There is something to be said for an art museum experience that involves not squinting at monochromatic labels but matching couplets with artists’ names to discover which painting is by whom. On the third floor of the 52-year-old Ghalib Academy in Delhi’s Nizamuddin basti, this is the only mode of viewing available to visitors. That is, if they request a printout of the museum’s inventory, pore over peeling cyclostyled texts pasted on frames and – since only a few paintings have even those – deduce who made what through a process of elimination.

These challenges in accessing the 49 listed works, including photographs and calligraphies, compounded by the poor condition they are in, are doubly frustrating because of the immense value most of them hold. Exhibited at the Ghalib Academy’s Mirza Ghalib Museum, in a small room anterior to the section dedicated to the Urdu poet and his era, are paintings by some of some of the most important Indian and Pakistani artists of the 20th century, including MF Husain and Sadequain.

Delhi’s art spaces are known for being located in malls and gated neighbourhoods. However, unbeknownst to or perhaps forgotten by many, one of the Indian capital’s most significant corpuses of mid-century modernism is housed in its medieval heart. The Ghalib Academy, part memorial to the eponymous poet, part centre for research, education and literature, was founded in Nizamuddin in 1969 by Hakeem Abdul Hameed, a practitioner of Unani medicine, philanthropist and Padma Bhushan recipient. Hameed established many institutions in the 1900s, including Hamdard Laboratories and the Jamia Hamdard University. But for him, the Ghalib Academy was a passion project, one which he was able to realise around the time of the poet’s UNESCO-recognised death centenary celebrations.

Credit: Kamayani Sharma.

Aqil Ahmad, Urdu literary critic and long-time secretary of the Ghalib Academy, says that most of the paintings in the museum had been commissioned by Hameed himself: “He asked the well-known artists of the day to make works specially for this space. He paid them a token amount of 500 rupees.” A ledger he came across before he joined the Academy mentioned the accounts for the art commissions. While Ahmed does not know about the original curatorial plan, he does say that the paintings were not always grouped together on the third floor. “The artworks were installed in several places on the ground floor lobby, in the auditorium and in the library, for example,” he said.

Hameed’s personal and institutional archives are at the Hamdard Archive and Research Centre at the Jamia Hamdard University campus. Among the archives is a handwritten list, possibly from 1969, which enumerates the names of artists alongside the couplets they were assigned, the ballpoint jottings anticipating the typed version available to present-day visitors to the museum. A cyclostyled document titled ‘Ghalib Academy: A Lasting Memorial’ from January 31, 1970 lists the following artists in the collection: MF Husain, Jayant Parikh, Nirode Mazumdar, KS Kulkarni, Paritosh Sen, GR Santosh, Rathin Mitra, Laxman Pai, A Ramachandran, Reddeppa Naidu, Biren De, J Sultan Ali, YK Shukla, K Sreenivasulu, Shiavax Chavda and Anis Farooqi. It almost reads like a catalogue of the who’s who of the 1960s Indian art world. Also in these files was a scribbled note dated 14 April, 1969 that directed the Academy treasurer to pay the honorarium due Shiavax Chavda and Biren De.

Over WhatsApp, Ramachandran, the only artist from this original list available for comment, recalls that it was “Anis Farooqi [later NGMA director from 1985 to 1994] who contacted me and [GR] Santosh to do a painting for the Ghalib Academy, I think. I don’t even remember the couplet I illustrated. All this happened at the [time of the] Ghalib centenary year.”

Courtesy: Hamdard Archives and Research Centre, Jamia Hamdard University.

Farooqi’s involvement with the collection extended from participation and persuasion to commentary. In an essay titled ‘The role of the script in contemporary Indian painting’ in the Lalit Kala Contemporary issue of April 1985, he discusses the use of text by many of the artists whose work form part of the Academy collection, including Santosh, Ali, Mazumdar, Dave and Naidu. Perhaps because they are responses to verse, lettering and calligraphy feature in a few of the works at the museum, in the paintings of Husain, Ramachandran and Mazumdar.

Farooqi’s essay notes Husain’s engagement with Tughra calligraphy, and how it is expressed in his work at the Ghalib Academy – the only one readily identified by museum staff, based on the verse lutf-e khirām-e sāqī-o-zauq-e-sadā-e chang/ yih jannat-e nigāh vuh firdaus-e gosh hai (The pleasure of the cupbearer’s gait and the relish of the harp’s sound/ This is heaven for the gaze, that paradise for the ear.) Of the words jannat-e nigah that constitute the painting, Farooqi writes, “…it is evident that he [Husain] has revived his Tughra in Nasakh style…the script and its stretched alphabetical forms are emphasised purely on pronunciational variations. To my knowledge it is the only painting by Husain which can be classified as an abstract without giving any representational form.”

The current list at the Ghalib Academy contains a few more famous names such as J Swaminathan, Sadequain, Abdur Rahman Chughtai, and Shanti Dave, whose works were acquired in the decades since the original commissions of 1969.

Credit: Kamayani Sharma.

Why was this robust assortment of mid-20th century art developed and located in an institution devoted to a 19th century poet? What relationship did it have not just to the Delhi neighbourhood, more than seven centuries old, but also to the Indian nation and to the South Asian subcontinent?

The Ghalib Academy’s original collection comprised artists widely considered representative of a visual modernism linked to India’s national identity (a framework challenged and complicated by critics and scholars). The circumstances of both the Academy and its art collection’s existence have to do with a complex relationship between the Indian state and post-independence Muslim identity.

