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Naman Ahuja: meet the scholar gypsy

Art historian Naman Ahuja, the man behind the spectacular show on the Body in Indian Art at the National Museum, is a nomad at heart. Know the nerdy academician-curator who transforms into a party animal in the evening.

brunch Updated: Apr 20, 2014 09:28 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
academician-curator Naman Ahuja

On a lazy Saturday afternoon, when close to 125 people are clinging on to every word he says, describing a Shunga period carving, or why putting together an art exhibition about the body should begin with the yoni, it's difficult to imagine that nerdy, academician-curator Naman Ahuja transforms into a party animal in the evening. That he discards his suit for kurtas and goes out dancing.

To begin with, Ahuja, associate professor at JNU's School of Arts and Aesthetics, curator of The Body in Art exhibition, on at the National Museum till June 7, is not as old as many academicians tend to be. Also, he wears his eligible bachelor status lightly. "Being single at 40 is a luxury," Ahuja says. "My involvement in scholarship has become a vicious circle; the work keeps me single and because I am single I can do the work. In a way, I am incapable of settling down as I just get off on work! I am waiting to be shocked out of the scholar gypsy groove."

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Ah, the scholar gypsy! One can almost visualise Ahuja on a field trip, camera slung on his shoulder as he deliberates over which hat he'd like to wear to the next exotic destination: art historian, teacher, amateur potter or curator. How does he manage to juggle so many balls at one time?

"They complement each other," says Ahuja. "The pottery, which involves physically working with my hands in the studio, sensitises me to the processes of making. To know what it is actually like to make things with your hands makes you appreciate others who make with their hands." He says that teaching forces him to develop a clarity of thought. "By the time you stand up and articulate something, it is no longer just an unformed feeling in your subconscious," he explains. "You are talking to a group of young adults who are paying for your time and you have to respect that."

How about his avatars as curator and art historian? Ahuja insists he is not a linear thinker and this helps him forge connections. "Since I travel widely, I have a visual archive in my photographs and in my mind which is so large that I am able to make connections," he says. "That is why as a curator, an art show allows me to communicate diverse ideas in an unconventional manner, unlike in a classroom."

The storyteller
Nomads at heart, gypsies usually tend to have stories to tell, and as one settles down in his tastefully-appointed studio at Lado Sarai, that south Delhi urban village, one realises Ahuja is no different. "Give me the name of a region in India and I'd tell you a story about what's special about an exhibit acquired from the place and how I learnt about its importance."

The double-sided carved Ardhanarisvara relief from Kannauj, UP, for instance, isn't just interesting because of its craftsmanship, he says. Acquiring it for the show has a last tonga twist to it. "I took a train to Kannauj from Kanpur. Once I alighted, I realised the only local transport was a tonga. That day the tongawallas happened to be on a strike. The guy who finally took me to the museum asked for double the fare. In the evening I took pictures using a light charged by a car battery. That is how I got this treasure for the exhibition's archives," says Ahuja.

His missions to certain other parts of India were not as fruitful. "The Ashutosh Museum in Calcutta University is legendary for being unhelpful. I arrived there to shoot an artefact but it wasn't easy. Permission was granted to photograph only five objects. When I took out the tripod, they asked for a permission letter again and another one for using a light. I was so frustrated that I had to approach the Governor to intervene."

The Idea of India
One of the challenges for art historians in the country is to rescue the idea of a museum, says Ahuja. "The museum is a Colonial construct. We are not a culture that collects art to decorate our spaces or go to museums to be suffused with a sense of aesthetic rapture. When museums were first constructed in India in the mid-19th century, they functioned fine for the first 100 years as they catered to a colonial audience. Independent India didn't know what to do with this legacy of the Raj. And the neglect has only grown."

That's why shows such as Ahuja's, which bring back the crowds to government museums, are so important. With more than 300 antiquities sourced from 44 collections, what is the common thread running through the sculptures, paintings, masks and jewellery on display? Ahuja says that the overarching idea is the idea of India, an assimilation of contradictory traditions. "Every gallery has many points of view on one subject.

And there is an overarching opposite room, which is a completely parallel opinion and even within that parallel opinion, there are many voices. It's a museum, damn it! Not a temple. Where are you leaving me room to look at history, in its many hues, in an interesting way? If we are going to be a multicultural society, we have to learn to live with our neighbour who is completely different from us. That's why when on a Sunday, when I see a group of Army jawans bringing their wives into the gallery and discussing the art on their day off, I feel a sense of having achieved my objective of curating an exhibition not meant only for the urban intelligentsia."

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The contrarian
A History graduate from Delhi's Venkateshwara College and a doctorate from London's School of Oriental and African Studies, Ahuja has also curated the works of Delhi-based sculptor Devi Prasad and written extensively about his life. How did the late artist leave such an impression on him? "I was an apprentice at his studio. I was probably his dullest student, but I spent a long time with him learning about art and life," Ahuja says. He remembers Prasad as a compassionate, deep-thinking person. "I learnt a lot of my values towards art and labour from him. He was a Gandhian who spent his life in an eternal dialogue with Marx and Tagore," he adds.

Most times, some of the greatest treasures of India's cultural heritage stay buried in the shroud of neglect right in our backyard. The celebrated curator cites the example of the grave of a Mughal princess that was lying desecrated in the Red Fort since 1857, when the Lal Qila was sacked by the British. "It has never been put into the accession registers of the ASI. The wreckage of the Gadar was so bad, we'll perhaps never find out who she was. But the curator was kind enough to accession that for me so that I could borrow it for the exhibition."

At a time when India is witnessing the largest urban migration in history, ever, says Ahuja, most of us are living in a Peepli Live bubble. "People like us are post-Nehruvian urban Indians. How much do we know about our cultural values, our ritual heritage and performance culture? That is the big question," he says.

As one is nearing the end of our conversation, one cannot but resist asking Ahuja how he reacts when journalists write that he has sexed up academics. "That's fantastic!" he says. "If am coming across as somebody who has added sex appeal to academics, I take that as a compliment. But I don't think one can tart scholarship up. I think people have forgotten how interesting visiting a museum can be. How interesting it can be to engage the mind. We've even forgotten the art of conversation. Just being with a bunch of friends since they are interesting company. That's why I have people over and cook for them and party!"

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From HT Brunch, April 20
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