At the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, on Friday, Amol Palekar was repeatedly interrupted when he criticised the culture ministry for reportedly scrapping the advisory committees of the gallery’s Mumbai and Bengaluru centres, forcing the veteran filmmaker to cut short his speech.
Though he was prevented from delivering his full speech, in a phone interview later, Palekar also criticised a new policy of the gallery limiting the extent to which its space could be used for exhibitions not from its own collection.
He was speaking at an event, organised by the Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, to inaugurate an exhibition of the works of the artist Prabhakar Barwe.
The Barwe exhibition, Palekar said, “will be the last show that is decided by the advisory committee of local artists and not by some bureaucrat or 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, in Mumbai and Bangalore, have been abolished.”
He added that he was in the process of “officially inquiring about the details so as to verify the hearsay”.
Suhas Bahulkar, chairman of the previous advisory committee in Mumbai, said he was told in informal conversations with NGMA’s officials that the committee would not be reconstituted. Nothing was communicated to him officially, though, he added.
Anita Rupavataram, director of NGMA Mumbai, however, denied the allegation. “The term of the outgoing Advisory Committee of NGMA Mumbai has expired on 15.11.2018 and hence it is no longer in existence,” she said in an email. “The new Advisory Committee is likely to be constituted in the near future. Hence, it is incorrect to say that the Advisory Committee has been abolished.”
Palekar was repeatedly interrupted during his speech by other people on the dais, including the curator Jesal Thacker and Bahulkar. They asked him to confine his speech to Barwe, Palekar told Scroll.in.
At one point, Palekar asked them if they were “applying censorship” to his speech.
In her email, Rupavataram said, “I, as well as the others on the dais, impressed upon Mr Palekar, while he was making his speech, that he was digressing from the theme for the evening. The occasion was the inauguration of Barwe’s retrospective.”
Bahulkar said while he agreed with the substance of Palekar’s remarks, he interrupted him as he felt the Barwe inauguration was not the right platform to air the issues.
In his speech, Palekar said earlier “there was a direct participation of the local artists in deciding the theme and content of the exhibition, whose work will be displayed”. “I have also learnt that as of November 13, 2018, all these decisions would be taken from Delhi by the Ministry of Culture,” he added. “Accordingly at present, no new committee has been convened after the expiry of the old committee’s tenure – Suhas Bahulkar included in that.”
Rupavataram, however, contended that “the National Gallery of Modern Art is a subordinate office of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. Thus, it functions under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry therefore has an important role in deciding its administrative and policy matters.”
Palekar also said, “In 2017, we were happy to hear about the plan to open new NGMA branches in Kolkata and in the North East. News of the expansion of this Mumbai venue was also heartening. However on 13 November, 2018, another disastrous decision was apparently taken.”
At this, Thacker again interrupted Palekar and asked him to confine his speech to Barwe’s work. “Are you asking me not to speak?” Palekar asked her.
He then reminded the audience that the writer Nayantara Sahgal was invited to speak at the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, a literary meet in Yavatmal, but that the invitation was withdrawn by the organisers who said they wished to “avoid any untoward incident and in view of the controversy that has cropped up against her name”. Palekar then asked, “Are we creating the same situation here? You are asking me not to speak? I will not speak.”
Thacker reiterated that Palekar should “stick to Barwe”. Thacker did not respond to a request for comment.
Palekar described what was happening to him as censorship, at which Thacker and Bahulkar protested, saying they were merely making a “request”. Palekar responded that the Marathi word “gondas” was often used to make such requests such as “don’t speak this, don’t speak that, don’t eat this, don’t eat that”.
‘I cannot remain silent’
After this, Palekar said he would skip some of his remarks, and go straight to the end of his planned speech. “This control over NGMA which is the sacrosanct venue for artistic expression and viewing of diverse art is the recent-most casualty in this ‘war against humanities’ as someone recently put it,” he said. “I am truly disturbed, and much more disturbed now. 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.”
Returning to Barwe, he said, “What would Barwe have done in this atmosphere? I am sure he would have shown us the hidden visible through the visible present. Sorry Jesal if I have violated the expected decorum of celebrations or inaugurations. But I believe in speaking out, hence this lingering sad note.”
The filmmaker was met with prolonged applause as he returned to his seat.
Palekar told Scroll.in the “disastrous decision” he referred to before skipping to the end of his speech was a new policy that all exhibitions not from NGMA’s own collection would be limited to the dome area of the gallery. “Does that mean the remaining area will never exhibit new artists’ works?” he asked. “Or veteran artists’ new works, beyond the NGMA collection?”
In the portion of his speech that he did not deliver, Palekar would have discussed the consequences of the new policy: “The proposed retrospectives of Mehli Gobhai and Sudhir Patwardhan, scheduled respectively in March-April and December 2019, were cancelled.”
Palekar explained that he learnt of all these developments from conversations with members of the artist community, and that though he “was in a dilemma whether to speak on this auspicious occasion...I cannot remain silent.”
Rupavataram responded in her email, “In a meeting held on November 13, 2018 in Delhi which was chaired by the Director General, NGMA, Shri Adwaita Gadanayak, in keeping with the Ministry’s directive, it was decided that NGMA Mumbai should exhibit a permanent collection from art works, sculpture and paintings of esteemed artists, in its possession. This will ensure that art lovers get a chance to view the priceless collection available with NGMA. However, short term exhibitions (similar to what is being organised now) will not be discontinued. It has been decided to allocate the dome of NGMA Mumbai exclusively for short term exhibitions.”
Shireen Gandhy, owner of Chemould Gallery, criticised the decision. NGMA Mumbai is vital as a “space for monographic exhibitions”, she said, adding that “galleries have been supporting exhibitions at NGMA for the longest time.”
She added that “a retrospective means that you’re layering it, layers of years. How do you encompass everything in one floor?”
Bahulkar said he too had communicated his disagreement with this decision to the government.
Palekar said that in a conversation after the event, Thacker told him she had been asked by NGMA’s director to “ensure that no anti-government statements were made”. To this, Palekar said he replied, “You didn’t tell me that. If you had asked me, I would have excused myself.”
Thacker, however, said she did not have such a conversation with Palekar.
Update: In a statement issued on Saturday evening, Jesal Thacker said, “My intention was not to prevent Amol from finishing his speech, but instead only requested him to share more about his anecdotes and fond memories of the artist...Views that are not directly related to the subject of the evening – the art and life of Barwe – can always be expressed at another platform appropriate for that specific concern.”