DIVYA A: Wasn’t the disruption of actor and filmmaker Amol Palekar’s speech at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai, where he criticised the Ministry of Culture over ‘disbanding of advisory committees’ at the gallery’s centres in Mumbai and Bengaluru, censorship? Had you been there, would you have handled it differently?
The particular event where it all happened, the NGMA had just given the space. The curators were external and the guest was also invited by them. Certainly, the NGMA has not done any kind of censorship. However, if I was in the situation, I would have allowed him to finish what he was saying and then explained the facts to him. After all, the NGMA is a space for artists, they should be allowed to say what they have to say.
DIVYA A: What is the role of these advisory committees and have they been disbanded?
The advisory committees have a three-year term. In Mumbai and Bengaluru, their terms ended on November 15, 2018, and in Delhi, on January 17. To appoint members to the advisory committee, we ask for recommendations from all over the country. The process takes time. People who claim that the advisory committees have been disbanded are not aware of this procedure. We cannot disband the committees. There is no such system because when an advisory committee’s term comes to an end, the process to form a new one begins.
The curator of Prabhakar Barweji’s show (who interrupted Palekar) is not from the NGMA. There was also a controversy about the space available for exhibitions. The NGMA has about 18,000 artworks in its collection — the country’s best works, acquired since the NGMA came into existence in 1954. We want people living in Mumbai and Bengaluru to see these artworks. Many artists say that the NGMA exhibits these paintings only in Delhi. As a result, other centres don’t get opportunities to showcase them. So, after consultations with the ministry, we have decided to dedicate some space at the NGMA for permanent display and another area for outside artists.
DIVYA A: What explains the delay in setting up the new advisory committees?
The term of the Delhi centre’s advisory committee was the last to get over — on January 17. We were planning to appoint all the bodies together. Hence, the delay. But it has only been a month since the term has ended. We are collecting names of people and working towards forming the bodies.
DIVYA A: What about the charge that space allotted to independent artists to showcase their works at the NGMA is being curtailed?
In Mumbai, we had thought of giving space in the dome area to outside artists. But many of them suggested that aged people might find it difficult to climb the stairs. So we have not taken any decision regarding what needs to be done. But when the issue of curtailing allotted space was raised, we clarified that there was no such intention because the NGMA is for artists. Being an artist myself, I understand the hard work that we put in and when we don’t get proper space and facilities to showcase our work, it is painful. Whenever I travel to Mumbai or other places, I talk to artists before taking any decision.
I have been extremely busy for the past six-seven months with the restoration of our building in Delhi. So I couldn’t travel to Mumbai. But I want to first hold a meeting and then take decisions. The NGMA belongs to artists… So whatever decisions artists take will be carried out accordingly.
VANDANA KALRA: Artists often complain that the NGMA has not added any new works to its permanent collection. Has any new artwork been acquired during your tenure?
The storage facility at the NGMA is not very good. So I am upgrading that first. I want the public to see how we store artworks. But because of the ongoing restoration work, artworks have been moved. Once the storage system is ready, we will form a purchase committee similar to the advisory committee. There hasn’t been a purchase committee in the two years of my tenure. When the purchase committee is set up, I plan to buy works, mostly of young artists, worth at least Rs 15-20 crore. And it’s not about my two years at the NGMA. I have noticed that not many artworks have been acquired in the last 15 years. However, Subodh Gupta’s work was added to the collection. I have seen how most of the works go to private and international galleries. So we have to fill up the gap quickly. In the next two to three months, the system will be ready.
VANDANA KALRA: Will the works of outside artists be exhibited in Delhi as the Mumbai centre has less space? Last year, Manu Parekh and Jitish Kallat had showcased their work here.
