At the opening of the southern branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore,Ramachandra Gowda,Karnatakas minister for medical education,said in the course of his speech,Modern art has become a medium for pseudo-intellectuals to insult ancient Indian culture. What explains this scepticism and criticism? Theres not much logic to the outraged artists contention that one not conversant with art shouldnt speak about it. But we wonder why Gowda and his ilk invariably assume its their duty to defend the honour of Indian culture,of one antique variety or the other. More importantly,we ask why they assume ancient Indian culture needs to be defended,with the implication that its vulnerable enough against certain ideas and interpretations. Less than two years ago,India witnessed the unfolding of the Vadodara M.S. University controversy,when the student/artist Chandra Mohan was arrested and the dean of fine arts suspended. Periodic rows over paintings,such as M.F. Husains,or books,such as James Lanes,have come to characterise contemporary Indias response to its art. The fear of ideas,as expressed through scholarly texts or artefacts,is decidedly political rather than intellectual because it concerns how such ideas would influence individual thought and conduct.
The very right to free speech that Gowda asserted in his defence is the one that allows artists to express themselves. Why cant Gowda and his ilk engage in an open conversation with modern art,and let the matter rest there regardless of the conclusions they draw,and without asking art to circumscribe itself within cultural norms? One of the first lessons the minister would draw would be that arts raison detre is engagement with socio-psychological reality and tradition,and the reinterpretation of both for us. Every idea thereof,whether we agree with it or not,helps.
But perhaps the storyline is a little more complicated. Gowdas intemperate outburst is also reflective of a problem in our public spaces. India is tremendously efficient in commandeering or constructing anew magnificent buildings to house art. But fear of the subversiveness of art inhibits so many administrators from carrying forward the mission of these public spaces,to nurture a newer aesthetic,one that allows art its truest purpose,to record and to question.