Mumbai’s art world became embroiled in a free speech crisis as actor and filmmaker Amol Palekar raised concerns over “censorship” at the repeated interruptions of his speech at the opening of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Mumbai. The actor was addressing ‘Inside the Empty Box’, a retrospective on the artist Prabhakar Barwe.
In his speech, Palekar expressed his concern over policy changes that will give the Ministry of Culture at the Centre the sole right to decide the contents and themes of exhibitions to be held at the NGMA in Mumbai and Bengaluru. Until October last year, these decisions involved the local artistes’ advisory committees, which were reconstituted every three years.
He said, “This control over the NGMA, which is the sacrosanct venue for artistic expression and viewing of diverse art, is the recent most casualty in this ‘war against humanities’ as someone recently put it! I am truly disturbed….What is more upsetting is that those privy to such unilateral orders did not speak out, protest or even question it.”
Over the course of this speech, he was interrupted multiple times. First, artist and former chairman of the advisory committee in Mumbai, Suhas Bahulkar, asked him to stick to speaking about Barwe and his work.
When interrupted by show curator Jesal Thacker, Palekar said he was reminded of how writer Nayantara Sahgal’s invitation to attend a Marathi literary event was withdrawn because her speech was critical of the current political environment.
Palekar was finally unable to deliver the full speech he had prepared and concluded it early.
When contacted by The Indian Express, Thacker said, “As much as I admire both Barwe and Amol, my intention was not to prevent Amol from finishing his speech, but instead only requested him to share more about his anecdotes and fond memories of the artist, who was being celebrated 24 years after his demise. Prabhakar Barwe, himself was an idealist painter whose practice was subliminal and my effort all these years has been only to research and represent the purity of the artist. It was Barwe’s conscious effort that I as a curator and organiser tried to retain and respect. Views that are not directly related to the subject of the evening — the art and life of Barwe — can always be expressed at another more suitable time and space, directly addressing the issues raised.”
Speaking to The Indian Express, Palekar expressed his surprise at the interruptions to his speech. “I was in a dilemma before, about whether I should speak up about the issues I raised, but I realised that I could not remain silent. So many artists were aware of these changes in policy and there were murmurs all around, and I couldn’t stay silent on the occasion, particularly because this exhibition is the last one to be decided by the advisory committee,” he said.
— Alankrita Shrivastava (@alankrita601) February 10, 2019
Several personalities from the film industry expressed their solidarity with Palekar. Alankrita Shrivastava, writer and director of Lipstick Under My Burkha, wrote, “Thankyou #AmolPalekar for your courage. There cannot be space for censorship in a true democracy.”
#Shame Why is becoming any kind of criticism un acceptable. we should be open enough for dialogue… cant do this !!! #AmolPalekar
Amol Palekar’s Speech Cut Off At Mumbai Event For Criticising Government https://t.co/XDSkkbwmDC via @ndtv
— Onir (@IamOnir) February 10, 2019
Filmmaker Onir tweeted, “#Shame Why is becoming any kind of criticism un acceptable. we should be open enough for dialogue… cant do this !!! #AmolPalekar.”
Unbelievable. When we hamd over our “culture” to a ministry .. this is what happens. Such utter disrespect to an invitee , a senior actor!! I’m nauseated. https://t.co/jJObd3Ut09
— Mini Mathur (@minimathur) February 10, 2019
TV actor and host Mini Mathur shared, “Unbelievable. When we hamd over our “culture” to a ministry .. this is what happens. Such utter disrespect to an invitee , a senior actor!! I’m nauseated.”
— rahul dholakia (@rahuldholakia) February 10, 2019
Raees director Rahul Dholakia condemned the “rude and unartistic” behaviour and wrote, “Rude & unartistic – should have heard #AmolPalekar out, after all he was the celebrated guest speaker you invited.; after which you could have responded. #NGMA.”