The design for a new wing at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi, was finalized in 1985. Twenty-three years later, the new wing has been opened to the public.
It could have taken longer. Rajeev Lochan, the director of NGMA, assumed his post in 2001. “Seven months after I joined,” he recalls, “I was forced to do the Picasso exhibition at the National Museum.” The lack of space at Jaipur House—which houses the original wing of the NGMA and is situated right next to India Gate—to host a major show prompted Lochan to push for the construction of the additional wing. “It was all in planning already,” he says. “I was only the catalyst.”
A new leaf? Inside the new NGMA wing. Photo: Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Thus far, only 4% of the NGMA’s permanent collection could be displayed in the relatively limited confines of Jaipur House. With the new wing, this figure will go up to 24%. The new wing consists of three interconnected blocks constructed adjacent to and behind Jaipur House. Despite being much bigger, the new structure blends in with the surroundings. All the works in the two inaugural shows are from the museum’s permanent collection: ...In the seeds of time traces the evolution of modern art in India, and Rhythms of India: The art of Nandalal Bose shows about 85 works by the master.
“The new wing looks very attractive from the outside,” says photographer Raghu Rai, who had a retrospective exhibition at the NGMA last year. But he found the interiors disappointing. “It is so open and naked,” he says. “It doesn’t contain the space. I’ll hesitate to have a retrospective here.”
Labour of love: Rajeev Lochan.
Besides finding the space, which is split into four levels, “too large and overwhelming”, Rai also finds the lighting inadequate. “It is very ordinary,” he says. “The ceiling and the AC ducts—everything is too visible.” Rai, however, is all praise for Lochan for seeing the project through. “He pushed and pushed, and got it (the new wing) open.”
Rai’s view of the NGMA—one that is echoed by many artists—is that it has been a largely ineffectual institution hobbled by red tape and lack of vision. “It is sarkari (bureaucratic), run by the sarkar (government) and the director becomes helpless,” he says. A telling example, he points out, is something as simple as the museum visiting hours, 10am to 5pm—which is clearly an unthinking replication of government office hours. Lochan’s response is equally telling, “It is not in my hands but the (culture and tourism) ministry’s.”
Photographer Pablo Bartholomew, who had his own show at the National Museum last year, also feels that like most government institutions meant to promote culture, the NGMA’s functioning leaves much to be desired. He grants that budgets can be a constraint but says the problems run deeper. “You can always trot out 10 million excuses but basically, there is a lack of vision,” he says. “The new building is a shell. Let’s see whether the new space will be a living space or a mausoleum.”
New Delhi-based artist Vivan Sundaram echoes this sentiment. “My perception is that even though the space (in the old wing) is limited, much more could have been done,” he says. He admits that granting greater autonomy to the museum director would go some way in improving things. “(The director) should demand greater permission so that he can’t use it as an excuse that ‘every nail I have to knock requires permission’.”
Sundaram points out that with the Indian art scene increasingly more active and dynamic, the gap between it and the NGMA is widening. He is clear, however, that private galleries, auction houses and wealthy buyers can never be a substitute for museums meant for the general public. “Private art is for a niche, moneyed class. There is a huge middle class that wants to see art but can’t buy it,” he says.
Sundaram feels museums here lag when it comes to showing cutting-edge work. He suggests that they should make their shows more inclusive when it comes to new media.
“I have a museum, not a gallery,” says Lochan, countering accusations of the latest trends being ignored. He says that encouraging and supporting practising artists is the job of galleries; museums are meant for those who have “arrived and achieved”. He points out that the NGMA bought works by contemporary artists such as Subodh Gupta, Jitesh Kallat and Chintan Upadhyaya before they became big names, adding that even among contemporary artists, only those who have “proved their worth” can be acquired by a museum.
Lochan is at pains to point out that he has organized around 80 shows in his seven-and-a-half-year tenure. Whether it is increasing the number of outreach programmes, setting up new artist-in-residence programmes or a video-art library, or opening a museum shop and café, he says plans are “in the pipeline”. Quizzed about bureaucratic interference, he sounds an optimistic note: “Working within the government structure, if this annexe could be made, then other things are possible too.”