‘We ought to agree to disagree’

Print edition : March 15, 2019
Interview with Amol Palekar.

IT was supposed to be a regular opening of a retrospective dedicated to Prabhakar Barwe at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). But it did not stay that way. As noted filmmaker-painter Amol Palekar began delivering his address to a gathering of well-known artists and lovers of art, he was interrupted by the likes of Suhas Bahulkar, noted artist and former chairman of the NGMA’s advisory committee in Mumbai, and Jesal Thacker, the show’s curator. Palekar was speaking his mind on the state of arts and art affairs in the country.

His speech was incomplete; Palekar later told the media that he would not have consented to be part of the panel at the retrospective had the organisers told him in advance that he would not be allowed to say anything critical of the government’s policies.

Palekar did not get much support from the august gathering; most of the artists and connoisseurs of art remained quiet even as he was silenced in the middle of his speech.

Palekar spoke to Frontline on the event and other issues. Excerpts:

About two years ago you had spoken about the growing intolerance and about hired parrots muzzling debate during your speech at Savitribai Phule University. How do you see the latest instance at the NGMA?

Justice William Douglas had cautioned us saying, “As nightfall doesn’t come all at once nor does oppression.” The twilight, when everything remains seemingly unchanged, is most dangerous. We all must be aware of the change in air, howsoever minor, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness. We failed to see the twilight before 2014. We failed to access the pace with which those “parrots” were transformed into a genuflecting entourage ready to kill, troll or shout you down. Today a slight dissent, even a silent protest, is not allowed.

Before attempts at curbing your speech, there were similar attempts to silence author Nayantara Sahgal when her talk was cancelled at the last minute. How does one resist such muzzling tactics?

At the literary festival held at Yavatmal, three women wore the masks of Nayantaraji protesting against her forced absence. Those three harmless women were asked to leave the function. A handful of protesters were beaten up by the police for showing black flags during the rally organised for the Prime Minister. We should not be surprised when Amol Palekar was not allowed to complete his speech.

Muzzling tactics by the government is one thing but what is serious is if the artists or people at large are ready to speak up, or not, against the oppressive tactics. They are fearful of the onslaught of trolls and personal attacks; they expect quid pro quo from the system and do not wish to be blacklisted; for various other reasons, if the victims themselves do not wish to protest, our speaking up for them will always have limitations. At the NGMA, there were many veteran artists, curators, gallery owners and art lovers in the audience. Not a single one said in solidarity, to the organisers, “Let Amol speak.” But many came and congratulated me in person or sent messages.

Does this not seek to reduce artists and authors to medieval courtiers?

If the artists wish to be mere court jesters, their expressions and voices will get suppressed. Should decisions such as whose exhibition should be held at the government gallery, and how much space should be allotted to which artist, be taken by artists or bureaucrats? Shouldn’t there be an open dialogue with the larger artist community?

Artists from all ideological backgrounds, encompassing gender, caste, and geographical factors, ought to be represented in various appointments to the decision-making committees. Artists hesitate to take a stand because the world of art is not free from governmental interference. The patronage of the government makes them vulnerable and the voice of dissent gets suppressed at that level itself. So, the contingencies cause the gagging. Then, of course, it’s their choice to either raise their voice or conform to the dictates of the system.

Along with the attack on free speech, one also notices a clear attack on the pluralist ethos of our land. Is it appropriate to say our freedom is in peril?

Yes, these are all the shades of black. The eclectic texture of our country is in danger. If you start wiping out the minorities, where will you stop? Will you not listen to the shehnai because of Bismillah Khan? Will you not admire the Taj Mahal? Will you not appreciate Urdu poetry? Will you not wear clothes beautifully embroidered in the lanes of Delhi and handloomed in Maheshwar?

It is impossible to ignore the plural ethos of our country. It is a shame that transcending ideological affiliations, we are not proud of our plural heritage. It is also the greed for centralised power that this government is establishing.

In 2015, the government took over the Lalit Kala Akademi and it was run by a bureaucrat for about three years. Most local LKAs do not have permanent/full-time heads. The manner of ensuring control is to place people/artists who will narrate government constructs.

There is a clear line between criticism of the nation and criticism of the government. Yet, one often finds these days that criticism of the government is regarded as criticism of the nation, even sedition. How do you look at it?

When we are being incessantly bulldozed into not seeing that clear line, what I, as a socially responsible artist, can do is to make people aware of this. I recently said, “In these times of extreme divisions, I am appealing to all of us to accommodate a grey palette allowing ideological ambiguities, nuanced dissent and fearless dialogue. Creation of grey-friendly tolerance where seeming antithetical ideas will not be summarily thrashed without deeper analysis is the need of our time.”

Once this third spectrum is resurrected, it will accommodate people who can criticise Padmavat for being incorrect in portraying history while still respecting it as a work of art; it will welcome those who will protest against cancelling T.M. Krishna’s concerts even if they may not like his idea of singing songs about Jesus and Allah; those who can continue to love and respect Naseeruddin Shah as a great actor even if they don’t share his fear of violence; and also those who won’t troll Aamir for playing Krishna in his Mahabharat project simply because he is a Khan. We ought to agree to disagree.

Today, a good section of the media has taken up the role of spokesman of the government. Does it not weaken our democracy?

Of course, the managed media are a threat to our democracy. Despite that, we use our own filters and observe, hence our democracy is still alive.

Finally, has there been an attempt from the NGMA to reach out to you to find an amicable way forward?

Post my protest, the Ministry changed its decision and “clarified” that “the recommendations of the previous advisory committee (which are up-to-date December 2019 for NGMA, Mumbai) will be honoured and exhibitions of artists will be held as proposed”. That means their earlier decision to cancel the retrospectives of Mehli Gobai and Sudhir Patwardhan will now be honoured.

I am glad to learn about their “clarification”. It is indeed a good face-saving attempt. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the political party controlling the governance at any specific time tries to appoint people who align with its ideology and agenda. But post-2014, the lack of merit and expertise in the appointees has become very evident. Besides, the Hindutva agenda has become very apparent. Thus, we will have to confront this reality of our lives as well.

Ziya Us Salam