In a recent newspaper article, I read how architectural plans for the “other buildings” under the Central Vista Redevelopment project — after the Parliament — are being readied, which includes the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) and National Museum.
Since March, I have been reaching out to the government to express concerns of the artist community on the relocation of the two cultural centres that have played such a crucial role in the promotion of art in independent India. Their central location attracts hundreds of art lovers, who can just saunter in after a walk in the India Gate lawns. I call them the mai-baap of Indian artists and moving them would snatch these away from us.
My own relationship with these two institutions goes back several years, when I was around eight and used to stay on Curzon Road. I would look forward to weekend outings when my mother (Ajeet Cour) would take me boating at India Gate, followed by a children’s film at Sapru House or a visit to the National Museum to view artefacts that introduced us to the rich heritage of India. This was the 1960s, when Delhi was still uncongested and innocent. As a child, I was fascinated by the sheer magnificence of the National Museum, its round building with pillars, circular corridors and sculptures. You entered like you were entering a temple of art. The charm of its magical courtyard, with life-size sculptures and high-ceiling galleries, has not worn off with time. I have seen visitors offering flowers to the lying Vishnu in the corridor, others marvelling at the life-sized Kali and Kuber sculptures near the entrance.
I have been there thousands of times, but I still enter with a sense of wonder. I will never forget the busloads of school students I interacted with when I was exhibiting my Nanaks in digital form early this year. Its collection has also inspired much of my own work — from the Chola bronzes to the starving Buddha sculpture from Taxila. I have turned to the miniatures in its famed galleries so often, as have so many other artists. For me, it is the Kohinoor of museums in India.
It is the same with IGNCA, which was Kapila Vatsyayan’s vision, who recently passed away. She had conceived of Mati Ghar with so much affection, and I am sure it would have hurt her to see what is being planned now. I have participated in several exhibitions of women artists here, including one dedicated to Nirbhaya in 2014. The majestic venue has hosted so many literary festivals — memorable exhibitions like “Kaal” (1991) and Satish Gujral’s retrospective (2017).
The idea of using the space for office buildings is preposterous. There are more than 600 trees at the IGNCA — including Delhi’s oldest Molshree tree — and we don’t know how many of them will be razed. The architect in-charge of the project has stated that many of these trees have outlived their lives — that’s the first time I am hearing of something like that. We know of trees that have lived for hundreds of years — look at the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka) and Bodhgaya.
Under the new plan, the IGNCA will be shifted to another location, while the National Museum will move to North and South Block, which is a high-security area and so intimidating. Our attempt should be to bring art closer to people, not take it further away from them. The footfalls are bound to be negatively affected. As artists, we are also concerned that most of the collection is not documented and, therefore, there is no guarantee that everything will be shifted safely.
In March, just after the lockdown, the land use laws were changed from public and recreational to “office”. It’s important to acknowledge this is also a cultural land with two major art institutions. During one of the meetings of architects I attended in March, I was rather appalled that these buildings were mentioned as mere plot numbers. These mean much more to us. They belong to the artists and by letting them go, we are letting go of our art history and heritage.
Caur is a leading contemporary artist
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