At the opening of a retrospective celebrating the painter Prabhakar Barwe at Bombay’s National Gallery of Modern Art last week, the chief guest Amol Palekar focused the second half of his speech on criticising recent changes in the institution’s administration. Other guests on the dais interrupted Palekar, requesting him to stick to eulogising Barwe. The confrontation, captured on camera, provided oxygen to his cause.

That cause is just. Not only is the NGMA moving in a wrong direction, it is doing so despite the same move having failed before. The fact that the previous disaster is being ignored suggests the motives for the current shift are not innocent.

brief history

The Bombay NGMA opened in 1996 at the Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall under the stewardship of Saryu Doshi, an energetic and committed director who made it central to the city’s visual arts scene. A decade later, the autonomy of the Bombay wing was curtailed, and it was made entirely answerable to Delhi. This misguided policy is being replicated today.

After Doshi was removed from her post, the institution turned into a dead space for some four years. The director of the Delhi NGMA, Rajeev Lochan, ultimately saw the wisdom of local programming, and, helped by a new administrative committee, encouraged innovative, region-focussed shows alongside those that travelled from Delhi. Outstanding exhibitions from this period included a selection from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’s collection, curated by Mortimer Chatterjee, which opened in April 2010, and Cinema City, curated by Madhusree Dutta and Archana Hande, which opened in May 2012.

The absurd policy of rule from Delhi was finally reversed in 2012. Shivaprasad Khened, a bureaucrat who headed the Nehru Science Centre, was given additional charge of CJ Hall. Khened, who was guided by an advisory committee chaired by the arts patron and gallerist Pheroza Godrej, wisely let the experts steer programming. The committee served a three-year term beginning in November 2012, and a second, under the chairpersonship of Suhas Bahulkar, took charge near the end of 2015. A number of shows deeply connected to the city were mounted in these years, among them Across Oceans and Flowing Silks: From Canton to Bombay 18th-20th Centuries, No Parsi Is An Island, and retrospectives of AA Almelkar, Shankar Palsikar, Jitendra Arya, MV Dhurandhar, Navjot Altaf, and the display at the opening of which Palekar spoke, dedicated to the late Barwe.

Two more retrospectives were planned for 2019, showcasing the abstract painter Mehlli Gobhai, who died last year, and Sudhir Patwardhan, quintessential chronicler of the city. These are now in limbo, thanks to a ridiculous policy which apparently began as an off-the-cuff suggestion by Arun Goel, secretary of the Union Ministry of Culture. Goel remarked that the permanent collection of the NGMA was not getting enough play because of the constant flow of temporary exhibitions, and suggested only the top level of CJ Hall be given out for special shows with the bulk of the space reserved for the permanent collection. This is how policy often gets settled in India: somebody with no domain expertise make a nonsensical recommendation which is accepted solely because of the speaker’s place in the pecking order.

To make matters worse, the Bahulkar-led group whose term ended in late 2018 has not been replaced with a fresh committee. The new director at CJ Hall, Anita Rupavataram, is a career bureaucrat without any background in modern and contemporary art, and cannot be expected to evolve an interesting programme without good advisors. She will be restricted to accepting hand-me-downs from the director of Delhi’s NGMA, Adwaita Gadanayak, who used to be a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s cultural cell in Odisha, and has now been elevated as director general in charge of all three branches of the institution. Gadanayak, rebutting Palekar, is claiming that the Gobhai and Patwardhan surveys are proceeding as planned, but the organisers of those shows were told weeks ago that only the top floor would be available to them rather than the promised five levels.

Worse than bad

Why is Goel’s idea of focussing on the permanent collection faulty? Unlike the Delhi NGMA, CJ Hall is too small to illustrate a series of art movements the way a proper museum ought to do. It is, on the other hand, ideally suited for retrospectives and other museum-worthy temporary exhibitions, which would be impossibly cramped if restricted to the top gallery. A good compromise is for special exhibitions to occupy the bulk of the annual programme, with one or two slots each year reserved for selections from the permanent collection.

Special exhibitions also help the NGMA manage its high fixed costs and permanent funds crunch because they are frequently supported by cultural institutions or private galleries. Gallery participation brings with it the risk of the NGMA turning into a space for hire, which is why an advisory panel with impeccable credentials is crucial. The formula for a smoothly functioning CJ Hall consists of an autonomous director, a knowledgeable advisory committee, and occasional infusions of private funding. Following the changes Palekar critiqued, none of these exists.

