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The Amol Palekar episode highlights that artistic dissent will not be allowed at any NGMA under Modi

15 29 1112

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 NGMA’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.

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........

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