The inauguration of an exhibition in memory of the modernist painter Prabhakar Barwe (1936-1995) at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai has once again exposed the culture of compliance which has been developing in recent years. The actor, filmmaker and painter, Amol Palekar, had chosen the moment to voice his apprehension that as far as he knew, this would be the last exhibition at the NGMAs in Mumbai and Bengaluru organised by an advisory committee of local artists, and that henceforth all decisions might be taken by the central ministry of culture. Besides, few works would be displayed which were not in the collections of the NGMA. Upon which, NGMA director Anita Rupavataram and former chairman of the advisory committee Suhas Bahulikar interrupted him to request him to “stick to” Barve’s work. Palekar asked if he was being censored or disallowed from speaking — and was again told to keep to the subject. He had to wind up his speech. The incident has rightly evoked shock across the country, especially on account of the stature of the speaker and the importance of the venue.
Palekar digressed from the subject after speaking almost 600 words about his friend Barve in a written speech. It was, in fact, no digression, because he was expressing concerns about state and ideological interference in the arts that Barwe himself might have articulated, had he witnessed the arc that individual freedoms have seemed to take from the time of “award wapsi” to the present. Institutions like the NGMA are expected to push back against perceived pressures, not to encourage self-censorship and expect even their guests to refrain from speaking their mind, or expressing their disquiet. This obsession with the ostensibly approved line is peculiarly Soviet, rather than Indian. An institution cannot invite speakers and expect them to cleave to an invisible line. If that is the expectation, they should invite officials who are accustomed to working within set bounds, rather than artists, whose work springs from the freedom of expression.
When he was rudely interrupted, Palekar alluded to the case of Nayantara Sahgal, who was invited to the inauguration of the prestigious Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in January, and then swiftly disinvited on fears that she would criticise the government. Indeed, the text of her speech objected to curtailed personal freedoms and the imposition of a uniform cultural identity on a land of diversity. To remain worthy of respect, institutions should jealously guard their intellectual space, which provides autonomy to writers and artists to express themselves freely. Especially when they digress.