekoo Gandhy, with the support of contemporary Indian artists, appealed to the NGMA to start a gallery in Mumbai and suggested that it renovate and restore the Cowasji Jehangir Hall for this purpose. Since it was a heritage building, the project was a challenge, but with art doyens such as Gandhy, Sharayu Doshi, and Phiroza Godrej steering the plan, a stunning structure emerged in 1996. There are five galleries in the building that are linked through a spiral design. The structure is air-conditioned and temperature-controlled to protect the art works. Additionally, a small theatre for film screenings, book readings, and lectures has been created; over time, much creative work has flourished here. 

The NGMA in Mumbai reportedly owns some 17,000 works of art by Indian artists. Some of them are national treasures. From time to time, the galleries in the hall organise exhibitions displaying them.

However, its greatest contribution was providing independent artists a space to exhibit paintings and sculptures. The NGMA has treated Mumbai to exhibits by renowned artists such as M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, and S.H. Raza, who led the Indian contemporary art movement.The gallery has also arranged private collections to be exhibited, such as the massive collection of Raja Ravi Varma from the Baroda Palace.

The NGMA’s biggest achievement was taking art to the people. At a subsidised price, anyone can walk into this captivating building and enjoy moments of cerebral art. 

The decision to focus on the NGMA’s permanent collection and allocate only a sixth of the space for external artists implies that new talent will now receive little encouragement. And that will be a great loss to art lovers and the general public.

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