“An attempt to curb dissent, to abort any protest...”
In an interview with The Quint, veteran actor-director Amol Palekar talks about the recent incident in which he was forced to cut short his speech at a National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) event in Mumbai for being critical of the Ministry of Culture.
A video online purportedly showed Palekar criticising the ministry at the opening of an exhibition in memory of artist Prabhakar Barwe, for reportedly scrapping the NGMA advisory panels. While his speech remained incomplete due to interruptions, the full text has been circulating on social media for the last two days.
Were you surprised at being interrupted, and did you realise that you were actually being asked to stop speaking?
I certainly did not anticipate or expect anybody from the dias itself would stop me from completing my speech. When the curator Jesal Thackar first interrupted me, I asked her if she wanted me to stop! She kept on insisting that “speak about Barwe”. I did talk about Barwe – the first 10 minutes of my speech which is available everywhere on the internet, you will see that I talked about the aesthetic and stylistic nuances of Barwe.
Later when I started talking about the NGMA, which was the auspicious venue of the present retrospective, the curator and the ex-chairman of the advisory committee Suhas Bahulkar started interrupting. They felt it was inappropriate on my part to discuss anything but the artist Barwe. How could they feel that?
Bahulkar is an artist himself. In fact, he should have spoken out and resisted the unilateral decisions of the government. Why was he silent for the last three months? The decisions to dissolve the advisory committee henceforth, and to restrict future such exhibitions to 1/6th of the premises of NGMA, are preposterous. In fact, he and the other members of the committee whose confirmed decisions were unilaterally cancelled, should have registered their protest and made it public.
You mentioned how Nayantara Sehgal was not allowed to participate at the Marathi literary meet recently, do you see a clear parallel between the two incidents?
The end result of both the incidents is the same. An attempt to curb dissent, to abort any protest...
You were talking about the loss of independence in the art, the shrinking space for new artists, why would the powers that be feel threatened about feedback on these fronts?
The fact that such a decision was taken two to three months back and none of us knew about it – many senior artists also did not know about it – is serious. It was the moral and direct responsibility of the last advisory committee to disclose these muzzling attempts; they ought to have involved the larger artist community to safeguard the larger interest of art lovers. Bahulkar had confided in me in private that the decisions were not correct. It was obvious that he did not have the courage to speak out.
After the function, Jesal told me that the director had told her that there should not be any anti-government speech in the programme. Now I am shocked to know that Jesal flatly refused to admit such a conversation. It is evident that she is fearful of the consequences. More than the fear, it’s in her-self interest to conform to the dictates of the government. After all, she has benefited from their gracious decision!
Most people desire such a quid pro quo from the system, they expect benefits from the system, in the process they surrender their freedom to speak the truth and to ask questions. The way the present director reacted in her rebuttal was completely disgraceful to her chair. In the beginning, when she welcomed the gathering, she admitted that she neither understood anything about art nor knew much about Prabhakar Barwe. If such bureaucrats and administrators keep taking decisions revolving the artists and the art world.... that will be a sorry situation. Dissolving artists’ control over NGMA is SERIOUS.
If you had a message for the Minister of Culture and other dignitaries in the government who are associated with arts and culture, what would it be?
Why are these decisions taken? Did you seek consent from the artist community ? Why have you not made these decisions public? In NGMA Mumbai, where there is only one stand-alone building unlike Delhi or Bangalore, won’t it be unfair to restrict the Dome area for the non-NGMA artworks? Why have you dissolved the artist’s advisory committee? If your stand is that after the tenure of the present advisory committee was over, the new has not been convened, why have you not done so in last 3 months? Why have you cancelled the retrospectives of Patwardhan and Gobhai? Doesn’t it amount to overruling the confirmed decisions taken by the then artists’ advisory committee, and that too during their tenure? Isn’t this an attempt to take direct control of the institution keeping the artist community away? I want answers to these questions. I want them to discuss these openly and freely with the artists, as well as the art lovers at large. I also want to know whether the Ministry of Culture approves of the disgraceful behaviour of the director at the end of the function!
Palekar had refused to stop even after being repeatedly interrupted and had said “I am going to talk about the same. Are you you applying censorship to that?”