In 1969, Hakeem Abdul Hameed, Ghalib Academy’s founder, acquired the land in Nizamuddin basti for one lakh rupees, adjacent to Ghalib’s tomb and “equidistant from Old and New Delhi”, as the institute’s pamphlet from that year explains. In my interview with him, historian Hilal Ahmed, author of Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation, said, “The placement of these works in the Nizamuddin basti is significant. It’s indicative of a desire that a segment of society [other than the one that inhabits it] interact at a site that is predominantly Muslim. This was a deeply political move.” Ahmed is critical of its implications, pointing out that, with its funerary architecture stretching back hundreds of years and khandani kabristans (family burial grounds), the basti is also a sort of graveyard. “So Ghalib’s grave is then linked to the cultural identity of Muslims in post-independence India,” he said. “Alongside the monumentalisation of Ghalib, there was an intention to reproduce the given stereotypical Muslim image as a backward-looking social group.”

Courtesy: Sadequain Foundation, San Diego

Poet-philosopher Ghalib was a figure whom, through the 1950s and ’60s, the Nehruvian government modelled as a symbol of India’s syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture. The hit Hindi film Mirza Ghalib (1954) had a big impact on the popular imagination – it was screened at Rashtrapati Bhavan, where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reportedly viewed and praised it. A publicity still from the film is hung alongside the paintings in the Ghalib Academy’s art museum, the paintings and the film both part of the same moment of cultural nationalism. In the 1960s, around Ghalib’s death centenary, private and public institutions like the Ghalib Academy and the Ghalib Institute came up in New Delhi.

In the case of the Ghalib Academy, Nizamuddin’s 750-year-old cosmopolitan Muslim lifeworld, the building’s Islamicate features, the preservation of the Urdu language and the memorialisation of Ghalib as both a beloved Dilliwala and national icon, all form part of a complex. Through it, Hameed, as a member of India’s Muslim elite, made what Ahmed calls “cultural claims to nationhood” in a Hindu-dominant political context. He expands on this: “Minority interests had to be coded in the language of cultural heritage to be accepted by the Indian state and the Hindu majority.” Thus, for example, Urdu language in general and Ghalib in particular became safe sites for identity assertion. According to Ahmed, institutions like the Ghalib Academy, inaugurated by then-President Dr Zakir Hussain, were a way for the political establishment keen to acquire legitimacy from Muslim elite by “allowing” autonomy in the cultural sphere. Ahmed emphasises the need to interpret Hameed’s work and these institutions through a critical lens, to consider how they became spaces for secularist political parties to flex their progressive credentials and Muslim elites to align themselves with them.

Credit: Kamayani Sharma.

Through the specially-commissioned art collection, Hameed was perhaps trying to present an image of a progressive minority. As historians of Indian art from the 1980s to the present have posited, in the period after colonialism, artistic modernism had a multivalent relationship with the category of the modernising nation, invoking it to produce new narratives of selfhood and process secularist desires. Many of the artists who were part of the founding collection received support from, or were associated with, the Indian state’s official visual arts apparatus which comprised the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Lalit Kala Akademi. By commissioning these prominent, nationally-recognised painters of the time, Hameed put the Indian Muslim identity in conversation with a national-modern aesthetic: the “modernity” of the Indian Muslim was marked by patronage of modern Indian art.

Also at the Mirza Ghalib Museum is what is probably the only oeuvre of paintings, within India, of Pakistan’s leading modernist, Sadequain. The eight Sadequain works from the late 1960s, based on Ghalib’s verse, were gifted by him in 1982, to then-Academy secretary Zaheen Naqvi.

As far as public collections of South Asian modern art go, there are few places in the subcontinent where a Sadequain and a Chughtai can be found on permanent display in the same space as their Indian contemporaries. Crossing the border between India and Pakistan is as fraught an act curatorially as it is physically, complicated by how dominant the category of the nation has been in art history until very recently. The Ghalib Academy collection is all the more unique for its transgression of borders, symbolising the complex relationship between subcontinental nation-states and the cultural forms that unite them. In many ways, the story of the collection at the Ghalib Academy’s art museum encapsulates some of South Asia’s chief 20th century anxieties: nationhood, religious identity and modernism.

Credit: Kamayani Sharma.

Currently, the most anxiety-inducing aspect of the collection is its state of disrepair. Visibility inside the room is poor due to dim lighting and half-curtained windows that cause light to glance off the glazing of the framed paintings. The frames themselves, and the labels, have deteriorated. Dust abounds and birds leave traces behind. Identifying information is hidden at the back of the painting, accessible only if it’s taken down and reversed (I still don’t know which one the Swaminathan is).

“What you see now is an improvement,” secretary Aqil Ahmad remarked wryly. It was Ahmad who, in 1995, first had the paintings framed and moved to the third floor as a group. He explains that as a private institution, the Academy largely relies on rental income from Jha House, the late Hakeem Hameed’s property next door. As such, the upkeep of the museum objects and modern art falls to the Academy’s own coffers. Ahmad is hesitant about applying for conservation schemes that involve relocating the art for long periods of time, “It’s better if the work happens right here.” His concern is not unfounded, given the risk of such high-value art being forged and swapped. At the same time, an intervention is long overdue. If this neglect continues, a historic series of works by some of South Asia’s most accomplished artists will be lost forever to its public.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.