The noted actor, director and producer Amol Palekar is a gentle speaker but can make a powerful point. He was one of the guest speakers for the opening of a retrospective of the late artist Prabhakar Barwe at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai last week. Palekar took the occasion to speak his mind – plain thinking from an artiste not comfortable with the ways of the Union Ministry of Culture. He said nothing rAAevolutionary. Yet, he was disrupted, challenged and not allowed to speak. The ensuing controversy will surely make the exhibition a bigger success, as more people will be drawn to the gallery over the next week or so that the retrospective is on. But it equally draws more worries about how voices are curbed and dissent is killed even in places where these are the very lifeblood and the source of inspiration for not only art but a diversity of voices and multiple forms of expression. It is this that the retrospective celebrates. And it is this that the occasion tried to kill when the voice of Palekar was sought to be silenced. Palekar was, therefore, right on the dot when he asked the organisers to think what the artist being discussed might have thought of the silencing.
What did Palekar say that was so disturbing? A video and reports quote him as saying: “Many of you may not know that this retrospective will be the last show decided by the advisory committee of local artists and not by some bureaucrat or an agent of the government with an agenda of either moral policing or proliferation of certain art commensurate with an ideological incline.” Palekar was referring to reports that advisory committees of artists have been abolished and that the government would, therefore, decide on the works to be exhibited hereon. He was interrupted, asked to stick to speaking about the event proper and to the subject and the artist whose works are being exhibited. Palekar skipped parts of his speech but went on to protest, referring to the withdrawal of an invitation to Nayantara Sahgal at another event because she was critical of recent events around us. He remarked: “This sea of freedom is receding day by day, gradually but incessantly. Why are we silent about this?”
The exhibition that has stirred this controversy is called ‘Inside the Empty Box.’ It is artist Prabhakar Barwe’s first retrospective, presented by the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, in collaboration with an organisation called Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation.
As the Ministry of Culture points out, two decades after his untimely demise in 1995, Prabhakar Barwe remains a unique artist with a style entirely his own. The project aims to decipher the artist’s mind through his art and intricate untold diary notations. The title is derived from a series of works created by the artist in the 1990s. The box carries a dual connotation. There is the literal meaning of a space that holds archives, memories and significant objects, left untouched for years. The box is also the mind of the artist – and it is ironic that in celebrating this that the voice of one of the art community should be suppressed.
The interesting part is that Palekar said he was not aware of the real situation and had heard of how local committees were being scrapped and control was moving to babus in the ministry. He expressed a worry, and so sensitive is the establishment of any form of criticism that this is seen as a voice to be disallowed. We do not know if the curb on the speech really came from someone in the ministry – it probably did in the many ways in which the ministry can send out its signals of what is desired and what is not. But the point is that even if it did not, in today’s atmosphere the speech would be disallowed from some authority at the podium. Such is the air of intolerance and polarisation that it leaves many people worried, forces others to take the safe road and silences many meaningful voices, ideas and energies at the grassroots, particularly those aligned against officialdom. This will kill art. It will kill expression. It strikes at the idea of India.
Yet, the voices that speak and are silenced as well as those who do not speak up and choose to stay silent, do not die. Within hearts and minds, the silent and the not-so-silent thrive and nurture a sense of revulsion at the way the nation is run. This builds anger. It also builds trauma. It is the kind of force that was built by the silent majority against the Emergency. It is built bit by bit, with the kind of events and happenings that marred the inauguration of an important exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art. The controversy so caused naturally receives at lot of media attention. But in the air of intolerance, suspicion and worry, free expression dies in a million other small ways. Here’s an example from the field of art itself.
Artists often sit down at open spaces to sketch and paint. Mumbai was open to them. Pencil, paper and drawing board in reach, an artist could sit for hours in an open public space and sketch away. Recently, and only partly because of increased concerns on security, they are turned away from many open spaces, including public parks. Often, as one complained, they are asked to get “permission” from the “authorities.”
A 71-year-old artist recently wrote: “The big question is why an artist selectively has to take ‘permission’ to practice his artistic creations in a public place in this city first of all? Can an artist’s sketches be in any way a security threat? In that case, art and art institutions should be banned!” It used to be very different. Growing up in Kolkata as a student, the artist said, groups of art college students would be seen either after college hours or on holidays practising what was called “outdoor – study” (sketching/paintings etc as per curriculum) at all kinds of public places like busy railway stations, crowded landmark temple arenas, markets, parks, tram depots, museums, railway yards, river bank port areas, zoo gardens stables, you just name it. They were always welcome.
This, of course, has nothing to do with curbing free speech of the kind that Palekar faced. Yet, it robs us of something very rich and exciting, of a budding artist, who will shine just because there is encouragement and love and respect for all forms of expression and the sense of security of a bright future that comes with it. A movement for free speech opens up more spaces. A curtailment closes many more than we can see.