On Tuesday morning, three days after Amol Palekar’s address at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai was rudely and repeatedly interrupted, the genial man said: “The issue has been addressed in many ways…I wish to move on”.
The haranguing of Palekar has renewed the public debate over dissent, but the actor-director-painter, now 74, wants space to get back to his creative pursuits.
Yet, the importance and urgency of his words, his stand, his steadfastness are not going to fade away any time soon. In fact, they raise another question: When boundaries are being set for free thought, speech and expression, when boundaries are closing in under a distinctly illiberal government, should the powerful and influential not raise voices of disquiet and dissent at every available opportunity?
For Palekar, standing in the NGMA was an opportunity and an appropriate platform to speak up about an artistic community losing its independence because the national Ministry of Culture will now decide on exhibitions and retrospectives because the NGMA’s artists’ advisory committee had been done away with. People lament the shrinking space for new exhibitions and retrospectives because the NGMA is likely to prioritize its own collection.
Those who sought to silence him, including Suhas Bahulkar, an artist and former chair of the artists’ advisory committee, believed that Palekar was off-topic, drifting from the inauguration of a retrospective of the late Prabhakar Barwe’s work, 24 years after his demise.
Palekar, in a television interview, lamented that senior artists in attendance did not speak up for his right to read out his entire speech or question the silencing that was happening. A few young people approached him later to express gratitude for saying what they could not.
On Monday, the ministry, stung by swelling criticism and the implications of what it meant for the Modi government – already accused of censorship in many aspects of daily life – put out a “clarification”.
It said advisory committees in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi “have not been dissolved”. Their terms had ended and they would be reconstituted and recommendations of previous committees for exhibitions and retrospectives would be honored.
Palekar’s protest had touched upon the manner in which the NGMA, a sacrosanct space for artists and art lovers, has been run during this government’s tenure.
Bahulkar agreed that recent developments at the gallery and the central ministry do not bode well for the artistic community and that the present regime palpably imposes its worldview and values on the institution.
The decisions were not only wrong, he said, but would have grave long-term implications because public spaces were under threat for voices and words that did not match the worldview of those in power. “What Amol said was only the tip of the iceberg, I know the entire iceberg,” Bahulkar told Asia Times.
Yet, he stopped Palekar during his speech because he believed that was not the platform to discuss the boundary closing in. “There is the Bombay Art Society and the Art Society of India – bodies which represent artists here – and we were in the process of raising these troubling issues at the appropriate forums,” Bahulkar said. Other artists and curators agree with his point of view.
While Bahulkar and others may be right to raise these issues at forums they deem appropriate, away from the public glare, does that mean Palekar should not have used the platform he was given to air the issue to a larger audience, to take the fight out of closed rooms into the public domain, and touch on the larger issue of independence of speech and expression under the Modi government?
Of course, not. The pushback has to be at multiple levels, on different platforms, in as many voices as possible. Palekar’s stature and the crassness of the episode amplified this particular fight but others are fighting the same battle.
Hemantkumar Shah, for example, resigned on Monday from his post as principal of HK Arts College in Ahmedabad, Gujarat after the trustees of the college overturned his decision to invite Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit leader, independent MLA and well-known critic of Modi, as chief guest at the college’s annual program. Mevani is also an alumnus of the college.
Shah said this was “undemocratic…[a] curbing the rights of speech and expression” and called out the trustees who include Jnanpith awardee Raghuveer Chaudhari and Padma awardee Kumarpal Desai for their stand. Vice Principal Mohan Parmar resigned in protest too. Mevani, according to reports, alleged that some students affiliated with BJP’s organizations were behind it all.
Shah cited this as “undemocratic…curbing the rights of speech and expression” and called out the trustees who include Jnanpith awardee Raghuveer Chaudhari and Padma awardee Kumarpal Desai for their stand. Vice Principal Mohan Parmar resigned in protest too. Mevani, according to reports, alleged that some students affiliated with BJP’s organisations were behind it all. On another plane, noted activist Harsh Mander has been travelling in his “Mohabbat ka Karwan” to offer words of solace to people whose near and dear ones were lost to lynching, an extreme form of silencing as it were. His actions speak as strong as his words do. Shah and Parmar may not hit the headlines as Mander or Palekar do, but their quiet resistance is just as important.
Shah and Parmar may not hit the headlines as Mander or Palekar do, but their quiet resistance is just as important. If boundaries have to be pushed back, all voices which speak up need to be heard, never mind the platform or the occasion. If the “appropriate” platform is not available, it often can be – has to be – created. As Palekar with a group of Marathi writers and playwrights had done last month for the noted writer Nayantara Sahgal.
She was invited to speak at the annual Marathi Sahitya Sammelan and then de-invited because her speech criticizing the Modi government touched a raw nerve with the organizers. This group invited Sahgal to Mumbai and honored her at the iconic Shivaji Mandir, packed to its gills to hear her words.
When Palekar was interrupted and asked to restrict himself to Barve, he had just mentioned Sahgal. In seeking to silence him, his point had been made.
Smruti Koppikar is an independent journalist and editor based in Mumbai who has written on politics, urban affairs, gender and media for over 20 years. @smrutibombay