Conscience keeper

Amol Palekar is not pursuing an agenda but raising a pertinent question on democratising art

It is not about Naseeruddin Shah or an Amol Palekar being known for their cinematic splendour and the assumption that their remarks must have been made to stir up a deliberate controversy simply because they do not make a fawning spectacle of selfies like the latest starry studio delegation of Bollywood did with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is about two intelligent men and cultural icons, who are known for abilities far beyond cinema, and are perfectly legitimate and eligible voices to comment about what they know best as gifted artistes, the function of art in society. By articulating what is right that may not suit the right-winger doesn’t mean that they are necessarily Leftist or “urban Naxals.” And it is this reminder that Palekar sounded while opening an exhibition in memory of artist Prabhakar Barwe at National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai, where he was stopped from speaking his mind. All he was trying to do was seek reasons behind the cancellation of retrospectives of two senior artists, the delay in Barwe’s own and wondering why such a public space would not reflect local artists and their sentiments. He even pointed out how the advisory councils of local artists, which so far had a say in mounting shows at NGMA branch centres, would now no longer be relevant and any clearance would come from the central Culture Ministry. It means that though NGMA created branches and extensions to allow local artists have a say, fact of the matter is that they would be used to promote a certain idea of pan-Indianness rather than being genuinely pan-India. Or to homogenise content as Bharatiya sanskar rather than allowing the free spirit and voices their diversity and depth. What Palekar essentially did was talk about the need for democratising art and break it free from elitist or conformist shackles. In short, NGMA’s changes would seem that it would hallmark art the way we hallmark gold standards and decide what is good for us and what is not. True Palekar was asked by NGMA members why couldn’t he raise the issue in private discussions and go public instead? Yes, Palekar has been considered to be a civil sort of person and has been low-key about his artistic pursuits. But if he is speaking out loud and clear at an open forum, it means he wasn’t given a listen in the first place and had to choose a public event to put his point of view across. Already, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by publicly praising the artist behind the aggressive Hanuman graphic, has given credence to the theory of a neo-culture police attempting to redefine Indic thought processes. Seen in the context of recent clampdowns, be it on authors like Nayantara Sahgal or Carnatic singer TM Krishna, the latest suppression of Palekar doesn’t augur well for the art world. Anyway our contemporary Indian artists have played safe, staying away from reflecting the brutal realities of our time or setting off a cultural revolution of ideas against revisionism. It would be banal to counteract that powerful lobbies did hold the cultural discourse to ransom even during the Congress era but do two wrongs a right make? Or does that mean that the “licence quota raj” mentality must acquire a new shape and purpose?

Historically, ideologically-driven art, be it of the Soviets or the Nazis, that almost bordered on idolatory, has only made it good as propaganda. And while Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a passionate cry against war and violence, didn’t stop them from happening, it remains his most popular work despite being a political statement. When we disallow free expressions, then it only means we have lost confidence in ourselves as a society.