As Edwin Lutyens’ Delhi was being completed, some of the most powerful princely states put up their palatial residences around the India Gate hexagon. Most of these ‘royal’ buildings were deployed in the service of the Republic, like the courts at Patiala House, or the venue for visiting foreign dignitaries at Hyderabad House. One of these buildings, Jaipur House, the erstwhile palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur, became the home of the National Gallery of Modern Art since the former vice-president, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, inaugurated it in the presence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954. It was a sign of the deep education and the immense cultural sophistication of the first generation of our leaders and government bureaucrats that post Independence, not only was a National Museum built near India Gate to house artefacts from our ancient heritage but that a poor country such as India also gave separate importance to modern art — enough importance to dedicate one of the grandest palaces on the Central Vista for the collection and display of Indian art since 1850 as well as contemporary work being produced by Indian artists. Put another way, you can’t get a more weighty twinning of Lutyens’ Delhi and Nehruvian vision than the NGMA.
Obviously, like all government institutions, from time to time, the NGMA has been beset by political interference from the party in power and regressive and narrow-minded policies that serve the interests of the government far more than they do those of art and artists. Never before though has the institution been turned into an out and out personal propaganda instrument for a prime minister as we saw happening at the end of April with the inauguration of an exhibition titled, Jana Shakti : A Collective Power.
We are told that the exhibition is to celebrate the 100th episode of Narendra Modi’s radio programme, Mann Ki Baat. In the show, 13 well-known artists have made specifically commissioned works, each artist addressing a ‘theme’ from Modi’s long-running series of talks delivered to the nation. The exhibition was curated by Alka Pande, a well-established curator from Delhi, it was inaugurated by the painter, Anjolie Ela Menon, and it was supported by the art philanthropist, Kiran Nadar, of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, who was an advisor for the project. The artists participating are: Pratul Dash, Atul Dodiya, Vibha Galhotra, G.R. Iranna, Manjunath Kamath, Riyas Komu, Paresh Maity, Jagannath Panda, Madhavi Parekh, Manu Parekh, Ashim Purakayastha, Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra (who work jointly as Thukral and Tagra).
Modi began his monthly address to the nation soon after coming to power in 2014. Never one to knowingly come up with an original idea, this one was clearly copied from the ‘fireside chats’ broadcast on radio by Franklin D. Roosevelt after he became the president of the United States of America in 1933. While the American leader’s broadcasts in those pre-television days were an innovative way to reach out to a nation coming out of economic and agricultural trauma as well as a channel to explain the quite radical aims and progress of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, Modi’s broadcasts have been banal and predictable, their chief function being to feed into his project of ceaseless self-aggrandisement. The Mann Ki Baat broadcasts have been part and parcel of the curtain of smoke and mirrors put up by the prime minister and his large support team even as the country under Modi’s leadership has been put on a relentless backward march on every issue that matters.
Now, the thing is many of us had gauged how this BJP-RSS government was going to go from the very beginning in May 2014. Those of us — artists, writers, buddhijibis, call us what you will — who had witnessed the violence in Gujarat in 2002, especially those of us who were Gujarati, were appalled beyond words when Modi managed to become the prime minister of the country. Be that as it may, it’s good to remember that artists are not activists or revolutionaries, not always; you can feel disgust, revulsion, outrage at a political situation or the actions of leaders or political parties. But as an artist, you sometimes have to think of the long game — your art should express what you feel about the here and now but it’s also there to express what you feel about similar situations in the past and the future and to join these in some sort of experiential analysis. Therefore, if asked by the Establishment to sing its leader’s praises, the artist can always quietly decline without making a big fuss. But then again, as we’ve seen in history, from time to time, artists of all sorts have also felt the compulsion to draw a line in the sand — this far and no further.
There’s an official video of Modi visiting the exhibition where the videographer clearly knows who the hero of the film is — the so-called art and the obsequious artists are totally peripheral as the camera and editing stay on Modi striding slowly through the show, looking, nodding, stroking his chin, clearly striking the contemplative poses he thinks one should when looking at art. Looking at the list of artists participating in this thinly-disguised praise-fest of megalomania, you have to ask — how do you as an octogenarian Gujarati artist, say, as someone from a generation who actually watched M.K. Gandhi galvanise Gujarat, manage to proffer your work at the feet of someone who has done his level best to dismantle Gandhi’s thinking and legacy? Or, how do you — one of the country’s best painters whose reputation partly rests on powerfully moving paintings about Gandhi’s life and his ideas — find yourself glorifying the leader of a party that daily pumps bullets into what Mohandas Gandhi stood for? And how are we to look at the work you made about the Gujarat killings of 2002? Or how do you — a major artist from the South — with so much work about social exclusion, suddenly find yourself making visual hosannas for a man whose main message is the exclusion of this or that minority?
We don’t yet know how many and which other artists were invited or what their responses were but there’s an assumption that’s shaken by the participation of this bunch: many of us take it for granted that our friends, people we are friendly with, people in ‘our circles’, all broadly share the same ‘politics’ and the same revulsion towards what is being done across the country, towards the horror that has been unfolding over the last nine years. This is clearly not the case. As in any pressure situation, people will cut their own deals, make their own compromises, openly or secretly, and negotiate the route to their own patli gali (narrow escape lane) by which to get away from the dilemmas squeezing them. We can think of these people as the fringe, the pretend-committed, the fence-spike-warmers, but often even that proves to be inaccurate — the worst turncoats often come from the very centre of the formation.
A Gujarati academic friend was scathing on the phone: “Gandaa paani maa chhab-chhabiya karo toh gandagi tamne laagej-laagey (If you splash around in filthy water, the filth is bound to cling to you).” I am told that one of the artists managed to find it not possible to attend the gala lunch with Mr Modi, one of them said he didn’t quite know what he was getting into, that he somehow had been inveigled, and one of them reportedly told friends: “Don’t ask me what compulsions were put on me to do this — I can’t talk about that.” Be that as it may, the fear is that when the history of this period is written, the dirt and the shame won’t stay contained to the 13 participants; it will splash onto all of us in the Indian creative world.