Freedom of expression is equal for artists on whichever side of the fence they choose to sit. If your right to dissent is not questioned, you have no business questioning the right of others to do or not do a certain thing, or else you are a fascist yourself. Woke artists like Pushpmala N believe that the right to express what they feel belongs only to them.
About two decades ago, when the Indian art market started booming and Tyeb Mehta’s canvas Mahishasura became the first Indian work of art to cross the million-dollar mark in the auction circuit, private ownership of art anointed itself as the sole leader of the Indian art universe. The engine chugged forth at great speed, setting a great many records and firsts for Indian art to the extent that almost everybody forgot how the Lalit Kala Akademi or the National Gallery of Modern Art or other government art institutions even existed.
Reams were written about how the government had lost the initiative in promoting contemporary Indian art, and how private ingenuity and enterprise had taken an insurmountable lead over the former, finally bringing Indian contemporary art under a spotlight that it truly deserved.
Liberals accuse Kiran Nadar of being pro-govt
Fast forward to 2023, one of the most important leaders — albeit private — of the dynamic Indian visual arts universe, Kiran Nadar, stands accused of being too pro-government. Kiran Shiv Nadar is an Indian art collector and philanthropist. Kiran is the wife of Shiv Nadar, the founder of HCL Technologies, and is a trustee of the Shiv Nadar Foundation and the founder of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.
For those not clued in, here is the background to the attack that the undisputed leader of Indian art today has been subjected to. Days before his retrospective show, ‘Singed Not Burnt’, was due to open at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Noida on July 17, prominent Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam, withdrew from the show. The reason that he cited was Nadar’s alignment with government-run art institutions. Alam told The Indian Express: ‘The clear endorsement by Ms Nadar of art events which are part of the propaganda machinery of the current Indian regime and the censure of people who make legitimate critiques of such associations.’
Alam was referring to Nadar’s role as an advisor to the exhibition, ‘Jana Shakti: A Collective Power’ at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi, which was on view from April 30th to May 30, 2023. Organised to commemorate the 100th episode of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radio show, ‘Mann Ki Baat’, the exhibition was curated by Alka Pande. It was inaugurated by renowned artist Anjolie Ela Menon and featured works by twelve prominent contemporary artists, each with an enviable standing of their own in the contemporary art world. The participants were Manu Parekh, Madhvi Parekh, Atul Dodiya, Thukral and Tagra, GR Iranna, Pratul Dash, Jagannath Panda, Manjunath Kamat, Paresh Maity, Riyas Komu, Ashim Purkayastha, and Vibha Galhotra.
Another reason Alam cited for withdrawing from his KNMA retrospective was the termination of Sandip K Luis from the post of Manager, Curatorial Research and Publications at KNMA, following his criticism of Nadar’s association with the NGMA exhibition in a social media post. There are two sides to Alam’s withdrawal from the KNMA retrospective. First, his outright denouncement of Kiran Nadar’s association with the NGMA show, and his reaction to the dismissal of a KNMA employee. Though Alam’s withdrawal from his retrospective is unfortunate, the whole reasoning behind it is nothing short of ridiculous. He has every right to decide if he wants to associate with Kiran Nadar or any other individual or not, but what right does he have to question an Indian citizen’s response to the call of the Government of India or the Prime Minister of this country? Who is he to sit on judgement on how Indian citizens engage with their internal affairs?
Alam’s reaction- A curious case of selective activism
In questioning Nadar’s “endorsement of the propaganda machinery of the current Indian regime,” as Alam has been quoted as saying, does he not denigrate the dozen highly respected artists who are a part of the show, and even affront the veteran stalwart, Anjolie Ela Menon, who inaugurated the exhibition?
What right does Alam have in casting aspersions on this broad sweep of India’s contemporary art world? In launching this oblique tirade against the Indian art firmament, Alam, the respected founder of Dhaka’s premiere art event called the Chobi Mela, does himself an equal disservice as it does not become his standing in the global art world.
As for Alam’s reaction to the dismissal of a KNMA employee, isn’t it a wee bit exaggerated? As a legally incorporated organisation, does KNMA not have every right to take actions vis-à-vis its employees as it deems fit? It’s ludicrous that Alam should react to Luis’ dismissal when thousands of employees of other organisations from different industries get laid off for flimsy reasons and the likes of Alam don’t bat an eyelid.
It is a curious case of selective activism with the only intent to malign India, over which every well-meaning citizen of this country should be offended.
Alam’s polemic, however, is worsted by India’s very own Pushpamala N, a prominent woke artist from Bengaluru, who went hammer and tongs against the NGMA show, hurling abuses such as ‘Godi Artist’, ‘lapdog’ on all the twelve artists who participated in the NGMA exhibition.
Writing in The Wire on June 21, 2023, in an article titled ‘Now, Godi Artists?’, the 67-year-old artist poured forth such despicable invective in her article filled with rage, insults and loaded terms such as ‘Nazi’, ‘fascist’ and ‘godi artists’ that one wondered if she was angrier at being left out of this opportunity! The senior artist that she is, Pushpmala N, however, cleverly steered clear of saying anything disparaging against Kiran Nadar herself, confining herself to lashing out against the dozen artists, whom she calls ‘friends’ and ‘naïve’ and ‘sycophantic’ in the same breath. Why did she not touch Nadar is anybody’s guess. One wonders if this respected artist realises that in denying others the right to follow their right to expression, isn’t she being the biggest fascist of all? Freedom of expression is equal for artists on whichever side of the fence they choose to sit. If your right to dissent is not questioned, you have no business questioning the right of others to do or not do a certain thing, or else you are a fascist yourself. Woke artists like Pushpmala N believe that the right to express what they feel belongs only to them.
History is witness to the fact that artists since times immemorial have worked along with those in power. Who were the artists that painted the Ajanta murals, the most ancient and one of the highest expressions of art in all of the ancient world? We do not have the luxury to know their political views but the fact remains that such an exercise was sponsored by the rulers and the moneyed people of the time, and are reflective of the vision and preferences of their sponsors. The pattern remains more or less the same today, with the most prominent art being either sponsored by private initiatives or by the government; more by the former and less by the latter.
There is not a single private museum in the world that does not expressly reflect the proclivities and leanings of its owner, and government museums do the same within their territory.
Pushpamala has berated the lack of wisdom on the part of participating artists, who failed to exercise their right to say ‘no’ to the NGMA show. It would do her good to remember that one of India’s national treasure artists, Nandalal Bose, gladly worked for the Indian National Congress for its 1938 Haripura Session upon the invitation of Mahatma Gandhi, creating indelible art, though later he chose to dissociate himself from the party.
Can we please leave this right to decide with the artists themselves instead of trying to bulldoze them with falsities? Just because you don’t like them, would you derogatorily call them Godi artists? What should you be called for trying to snatch away the rights of all other artists? She would do well to remember that India does not function on the ‘my way or the highway’ principle.
And most importantly, to throw abuses at fellow artists for working for a project endorsed by the Prime Minister of the nation is a reflection of your limited mindset.
The Prime Minister is the democratically elected leader of this country, elected by a majority of people and deserves every bit of respect of the people of this country simply for being the occupant of that high, revered office. The post of the President or the Prime Minister of India is beyond a political party. These positions in the scheme of our Constitution are worthy of the highest honour, dignity and prestige. Giving a political or ideological colour to these positions means disrespecting our Constitution and the nation.
Disregarding the PM by making insulting comments equals disrespecting your nation. It is not just about the art fraternity. And, that’s exactly Alam and Pushpmala did.