And now the NGMA

Published : Sep 16, 2000 00:00 IST

Participating artists force the National Galery of Modern Art to cancel an exhibition of works following a gross effort at censorship by the Department of Culture - dealing a serious blow to the credibility of the NGMA.

PERHAPS all government-sponsored shows involve the dispensation of grace and favour. And perhaps the exhibition, 'Combine - Voices for the New Century', was no different. The 26 artists chosen are well known as having been patronised by government offici als like Ashok Bajpai of the Ministry of Culture, by the former Director of the National Gallery of Modern Act (NGMA), and by various embassies and leading galleries. Not one of these artists is "new" in any sense of the word. They are in no way fringe e lements.

Finally, the exhibition failed to take off because the participating artists took exception to a particularly gross effort at censorship by the Department of Culture in the Central government. This was a serious blow to the credibility of the NGMA, which had turned away an exhibition by Victor Vasarely, a Hungarian born French artist of world renown, to put up 'Combine'.

The works featured in 'Combine', however, were by and large conventional ones. True, the concept note spouts platitudes like the artists having "cut the umbilical cord", or "portraying and symbolising contemporary issues". But the show does not reflect m uch that is beyond the ordinary. The artists describe themselves as "people who represent (a) major school of thought with astonishing power" and the show is said to be "a delight by virtue of its simplicity and austerity", reflecting "daring conviction and a no compromise attitude" as a result of which they complain of "being neglected". But one finds that far more radical artists have been excluded than been included in the show.

However, the exhibition was to be a well chosen conventional show sponsored by an art bureaucracy that the present dispensation wanted to uproot because it cannot bear to give public credibility to anything that is not entirely its own. In order to ensur e that, no one, however tame, is to be spared the whip. The message they give is clear: go through us, or not at all. That is why after M.F. Husain's works have been attacked so many times and he faces numerous false cases foisted by elements from the Sa ngh Parivar, the same Prime Minister who wrote in the catalogue of his tormentor took a painting by the artist to gift to the Pope. Similarly Jatin Das, who was nearly lynched by Bajrang Dal elements, has been given an offer to do a mural in Parliament. Anjolie Ela Menon and Latika Katt were abusively addressed by an official of the Ministry of Culture during their efforts to find the missing sculptor Balbir Katt. Their efforts to find any trace of the artist have been scuttled. But we learn that the Pr ime Minister is carrying a sculpture and a painting by Anjolie Ela Menon to gift to Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea Clinton. It is obvious that a carrot and stick policy is being used to coerce and corrupt the artists.

Even what happened at the NGMA shows that while one cannot sup with the devil without dirtying one's hands, it is possible to come clean in the end. This is what happened when on August 31 the Director of the NGMA suddenly said she would not allow the wo rk of one of the better works in the show - Surendran Nair's

"An actor rehearsing the interior monologue of Icarus". This abrupt decision was taken on instructions from the Secretary in the Department of Culture, P.V. Vaidyanatha Ayyar. Ayyar said that as public servants they would be called upon to explain how th ey had allowed a canvas, which depicted the national emblem in a less than reverential manner, to pass.

Both Surendran Nair and Rekha Rodwittiya threatened to withdraw all their works from the show. The matter came to such a pass that the Director finally stated, a few hours before the show, that if necessary she would take down the work with her own hands . At that point all the artists decided to withdraw their works from the exhibition rather than have a good work removed in an authoritarian manner. This happened some 15 minutes before the show was to open.

On September 6, the eminent artist Ghulam Sheikh offered his resignation from the advisory committee to the NGMA. In his letter to the Director, Sheikh pointed out that "the unilateral decision to remove a painting from an approved and authorised show on unsubstantial legal, moral or aesthetic grounds indicates an unfortunate absence of sensitivity to artistic vocabulary", and on account of "the lack of concern the NGMA authorities have shown towards the advisory committee", he could no longer continue to be a committee member.

The Director of the NGMA no longer answers questions officially. All questions on the matter are directed to a Joint Secretary in the Department of Culture who is seldom available. Coming as it does in the wake of an exhibition in Canada being removed un der pressure from the Indian High Commissioner (article on page 61), one may see a period of interference in civil society by the state and its instruments as never before. But the resistance to it will also be much broader than before and from all quart ers as the carrot is no longer sweet enough to bear the constant attacks with the stick.

It is obvious that such tactics cannot succeed in the long run. But they can destroy our culture that has been so assiduously developed during the long struggle to free ourselves from colonial rule. The Sangh Parivar largely kept aloof from the struggle and even divided the forces fighting for independence at crucial moments in the country's history. It obviously has no stake in the culture of independent India, so it is not pained to see it being destroyed in its attempt to regiment Indian society alon g its own sectarian lines.

However, the cultural tradition of poets such as Subramanya Bharati, Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Kumaran Asan; writers such as Munshi Prem Chand, Rahul Sankrityayan, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer; artists suc h as Gaganendranath Tagore, Ram Kinkar Baij, Chitta Prasad, Zainul Abedin, Nandalal Bose and Bhabesh Sanyal, is not likely to bow before the stick. The artists have written a letter to the NGMA authorities in which they have stated that they will exhibit their work at the NGMA only if the authorities back down and allow the whole show to be exhibited without exception. So we can look forward to a long and relentless struggle in the arts, which will no doubt give substance to the words in the concept not e of this exhibition of young artists if they stick to their word.

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