On February 2, the prime minister of India inaugurated the recently renovated Indian Museum in Calcutta on its 200th anniversary. Pristine white and sparkling, in spite of the obtrusive grey concrete flyover slap on its stunning face, the exterior was carefully repaired and restored. The entrance, the interiors, the deep verandahs that line the central courtyard and some of the major galleries, were polished and spruced up. All the unnecessary and ugly mezzanine floors and partitions were removed to reveal the dramatic high ceilings. The loose, hanging wires were concealed in an ordered fashion, the scultures and art rearranged, to make it easier for all to appreciate, with adequate lighting, this great repository of India’s century-old inheritance. The governor, M.K. Narayanan, initiated this reinvention and firmly pushed the envelope to ensure that a section of the museum would be ready in time for the anniversary, making this a ‘work in progress’. He needs to be applauded for having shaken up a neglected institution and for taking the initiative to restore this fine, oldest museum in India. India needs many more such initiatives in every state.
Much more will have to be put in place to keep the processes of such rejuvenation going forward, within time-bound schedules and severe accountability. Conservation of the change is imperative. It is very easy to slip back into a comfortable lethargy and buck the next phase of the plan. New mechanisms need to be instituted that will keep pushing a systematic agenda forward, regardless of a single individual, through a governing council of professionals from various disciplines, who will be mandated to serve as advisors as well as watch dogs. That carefully crafted, effective ‘formula’ should become the blueprint for all Centrally administered museums in India. Beauty brings pride and much joy, two emotions that seem to be drying up in this wonderful country, due to neglect and the inability of those in charge to accept change and modernization, transparency and fresh ideas.
In Delhi, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, there has been an infusion of energy that has generated a sense of pride. Subodh Gupta, one of India’s finest artists (in my personal view), opened a grand show that brought home his vast and diverse body of work. I have been bewildered for years trying to comprehend why he and some others, like Bharti Kher and Dayanita Singh, to name a few, have had to wait so long to exhibit comprehensibly in their own country when the world has fêted them. Hopefully, the Subodh Gupta show will open the doors for others like him to exhibit ‘at home’, be celebrated at home, be comfortable in their own skin here. The definitive catalogue of Gupta’s work is a volume created with care and pride. Three cheers for a great beginning.
The minister of culture inaugurated an exhibition of the works of Amrita Sher-Gil, one of the earliest Indian painters to be acknowledged, toasted and acclaimed abroad as well as in India. Are all these events foreshadowing a departure from the past, from the disinterest of those who manned our cultural institutions? Maybe one gallery needs to be dedicated to the ‘unknown artist’, where a board of ‘curators’ identify and then showcase the greats. It all falls in place and works out if there are many ‘things’ happening at the same time in the same place. That is what triggers the vitality of the repositories of classical and contemporary art. It is, after all, the manifestation of the soul of India.
We need a NGMA in Calcutta. We need one in Chennai. We need to restore our inherited public libraries. We need one great museum in every state capital. We need to understand our past in order to be competent architects of our future.