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Architectural turning point
- Art museum project launched with promise of a marvel

Calcutta, July 15: Chief minister Mamata Banerjee today flagged off a project that promises to build an architectural landmark on an aesthetic scale not seen in the country perhaps since Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned Le Corbusier to create Chandigarh in the 1950s.

The Kolkata Museum of Modern Art (KMOMA), a Rs 410-crore public-private partnership project coming up on a 10-acre plot in Rajarhat’s New Town, is designed by acclaimed Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron, who created the game-changing Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics.

“An exhibition of Picasso paintings couldn’t be held in Calcutta because there was not a single gallery of international standards. KMOMA will bridge that gap. It will provide a platform for excellence in arts,” the chief minister said at the Town Hall today.

What she was referring to was the germination point of KMOMA in the late 1990s, when a Picasso exhibition travelled to India but had to skip Calcutta, the cultural capital of the country, because of the lack of a suitable venue to show world-class art in. As Rakhi Sarkar, the managing trustee of KMOMA, said today: “Artists and connoisseurs were outraged.”

Over the next few years, Sarkar pursued her vision for a “cultural hub” for Calcutta. By 2003, a plan for KMOMA started taking shape with the setting up of a non-profit trust for the project. In 2008, Herzog & De Meuron were commissioned to design KMOMA. In 2010, the design was fixed.

KMOMA will include several national and international galleries, some with permanent collections, and will focus on the acquisition, restoration, preservation and archiving of art from the 18th century onwards.

In addition, it will have an academic wing, where experts from all over the world will be invited to give lectures. KMOMA intends to raise public awareness of art by running art appreciation courses.

There will also be an amphitheatre (seating 1,500 people) for the promotion of the other arts, a restaurant, a state-of-the-art library and a database to facilitate research.

Such a grand plan calls for a feat of designing something in which Herzog and De Meuron specialise. Inspired by temple architecture, the design of KMOMA is a synthesis of eastern and western influences. Although the building looks as if it is made of massive blocks stacked on top of one another, there is a sense of openness and interconnectedness within it.

Rahul Bose, who has been involved with KMOMA from its inception, said he “felt like crying” when he saw the stunning design of the museum for the first time. “In India, the government considers art to be a luxury. But art should be free and accessible to everyone.”

The actor added that one seldom sees spaces like KMOMA in the country, or if one does at all, these are exclusive institutions, open only to VVIPs. “The design of KMOMA, on the contrary, is down to earth. It is mindful of the Indian ethos and is not intimidating to the common man.” KMOMA, Bose believes, “will change the relationship between Indians and art”.

The realisation of such an elaborate project will depend not only on funds from the state and the central governments, but also from the private sector. Culture secretary Jawhar Sircar mentioned the Planning Commission’s “strong recommendation” for KMOMA and other such PPP projects involving art, which, the commission believes, should be encouraged by the Centre. He said that KMOMA “is a dream that is possible”.

A dream that once realised would restore some of Calcutta’s lost glory, according to Mamata. “Calcutta was once the centre of art and literature. Had we been able to combine our tradition with modern ideas, we could have moved ahead. KMOMA will put Calcutta on the world map of art and culture,” she said.

Also on the dais at the Town Hall event were B.M. Khaitan, the chairman of KMOMA, and artist Jogen Chowdhury, who gave the vote of thanks.

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