Was it really asking for the impossible to expect a visible alteration of an outmoded method of ‘seeing’ and functioning from NGMA and especially the curator, asks Anita Dube in Delhi.
It came up in a long conversation with Pranab Ranjan Ray and Anando Das Gupta, from me, and I am glad for that, and that is how it should be, that we must, and it is time now, to create a tradition of critiqueing, other than that of tolerance, back-patting, resentment etc., of which we have had a surfeit. As a necessary agency of debate, because really speaking we do not have one, especially a healthy internal polemical one, played out on public platforms, rather than within the clique-cloaked walls of private or official drawing rooms or in cafeterias.
The crucial point is that if we are not to participate (and that is an insidious, dangerous and by now a myth-making process in the Indian context -- given our ‘Mahatma’ ‘MGR’, ‘Indira is India’ and ‘Amitabh Bachchan’ super-star syndromes) in either the making or breaking of monoliths -- and we must remember that there is hardly any choice in the matter, one is doing one of the two -- then, the only marvellous alternative to my mind is to speak out, critique, debate, open up the closed room, enter the public arena, shed off our intellectual sloth, passionately stand with causes not as protectionist ventures, but as those with a ‘vision’.
Instead we seem to have cultivated other traditions. Mannered habits of absorbing differences, within the grand-functional-operational structure offered to us by civil society -- The Family -- as a model. Cultural discourse too, now, specially in the visual arts which is my subject, as a series of civil interactions between different family systems longing for the liberal air in this time of stock taking. We are beguilingly overt and closed in covering up, silencing what threatens the ‘family’ internally, and ‘covert and open’ in protecting its larger expansionist interests; in short we suffer from clannish longings. We struggle against patriarchy and replace the model with a matriarchal one.
Where did we forget on the way, or why did we not assimilate and contribute to the development of other institutions arisen in the world through long historic democratic struggles, of more healthy social functioning and connecting. And if we have tried to ‘forget’, in the process appearing progressive, it is a cruel mask. Then it is time to search and participate in democratic methods fully, that which are available and towards better ones. Only one of these is to speak of matters that concern us, particular, important matters, in good faith.
I wish to read into Review 1930-93: From the NGMA collection, an exhibition curated by Geeta Kapur, Part 1 of which is now on display in its upper galleries, as it raises a number of issues for me. The first, regarding its constitutionality. Is it, as it appears, an ad-hoc event generated hastily, with the NGMA wanting to do ‘something’ alongside the 8th Triennale- India, then roping in, in a kind of underhand honour, Geeta Kapur -- one of our major art critics, to provide the ‘inter’ face of its ‘nationalism’? For, how are we to explain the opening of a major exhibition on the ‘Modern Art movement in India’ within the National Gallery of Modern Art, without any coherent and debated policy about such matters, such as, whether it is to constitute one among succeeding such events, an on-going participatory process in cultural dialogue, allowing several, differing, but articulated points of view o come forward.
How do we go on to understanding the inadequacy of planning and funding: The not making possible of a borrowing from other collections (The NGMA collection being famous for its uninformed - myopia, unresponsiveness to major production, arbitrary buying and glaring inconsistencies and gaps in its collection, weighed down, as it is within bureaucratic structuralism) to then, not allowing the curator a significant -- specialist -- partisan role, articulated towards his/her ‘vision’ through the exhibits and a decent catalogue and text, which may then become ‘intervention’ in the social sense, and not then become part of the state’s ever continuing, many face-saving, window-dressing devices and makeshift arrangements.
Surely this is not too much to expect from the NGMA and from Geeta Kapur: a visible alteration of an outmoded method of ‘seeing’ and functioning, and without apologies. This, in the context, surely, of the new liberalisation and privatisation policies, and with the ‘regional’ ‘national’ and ‘global’ as historical impulses in process that need a continuous clarification through intervening negotiated actions.
There are then specific problems regarding the exhibits which I also want to raise, concerning the how and what is on display in this first part, and not what is outside. One concerns gallery 7, that small round space in which N.N Rimzon’s Man in the Chalk Circle (1986), is surrounded by Rabindranath’s Ghosts and a painting by Savindra Savarkar. If there are partisanal ‘gestures’ in the exhibition, this is one, and I choose to read it as a faux-pas. For, thinking about the matter seriously, what connects or even dialectically engages them? Rimzom’s figure comes from the ‘bazar’ traditions as well as from the burgeoning dialogue regarding figuration within Indian and British sculpture through the ‘80s. In asserting its pariah identity it flaunts its ugliness: distortion as a perversion of the human body, an existential metaphor.
