Amol Palekar was invited to speak at the opening ceremony of an exhibition titled ‘Inside the Empty Box’, organised last week by National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in memory of artist Prabhakar Barwe.
Born to a family of sculptors and artists, Barwe graduated from Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai in 1959. During his stay in Varanasi between 1961 and 1965, Barwe developed an interest in the symbolic art of Tantrism. Perhaps Barwe borrowed the sense of the void from Tantrism, and developed his own sense of mystical modernism.
During his student years, Barwe was inspired by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, and that might have contributed to the element of expressionism in his paintings. The intensely subjective depictions of the modern world and its severed relations with life is a recurring theme in Barwe.
Palekar knew Barwe’s art, speaking as he did on the artist using familiar forms to depict an unfamiliar world, the presence of “the Gestalt” that made the canvas speak more than the combination of its images, and Barwe’s ability “to transcend the constraints of a rational mind”.
Palekar said he felt connected to “the surrealist twists” in Barwe’s paintings, which he related to Barwe’s “Magritte stage”, referring to the Belgian surrealist, René Magritte. Palekar underlined how much he cherishes Barwe’s comment after seeing his staging of Sadanand Rege’s famous Marathi play, ‘Gochee’: “I was reminded of Dali’s ‘Melting Time’ at various moments in Gochee.”
But Palekar did not anticipate a Dali-esque melting of the clocks, fusing nightmare and reality, taking place right then around him. Dali’s famous painting Barwe referred to, ‘The Persistence of Memory’ is interpreted as depicting Freud’s theory of the unconscious. The painting offers a dystopic image, with its leafless olive tree, ants crawling over a pocket watch, and clocks melting against a barren landscape. A political reading of the painting may lead us to Hamlet’s “time out of joint”, where sanity is receding and where, to quote Karl Marx, “all that is solid melts into air”.
It is the apocalyptic time of high-capitalism and its partner-in-crime, fascism. It surreally depicts a nightmare of time – close to ours.
The surrealist twist to Palekar speaking on Barwe’s retrospective occurred precisely when the film and theatre actor explained why he thought the occasion was politically historic. Palekar aired his concerns regarding certain policy changes that will deliver the fate of future art exhibitions, in both theme and content, to the ideological stranglehold of the ministry of culture at the Centre.
This will result, Palekar emphasised, in “moral policing”.
As soon as he deliberated on this issue, three people sharing the dais with Palekar, curator Jesal Thacker, artist and ex-chairman of the advisory committee, Suhas Bahulkar, and the current director of NGMA, Anita Rupavataram, tried to interrupt him.
The language of censorship
The language of the interruption is revealing, as much as Palekar’s response and concluding remarks.
Just as Palekar was criticising recent decisions taken on future NGMA programmes, he was interrupted from the dais by Jesal Thacker, “This function is about Prabhakar Barwe. Just stick to that… I am sorry, sir. You have to stop this.”
This is an excellent display, and revelation, of the language of censorship. What the curator meant to tell Palekar was: Stick to Barwe’s art. Stick to a discourse of art that is not political. Stick to the meaning of art that does not relate it to this world. Stick to discussing art that does not connect you to your audience. That does not connect you to the NGMA. That connects nobody to nobody. That connects nothing to nothing.
The curator appeared unnerved by Palekar’s exposure of the politics surrounding the NGMA. She desperately tried to use her authority to shut Palekar up. Censorship draws its language from the fear that haunts authoritarian regimes. Power suffers from an intense discomfort to hear the truth about itself. Authoritarian regimes will use every means to suppress the voice that dares to speak or write the truth that goes against its interests. Censorship is that paranoid force that is used against people to stop them from speaking the truth.
Palekar was taken aback but appeared unfazed. He was aware of his strength, against the fear of those who tried to censor his script.
Palekar, like an actor on stage who has vowed to speak the truth, responded to his interrupters in a polite but provocative tone, “Are you asking me not to speak? … Nayantara Sehgal was invited to speak, and at last minute, that invitation was withdrawn because what she was going to speak was slightly critical of the situation around us. Are we creating the same situation here? You are asking me not to speak?”
Palekar took the opportunity to paint the larger atmosphere of censorship. He challenged his interrupters to clarify publicly that they were indulging in censorship. It reminded me of the 1980 Nobel Prize lecture by the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, where he said how in a room where people maintained “a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot”.
But, the “temptation to pronounce it, similar to an acute itching”, just as Milosz had described, seized Palekar. He went ahead to voice his concern how the ministry had cancelled the proposed retrospectives of two artists – Mehli Gobhai and Sudhir Patwardhan – scheduled for later this year.
‘The hidden visible’
In an interview to NewsClick, Palekar said, “I kept my composure and maintained my decorum, although the line of decency was crossed on stage.”
Censorship is clearly a line that never minds crossing the line of decency. In response to accusation that he chose the wrong platform to raise the issue, Palekar asked the perfectly logical question, that “if I don’t raise questions on the workings of the NGMA at the NGMA, then where should I raise them? Should I raise them at a private dinner at the dining table?”
Political questions are a matter of public interest, not private consumption. Questions that affect the people need to be raised before the people.
Palekar ended his defiant speech, by referring back to his quote of Magritte that he used to connect the world of art to the world of politics: “Visible things always hide other visible things. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”
He was sure Barwe “would have shown us the hidden visible through the visible present”.
It is a highly suggestive statement about the tendency or ability of art to reveal the unsaid through the said, and how each layer of an image is deceptively placed, constructed, or superimposed, to draw our attention to what lies beneath that layer.
In contrast to Palekar’s understanding of art, NGMA director Anita Rupavataram, shaking her head vigorously, claimed that Barwe saw “art… in its purity. He did not have any kind of ideological inclinations whatsoever, and perhaps in that way it wasn’t taken in the right direction”.
But Palekar did not assert any ideological position before or during his raising concerns about the future of the NGMA. He raised a political concern, alright. But it was political in its exposure of the politics of those in power.
And what is art “in its purity”? Is art meant to purify existence? Does purity mean the forgetting of the history (and memory) of violence? Is art supposed to close its eyes to what defines the state of the world?
There is a beautiful sentence by Barwe in his Marathi book (published by Lalit Kala Akademi in 2016), Kora Canvas (Blank Canvas): “When all the paths in all the directions are closed, the only path left is that of painting and by God’s grace it is always open”.
The path of all painting, just like the path of all poetry, and the path of all thinking, is always “open”, always underway, always venturing forth, unfazed by the closed doors of power and the arrogant diktats of pure censorships.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018.)