Why the NGMA needs to think big
These are doggedly revivalist times, and it isn’t all pretty. In the movies, the mythological superhero is resurgent; the burqa-clad woman with a healthy libido is offensive. The cultural mandate is to look inward, to the indigenous: The Union ministry of culture has undertaken a Rs470-crore project called the National Mission on Cultural Mapping and Roadmap. Starting from Mathura, there will be talent hunt competitions across the country—640,000 villages—over the next three years. Can such a project ensure we have original, radical artistic ideas that can compete with the best in the world? We will know in three years. But Indian art needs much more than talent-hunts.
Art, by which I mean painting, sculpture and offshoots of these two parent forms, doesn’t have as immediate an appeal for society as literature, movies or music. It is confined, tragically, to galleries and museums. But it can be an equally potent artistic index of the times.
Contemporary Indian art is still young. Artists born after independence are in collections and auctions all over the world, but we are yet to see a real demand for Indian art beyond miniatures, Raja Ravi Varma and the Moderns such as Tyeb Mehta and V.S. Gaitonde. More than ever before, we need resources for the new and the radical—artists unburdened by schools of thought and curators who can present the old anew, and combine the old and new in engaging ways.
This is a role a versatile space like the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) should fill.
In May, the cultural behemoths running on government grants since the 1950s—some, out of marvellous architectural edifices—received a wake-up call from the finance ministry: “Generate your own revenue, 25-30% of your budget to begin with, until complete self-sufficiency.” On paper, it is an excellent remedy for the collective stupor over which the ministry of culture presides. For, over the years, private initiatives and individuals have propelled the country’s cultural achievements in more sustained, innovative and interesting ways than the government.
In practice, however, the idea is not based in reality. It will remain utopian as long as professional cultural managers, such as curators or art historians, don’t run these institutions. Last week, the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) released a report that said the culture ministry has not filled up key positions at the NGMA for more than a decade. One outcome of this is that the NGMA has not been able to relocate more than 16,000 works of art in its possession to an advanced art storage system. The system was set up in 2014.
The CAG report says this amounts to wasting investment worth Rs3.81 crore. My repeated attempts to reach out to the NGMA director general, Adwaita Gadanayak, through email and phone calls failed.
Despite the handicaps, the NGMA has consistently been more vibrant than most government-run museums. But it still does not have the kind of shows or collaborative initiatives that could help unearth new talent or bring foreign talent to India. That has so far been the domain of the big private galleries.
The selection committee was fractured over the appointment of Adwaita Gadanayak in November 2016, a sculptor who was a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s cultural cell in Odisha, and was head of the School of Sculpture at the Bhubaneswar-based KIIT University.
So far it has organized Itihaas, an exhibition that saw artworks from the NGMA’s collection being mounted on the boxes in which they have been preserved for years. Gadanayak, still settling into his new role, is also reported to have met officials of the municipal corporation of Rajkot to help plan beautification of the city with art installations.
Usually, once a curator submits a proposal, it goes to the culture ministry for approval. What counts in this process is the director general’s backing for an idea. In 2000, when Mukta Nidhi Samnotra was director, a work by artist Surendran Nair, An Actor Rehearsing The Interior Monologue Of Icarus, was pulled out of a group show because the painting had a “less than reverential” representation of the national emblem. The show had to be cancelled because all the artists withdrew their works. Artist Gulam Mohammed Sheikh resigned as member of the NGMA’s advisory committee, saying, “The unilateral decision to remove a painting from an approved and authorized show on unsubstantial, legal, moral or aesthetic grounds indicates an unfortunate absence of sensitivity to artistic vocabulary.”
By then, the NGMA had come a long way. Its inaugural show of March 1954 had 22 artists, including Devi Prasad, Ramkinkar Baij, Sankho Chaudhuri, Dhanraj Bhagat and Sarbari Roy Chowdhury. Chaudhuri’s famous stone sculpture, Toilet, was part of this show. And the NGMA continued to showcase new artists and avant-garde ideas under Humayun Kabir, polyglot, author and educationist, who was the minister of cultural affairs in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet.
It has expanded over the years, opening wings in other cities. The NGMA headquarters at Delhi’s Jaipur House, designed by English architect Arthur Blomfield, is a fluid space, more flamboyant in design aesthetics than the city’s national museum or any other museum in the country. The Mumbai NGMA, opened in 1996, is a redesign of the Jehangir Cowasjee Hall. At its centre is a flight of elegant, orbicular stairs connecting three floors—like the Delhi original, this enables the execution of complex curatorial visions. The most recent, and smallest, of the galleries opened in Bengaluru in 2009 at the Manikyavelu Mansion. It is a venue for film screenings and other cultural events, besides exhibitions. The same year, a new wing was inaugurated on the Delhi premises, with 12,000 sq. m of display area and 9,000 sq. m of art storage space.
The NGMA has hosted prestigious exhibitions over the years. In 1997, NGMA Delhi and Mumbai exhibited The Enduring Image, a collection of artefacts from the British Museum, and events co-hosted by the British Council to celebrate India’s 50th year of independence. In 2001, in association with the Picasso Museum in Paris, NGMA Delhi and Mumbai hosted, for the first time in the country, an exhibition of works by Picasso, titled Metamorphosis 1900-1972 (incidentally, Gadanayak told The Indian Express in February that he wanted to bring Picasso’s works to India because, “I don’t think Picasso’s works have ever been exhibited in India”).
In the past few years, both Mumbai and Delhi have hosted only two remarkably curated and mounted shows: No Parsi Is An Island (2014), works of Parsi artists covering 150 years, curated by Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania, and Shoonya Ghar (2016), a Sudarshan Shetty solo.
It needs new life, and a management that looks beyond indigenous art forms. It needs resources to shatter old tastes and propel the new. A stagnant, inward-looking NGMA is bad news for Indian art.