Tagore’s faces and figures (and here especially those have been chosen which illustrate a connection to Rimzon and Savarkar, but within what appears to me, expressionist-territory. As a method, I disagree with this, as here ‘style’ as a surface feature outside particular histories then leads to artificial genealogies with a vertical thrust) are from the ‘30s, self absorbed, coming from the ‘neither world’ of the unconscious as a refuge for an ‘aristocratic’ persona, part of a tragic poetics of ‘longing’, and possessing a luminous mobility of haunted dreams. The three artists are world apart, as the later trajectory of Rimzon and Savarkar works also reveals.
Here, however, Savarkar’s Untouchability provides the link. His particular distortion of figure was imbibed through a contact with K.M Madhusudhanan and Surendran Nair, both from the Trivandrum School of Art, to which Rimzon also belongs, but at that ‘moment’ in the mid 80s, in the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda. It is confrontationist like Rimzon’s figure, but what has become a linking feature to Tagore here, is a certain palette, a certain quality of light, a certain intensity of figuration outside of historical or philosophical positions, and that is a serious matter.
Another is the choice of one among several maquettes by Ramkinkar of Gandhi’s Dandi Yatra. The one exhibited is an earlier cementwork in which Ramkinakar was still groping with the metaphor of the ‘figure’ Gandhi, as a kind of architecture. In a later maquette, cast in bronze, and available in the NGMA collection (which to me is one of the central works in modern Indian sculpture) Ramkinkar developed the idea and the form fully. Gone was the lighter caricature element, the bulkiness of volume of the earlier maquette, instead emerged the wiry energetic ‘labour’ figure of Gandhi as an architecture, constructed out of clay slabs and beams with bare anatomical details, as if thrown up by a tectonic movement from within the soil. Even in its two feet presence, the work is seminal in the way it engages with history, with materialist thinking, with art history, with the critical-realist discourse, with the metaphor of architecture and with sculpture itself.
Much more can be said about this little great work. Here, I can only ask, why was it excluded in favour of the cement maquette. This indicates to then something I cannot wish away, even if I want to: that it is part of a larger process towards the making of a “compact motif of the peasant figure plucked out ripe, as it were, and celebrated by M.F.Hussain (b. 1915) from the beginning of his painterly career”. Placed besides Husain’s Peasant family (1960), Ramkinkar’s happy caricature study with ape-ish overtones is harnessed for the angularity of its body consctruction, a certain robustness, stridency etc., to Husain’s particular ‘stylisation’ towards, yes, a compact-motif art, in which rural life, historic figures, events, anything, can be and is a ‘performance’ act from a vendor’s bag of tricks, and we witness this form of actor-salesman across ceremony.
Even, signposting the issue of the male gaze can we ask, is this really what happened between 1930-1993? And, has the ‘erotic’ -- the perennial ‘sign’ under which women have been viewed, then, addressed so effectively by Indian artists? But where are Souza’s ‘nudes’, Rabindranath’s many faces of trapped women, Ramkinkar’s Miss Madhura Singh? And why are these not juxtaposed by women’s images of themselves: even to limit ourselves here, by Amrita Shergil’s self-portraits and other paintings, Meera Mukherjee’s Spirit of Daily Work (1975), so out of context in gallery 3, as is Gogi Saroj Pal and Arpana Caur in gallery 4. Perhaps the issue was not important or serious enough to be passionate or partisan about, as others nevertheless were, “especially as there are, sadly, not enough works of such women artists in the collection that can offer a counter validation for the representation of the female figure.”
The question is whether validation or its present counterpoint ‘tokenism’ are useful at all. The issue is much larger and more complex, and needs to be focussed and elaborated with all its contradictions, even within the context, not to then privilege or reduce but to reveal its real face.
The paradox of gestures is that born as they are within specific situations, they contain, carry, reveal and transmit ideology and positioning, and those in the exhibition seem to tango two steps back on step forward within the oeuvre of Geeta Kapur, who at the apex is regarded and read with curiosity and towards directions. It is a responsibility that must also then engender questions and dialogue and not silence. It is with this hope, that many such questions and counter questions from multiple directions, will dance about on all our forums, to internally enliven and deepen our ‘making’ and ‘thinking’, and towards more fearless and open practices, that I write.
Published in The Economic Times, April 2, 1994