Reverse Swing: The National Gallery of Modi-rn Art
The NGMA is an art institution whose charter is to promote, develop and showcase the best of art as well as to map the mind and critical voices of the nation through the artistic creations of its leading practitioners. To suddenly convert it into a venue for a jumble sale of the Prime Minister’s bric-a-brac is like a massive insult to the ethos of what it stands for and a repudiation of 65 years of its contribution to furthering the language of modern art in the country.
Indian art is on a breathless high and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is celebrating it. Ravi Varma, the Tagores, Nandalal Bose, Amrita Sher-Gil, Ramkinkar Baij, Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, M.F. Husain, V.S. Gaitonde, Meera Mukherjee, Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakhar are all passe. The nation has become more artistic minded and not shy of revealing its genius. Shawls. Pugrees. Angavastrams. Jackets. Gamchas. Starting today (Saturday), till October 3, these are the pathbreaking objects of modern Indian art which will be on display at the NGMA, Delhi.
These will also be on sale – something otherwise prohibited during normal art exhibitions at the three NGMAs in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. But the above objects are deemed to possess sensational market value as they are invested with a special aesthetic significance – all 2,772 of them are items received as gifts by the current Prime Minister during his peripatetic wanderings within India and abroad. The Ministry of Culture, through its ‘subordinate office’, the NGMA, plans to auction these artefacts online and contribute the amount thus raised to the ‘holy’ Namami Gange project. Of course, it is another matter that the collective sale value of the objects auctioned might not even come to half the value of any one of the works of the artists mentioned above. (Oops! Did I just make a faux pas of Piyush Goyal proportions? Will they now want to auction the NGMA’s collection to catch up on their fiscal deficit? Even thinking aloud is a problem these days).
This is the second such auction of hallowed objects touched by our PM that the NGMA is conducting this year. The first one, of 1,900 items, happened between January 27 and February 9. While some silver and gold items in that went under the hammer for Rs.5 and Rs.10 lakh, we do not have an accurate picture of what the total sale amount was. In the present auction, starting prices range from Rs.200 to Rs.2.5 lakh.
The inventory of objects is interesting – 965 angavastrams; 567 shawls; 85 turbans, and so on. They have even created a website called ‘pmmementos’ to list the items and enable online auctioning. Art was never so prolix. The Kochi Biennale could take some lessons from such creative listing.
The question that comes up, though, is what has all this got to do with the NGMA? Set up in 1954, with a collection of some 100 works of Amrita Sher-Gil donated by her family, it currently holds almost 15,000 works of the best-known artists of the sub-continent, a few dating back to the mid-19th century. While hosting periodic exhibitions of leading Indian and international artists, it has also been the venue for exciting retrospectives of individual senior artists as well as carefully curated shows indicating trends and themes. The NGMA, thus, remains an art institution whose charter is to promote, develop and showcase the best of art as well as to map the mind and critical voices of the nation through the artistic creations of its leading practitioners.
To suddenly convert it into a venue for a jumble sale of the Prime Minister’s bric-a-brac is like a massive insult to the ethos of what it stands for and a repudiation of 65 years of its contribution to furthering the language of modern art in the country. The MoC could have requisitioned any large hall in the city for displaying the trinkets in the PM’s possession, but to grab the galleries of the NGMA for this purpose displays a contempt for artistic practices and conventions which borders on arrogance.
Of course, all this was a fait accompli in 2014 itself, when circulars had been issued to all cultural institutions under the MoC, like NGMA, the National Museum, the Akademies, etc, re-designating them as ‘subordinate offices’ of the ministry and effectively depriving them of all autonomy. The advisory and executive committees of these bodies immediately became redundant and decisions were rapidly centralised. The previous Minister for Culture, Mahesh Sharma, became the de facto director of all these institutions, pushing them to a point of meaningless subservience. The new Minister for Culture, Prahlad Singh Patel, seems to be treading the same toxic path in trivialising the institutions under him and turning them banal.
What is noteworthy here is the conspicuous silence of the large community of modern Indian artists who are, otherwise, quick to take umbrage and are quite vocal about what they perceive as an affront to their dignity. It is striking that they maintain a diplomatic silence when the NGMA is misused for exhibiting Mr. Modi’s triumphalism. The 3,000 baubles to be disposed to raise a pittance for cleaning the Ganga, could have been done under a shamiana at the Ramlila Maidan or the atrium in the India Habitat Centre or at the Mavalankar Hall or any such space in Delhi. Why should the MoC willingly be allowed to degrade one of its own ‘navaratnas’ for that? It is like if a Supreme Court judge were to conduct his son’s wedding within the premises of the Court or if the Harappan Gallery at the National Museum were to exhibit some objects dug up in the PM’s backyard.
The ostrich-like stance of the art fraternity is, therefore, distressing. It is on par with what we see around the country in other spheres too – whether it is on the situation in Kashmir or in Assam. Many American and British universities took time off in 2017 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Noam Chomsky’s stunningly influential essay of 1967, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’. Two years later, in 1969, it was included as a chapter in his first political book ‘American Power and the New Mandarins’.
In 1971, as an undergraduate student in Madras, I picked up the book for Re.1 from a platform vendor at Guindy suburban train station. I have found myself returning to the essay in the book intermittently. And, one finds nothing much has changed. Intellectuals – and artists, as a community, are certainly intellectuals – often unknowingly, end up serving the interests of the powerful. They hold back from performing the crucial task of taking a critical stance and ‘delegitimising’ hegemony – sometimes, even providing pseudo-scientific justification for the crimes of the State. It was heartening to find senior journalist Meena Menon conduct a campaign through Change.org and raise 95,000 signatures appealing to the government to end the information blackout and communication blockade of Kashmir. Those 95,000 citizens who signed are certainly intellectuals who are concerned about the good of the nation. They might constitute .00001 percent of the population, but it is good to know they are there.
Chomsky, towards the end of his essay, quotes Martin Luther King Jr., “The moral arc of history does somewhat bend towards justice – but not by itself”. That requires intellectuals, artists, creative citizens to push it in an ethical direction. It is a pity that artists in the country seem to be losing their nerve. Maybe, it is their free cruising style, linked to markets and delinked from contexts, that makes them seem unreliable narrators or maybe, like many others, they easily allow themselves to be hushed up. As observed at a few recent exhibitions at the NGMA, Mumbai, for example, artists and curators are willing to be smothered and circumscribed by a bullying gallery director. These are contexts which reveal how self-interest plays an increasingly dominant role in the arts.
Which is fine. But, then they cannot complain when the NGMA gets to be known as the National Gallery of Modi-rn Art.
Photos by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images