We will have a lot of space in Delhi as we are opening up the old building. Last year, we did fewer shows because the space was limited… Artists from across the country want to showcase their works in Delhi. It was former president S
Radhakrishnan who had conceived a space like the NGMA. He planned it with artists such as D P Roy Choudhury, Dhanraj Bhagat, Ramkinkar Baij and Sankho Chaudhuri… After Independence, our artists were working all over the country and they thought if exhibitions could be held in Delhi, a national movement could be started. At that same time, Guruji (Rabindranath Tagore) was planning something similar in Shantiniketan. Prominent artists of the Swadeshi movement, Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose, thought that if a platform could be set up in Delhi, the world would get to know about Indian artists and their works and thoughts. But there was no such platform then. Even now, artists think that showcasing their works in Delhi is the ultimate achievement.
DIVYA A: At a time that the NGMA is planning to expand its influence to Kolkata and the Northeast, how are you trying to bring regional artists into the fold?
Ever since I joined the NGMA, I have been planning an outreach policy because it is mostly works of artists from Mumbai and Delhi that are collected. I belong to Odisha and I don’t have artworks from the state. We also lack works of artists from the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir. When we call ourselves a national organisation, we should have works from every state. So we are thinking of opening small branches in Chandigarh, Odisha and the Northeast. We intend to collect works of local artists and showcase them in the respective states and later move them to Delhi. But for this, we have to go to them because artists have high self-respect. The NGMA will visit these places, talk to local artists and acquire a space to host shows to exhibit these artworks. Slowly but steadily, there will be a system in place. If you visit any other country, you will find there are thousands of museums and galleries.
DEVYANI ONIAL: You spoke of galleries and museums abroad. But they have a lot to offer to people. Visitors can buy artworks from their shops. Do you think we can borrow something from their model?
I really like their style of functioning. Running (an art) museum is not a 10 am-to-5 pm job. The curator is like the mother of the institution. The curator should oversee everything — what is kept where and how. When we visit foreign galleries, we see how perfectly they function — display, lighting, security and modern technology. The building itself looks like a work of art. We are now working on our own building. To match them, we have to work hard and it will take us 10-20 years. We are also going to start a souvenir shop in Delhi where replicas of important works in our collection —such as of Ramkinkar Baij and Dhanraj Bhagat — will be stocked.
PAROMITA CHAKRABARTI: Art education in schools is very limited. Are you planning something for children?
When students visit the National Museum in Delhi, their teachers show them works related to their syllabus like the Harappan civilisation. There is nothing like that at the NGMA. So I have planned a space where about 30 to 40 kids can come and have a dialogue with paintings, make drawings, sketches and even paint there. We have a variety of portraits at the NGMA. We can tell kids about them and the artists who painted them.
At schools, the art teacher is considered a grade above the peon. I want to change that environment. We had done a workshop with art teachers, where we asked them to meet the bigger artists and once in a while do a show with them… We are also in talks with the NCERT and HRD Ministry to organise summer workshops. We are building a gurukul-like space at the NGMA, similar to Shantiniketan, where senior artists will deliver lectures. When I was a student in London, I didn’t even know for the first six months that what I was doing was a part of the course. We were visiting the Tate or the British Museum and I thought our teachers were taking us out for sightseeing. It was only later that I got to know that these were classes.
Here we teach inside a classroom. The biggest teacher is nature.
PAROMITA CHAKRABARTI: Many private galleries are bringing out art books for children. Does the NGMA have similar plans?
There was an old bus at our Jaipur House building in Delhi, which I have turned into a library. We are bringing out small art books. Some artists like A Ramachandranji have come on board. We will display all these books on the bus. The children will also like the experience of sitting in a bus and reading.
DIVYA A: You have a strong stand on differentiating between Indian art and Indian craft. You believe that craft is actually art.
We talk about stone carvings in the Ajanta and Ellora caves and the Konark temple. But when they were being carved, they were contemporary art. Now we have classified them differently. We find out how long these took to build and that’s how we determine the worth.
