Actor Amol Palekar at a press conference in Pune following the NGMA snub.(HT Photo)
Actor Amol Palekar at a press conference in Pune following the NGMA snub.(HT Photo)

Palekar snub paints NGMA in disappointing colours

Stopping Amol Palekar in his tracks lowered the decorum one expects from a body like the NGMA
Hindustan Times | By Ayaz Memon
UPDATED ON FEB 14, 2019 10:10 PM IST

Last week, the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) Mumbai unceremoniously rebuffed filmmaker and artist Amol Palekar, who was invited to speak on his friend, modernist artist Prabhakar Barve — a move that was both, distasteful and self-defeating.

Moreover, the episode sullied Mumbai’s strong role as creator and nurturer of post-Independence art. But I’ll deal with this aspect after highlighting how the insulting treatment meted out to Palekar could have been easily avoided, and why the terrible optics it created boomeranged on the finicky organisers.

Barely a couple of minutes into his speech, Palekar was interrupted by an NGMA committee member, when the filmmaker chose to speak about some contentious administrative issues.

The committee member insisted that Palekar restrict his speech to only Barve, and the exhibition being held in his honour. But Palekar would have none of this straitjacketing and gave up on his speech after making his protest clear.

Stopping Palekar in his tracks lowered the decorum one expects from a body like the NGMA. He could have been rebutted by the committee member when delivering a vote of thanks, or some such, rather than disrupt the event.

The more pertinent question is why invite an artistically, socially, and politically aware person when all you are looking for is humdrum, anodyne statements to fill up time?

It will be recalled, a couple of months ago, the invitation to writer Nayantara Sehgal to speak at a literary event was withdrawn at the last minute because of her perceived anti-establishment views.

One must assume that both Ms Sehgal and Mr Palekar were originally invited because of their body of work and contribution to their respective fields, not for so-called celebrity status. Surely their well-known views on various issues would have been taken into account. What’s the discontent then?

Writers and artists are coveted for their views which may be traditional, avante garde, modernist, mellow, angry, conformist or rebellious. They may be sanguine or prickly by nature but must be acknowledged for who they are, rather than expected to ‘toe the line’ which would negate not only what they’ve worked for, but also why they are invited.

Rather than divide everything into an ideological or political binary, giving such people scope and space will see all kinds of divergent views emerging, allowing people to judge for themselves, and cancelling out the nonsensical parts.

It is nobody’s case that this is only a present-day malaise. Authorities — from the government down — have tried to control information in the past as well. That this should be persisted with, despite the continued failure of such attempts, is astonishing.

Where NGMA Mumbai also lapsed in the Palekar controversy, was in not anticipating the furore it would create. In today’s environment where social media is so invasive, nothing goes unreported. The NGMA came out looking peevish.

The ministry of culture and the NGMA governing council have since allayed apprehensions about the alleged meddling in committees in various cities, but the perception of a climate of mistrust willy-nilly against intellectuals and artistes persists.

Another detrimental aspect of this controversy, referred to at the start, is the undermining of Mumbai as the country’s foremost city in the formation, growth, and promotion of contemporary India art. It would seem that those involved in the Palekar issue know little about this… or are uncaring.

Mumbai is where Indian art — fine and popular — flourished and inspired, away from official and government patronage. Much in the way Mumbai itself flourished in so many other aspects of life.

Privately owned art galleries like Pundole and Chemould (owned by the Ganhhys) played a huge role in promoting and nurturing Mumbai art and the NGMA Mumbai chapter could be said to be the big daddy of them all.

When Dr Saryu Doshi, legendary editor of the publication MARG, was honorary director of the Jehangir Cowasji Hall’s transformation into the NGMA, the city was treated to an explosion of curated historic art.

I got to know Dr Doshi when editing city newspapers in different tenures. She was a lady of personal grace and poise coupled with enormous passion and knowledge, which she used wonderfully to make the NGMA a bastion of the arts. In her days, and for several years after, NGMA Mumbai was not run by ministers and bureaucrats from Delhi. That has been the big let-down from the unsavoury episode witnessed last week. The Palekar controversy made this travesty of its history public.

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