It’s as much about how and where you see art as it is about what art you see. Which is why the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi, even with its collection of over 17,000 works, badly needed a makeover. It was in January this year that the New Wing was inaugurated. The difference was palpable.
More than six months later, the public is yet to be seduced by ‘the NGMA experience’. This is largely due to the fact that people don’t know what to expect inside India’s premier art gallery. Also we, in India, are yet to popularise — and democratise — the experience of ‘a visit to the museum’.
Outside the gallery spaces, the bronze bust of Mahatma Gandhi by Ram V Sutar and the Henry Moore-ish sculpture by Soni Kewal stand like artifacts on an excavation site. But take the path on the left and you are at the mouth of the NGMA’s New Wing. A ten rupee entry fee later, you’re standing in the cool, temperature-controlled climes of its white interiors where you have the amazing view of seeing a whole building full of art in cross-section.
Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Woman Face’, with its elliptical lines folding on to each other around a serene face, can at last be seen not only up close and personal but also by standing a few feet away as the picture soaks in the artificial light. (In the old building, if you moved two steps back to get a full view, you would hit a wall.)
But there are glitches. The yellow spotlights fall only on selective paintings, while standard rows of white fluorescent light illuminate the rest. Standing in front of Nandalal Bose’s dark, brooding water-colour on paper, ‘Lal Bandh at Night’, you will see more of your reflection on the painting’s glass than the painting itself.
Then there is the matter of insufficient haphazard information. One understands that the Rajput miniatures in the special exhibition ‘...In the Seeds of Time’ are by anonymous artists. But the absence of any dating at all (especially in a show that gives importance to the trajectory of time) is irritating. The wikipedia kind of general information provided doesn’t help.
But there’s more to a visit to the gallery than looking at pictures. While ramps are thoughtfully there for visitors on wheelchairs, seats for contemplating visitors or art students with drawing pads are noticeably limited to a huddle of sofas in the corners of floors. There’s no gallery restaurant (a cafeteria is on the cards), and the less one talks about the toilet facilities the better. The NGMA has finally got a shop. It now needs more merchandise and ‘fun’ related things to sell.
The New Wing is, no doubt, a precious coven for the art-minded. Now comes the hard part: seducing the others by providing an experience that only a gallery of this scale can provide — by competing not with dreary government museums but with multiplexes and malls.