When there is a wedding in a village in Odisha, everyone participates. They make artworks in clay, wood and cloth for the family of the bride and groom. But today, when we talk of art, we speak in monetary terms… Craftspeople in Odisha paint tribal art on their walls. I have seen helicopters in their work. What they see around them is reflected in their work. So it should be classified as contemporary.
We recently organised a show of aboriginal art from Australia. If I present works of local artists at the NGMA, other artists will ask why we have such shows. The current system is taking us away from our roots… When the British came and established art schools, they set the pattern and style for art education. There were rebellions in places like Shantiniketan where artists said they won’t practise oil painting but do miniatures instead. But that assertion never spread. I think we need to bring them forward, and not relegate them to a side-craft status.
DIVYA A: How have commerce and market forces affected art in India?
It is sad but today the market makes an artist. Whose works sell becomes an artist. And that is the reason why no artists from the Northeast come here. We now have art houses which hold auctions. The whole system gets together and presents an artist whose works sell at a very high price. This has been happening for the past 10-15 years… Everything is a business and many have benefited from it.
SURBHI GUPTA: There is a huge gap between art and the common man, and the dominant perspective is that art is difficult to comprehend. How do we bridge it?
Before joining the NGMA, I was at Kalinga University in Bhubaneswar. I made a sculpture, which was round. I asked my co-workers, who worked with cement and stone, what they thought of it. One remarked that it was a roti. A young artist student said that it looked like the moon. When I asked some professors, they said it was related to philosophy and lifecycle. A simple circle says many things. We often give a title to our artworks. All works at the NGMA have a title. The common man first reads the title. When one looks at an art, one should be stunned for a minute… The response to art should be instinctive. We have not ingrained this system in the common public. In our schools, we don’t teach children how to visualise or feel art.
I think people from rural areas understand art better. Children from the rural areas first look at the art and then the title. I think urban people don’t think much. That’s why we organise art addas, where people and artists come together.
We can’t tell the public how an artist was created. For that we need to organise workshops and seminars. Earlier we had a bus which used to go around and share artworks with people. But now we need more avenues of interaction. This will take time.
DIVYA A: Before joining, you wanted to turn Delhi into a global art hub. You wrote to the ministry as well in your vision statement. How often do you hold meetings with ministry officials regarding this matter?
We are in the planning stage. We have to bring craftspeople forward. But they don’t have the technology or vision. I
wish to provide exposure to craftspeople. We did this with tribal artists from Jharkhand. We built government studios, supplied material and even suggested designs to them. But after two-three months, they left. When I asked them why, they said, ‘Here we can’t use our thread for the dhokra craft (an ancient craft of non–ferrous metal casting) we do. In Jharkhand, we knew the trees, waterfall and the atmosphere. We are learning new things here but we are not able to create what we do.’ We might ask the National Institute of Design or the National Institute of Fashion Technology to help these artists to develop their designs. But till they don’t want it themselves, it won’t happen.
DIVYA A: Is there any political or bureaucratic intervention at the NGMA?
The minister has given us a free rein. However, I don’t understand the budget as I am an artist. This renovation has cost us a lot. And many things are in the pipeline. By next year, we will have a lot many new things.
VANDANA KALRA: There is talk that India will be officially participating at the Venice Biennale. Is the NGMA curating works for it?
We are in talks with the government, but nothing has been finalised. In fact, I attended a meeting on February 13. The NGMA is not curating, we are the commissioners. Kiran Nadar is curating it. Works from the NGMA and some artists will be sent. We are planning the budget. We are hoping that some businessmen would help us out. We will need about Rs 6-8 crore as the exhibition goes on for six months.
DIVYA A: You were planning to get Air India’s art collection to the NGMA. Have the artworks started coming in?
There are some problems. We are trying to figure out if the artworks are original or duplicate. We need to authenticate them. If I am asserting that this is a Ramkinkar Baij work, I need an expert who would say the same. We need to test it in the laboratory as well and I had presented the idea to Air India. But they also have a system in place. The collection is huge and expensive, it will take time.