Why would the government change a system that was working efficiently? Well, this is only the latest instance of the Narendra Modi administration’s strategy of “if it ain’t broke, break it”. That’s the way it seeks to quell dissent and establish hegemony over culture, education and media. Two personal examples will illustrate what I mean. Rajeev Lochan, who served as director of the Delhi NGMA for a decade and a half was appointed by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, but served through the two terms of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, and the first two years of Modi’s rule. His long term in office demonstrates the difference between Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, who had nothing against politically neutral experts, and Modi, who demands fealty from all appointees.

Amol Palekar and his wife Sandhya Gokhale at the Prabhakar Barve exhibition, NGMA Mumbai. Photo courtesy Amol Palekar
Amol Palekar and his wife Sandhya Gokhale at the Prabhakar Barve exhibition, NGMA Mumbai. Photo courtesy Amol Palekar

I crossed swords with Lochan during the ugly episode of Saryu Doshi’s removal, but he looked beyond that and accepted my proposal for a large show of contemporary art to be mounted at Delhi’s NGMA in January 2013. The exhibition, consisting of works by nominees of an art prize, contained a number of politically charged pieces. One of these, by Shilpa Gupta, memorialised the hundreds of civilians murdered by security forces in Kashmir and buried in unmarked graves. Another, by the artists’ collective CAMP, focussed on the Niira Radia tapes, which had caused the Manmohan Singh government great embarrassment when they came out. Lochan didn’t ever suggest these works be censored, though one of them questioned the approach of all mainstream parties in Kashmir, and another was scathing about the ruling coalition in particular. While perfectly aware of its potential for controversy, he astutely deflected questions from the media about CAMP’s installation.

Similar instances of artistic dissent have been on view in CJ Hall over the years, from a programme against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act organised in December 2011 to the recently concluded retrospective of Navjot Altaf curated by Nancy Adajania which traced the artist’s political engagement from her introduction to Marxism through her artistic reaction to the Gujarat massacres of 2002. Much contemporary art is deeply political, and no institution that shuts out protest can do justice to it, but I am certain that nothing like these political acts will be permitted at any NGMA henceforth as long as Modi is in power.

Modi regime’s vindictiveness

I am certain because I have experienced the depth of this regime’s vindictiveness and pettiness. In July 2014, I was drafted into the NGMA’s acquisition committee, set up after a gap of a decade. The committee, headed by Anjolie Ela Menon, got down to filling gaps in the permanent collection, especially the weakness in the contemporary section. There were significant hurdles, notably funds promised for the coming year and not delivered, but artists responded to our appeal generously, offering important works at prices that barely covered their costs. Committee members were unanimous that artists ought to be compensated better, since we were an acquisition committee and not a donation-seeking committee.

We had a meeting scheduled at which the level of compensation was to be finalised. The day before that meeting, we received an email saying, “Due to unforeseen circumstances, the meeting of the Art Acquisition Committee scheduled on 16th December 2015 at 11:00 has had to be postponed.” The reason it was deferred, confirmed informally, was that its chairperson, Menon, had signed a petition against the rise of intolerance in India. Even though art acquisition was a tiny, innocuous niche which had nothing to do with party politics, the Modi administration would not allow somebody now classified as an enemy to serve on an official panel. Since sacking the committee would have been controversial, the government simply mothballed it. The postponed meeting was never held.

For all the reasons cited in this article, I am glad Palekar aired the art community’s grievances inside the institution being undermined. Many acolytes of Barwe feel that a tribute to his meditative art was no occasion for rabble rousing, but that view seems limited on two counts. It fails to consider that the controversy is likely to draw more viewers to Barwe’s drawings and paintings, which possess the power to create a space for themselves outside the hubbub of institutional politics. It also does not acknowledge the tragedy involved in important artists being deprived of the honour of a retrospective in the future, an outcome that even a man as apolitical as Barwe would surely have lamented.

Also read: ‘I cannot remain silent’: Amol Palekar speaks out against NGMA – after interruptions by officials

‘If it ain’t broke, break it’: Modi government is using ideological battles to mask its incompetence