Amol Palekar, a respected Marathi actor, filmmaker, and painter, was scheduled to speak at an event by in Mumbai, but was interrupted repeatedly after he made critical comments against the government.
At the unveiling of noted artist Prabhakar Bave’s retrospective exhibition, “Inside the Empty Box”, Palekar made remarks thanking the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Mumbai for organising the event. However, in his speech, he also criticised the Ministry of Culture, a move that antagonised gallery members on the panel.
Palekar began by praising the expansion plans of the NGMA into Kolkata and North-east. He then said, “Many of you may not know that this retrospective will be the last show that is 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.”
In October last year, the government removed advisory committees that are reconstituted every three years at the NGMA’s Mumbai and Bangalore centres to help decide which artists and pieces to include in exhibitions. Now, the government has the only say in who or what will be on display.
“This control over the NGMA, which is the sacrosanct venue for artistic expression and viewing of diverse art, is the recent most casualty in this ‘war against humanities’ as someone recently put it!” Pakekar said referring to the government’s decision. “ I am truly disturbed….What is more upsetting is that those privy to such unilateral orders did not speak out, protest or even question it.”
Row over the speech
During his remarks, Palekar was first interrupted by Suhas Bahulkar, former chairman of the advisory committee in Mumbai, who asked him to stay on the topic of Barwe’s work. As Palekar spoke more, he was interrupted by curator Jasel Thacker who said “This function is about Bawre. Let’s stick to that.”
Palekar asked Thacker if she was asking him not to speak, even though he was invited to. To this, Thacker said, “I’ve invited you to speak on Bawre. Prabhakar Bawer, sir.”
In response to the interruptions, Palekar addressed the audience and spoke about Nehru’s niece and journalist Nayantara Sahgal, who, at the last minute, was disinvited to the 92nd Marathi Sahitya Sammelan that she was scheduled to speak at because her speech was critical of the government. He then turned to Thacker and asked, “Are we creating the same situation here?”
Thacker, who sounded defensive, attempted to clarify that she was not censoring Palekar, but only asking him to stick to the main topic of the event. Palekar was unable to complete his speech and concluded his remarks early.
Thacker told the Indian Express, “As much as I admire both Barwe and Amol, my intention was not to prevent Amol from finishing his speech, but instead only requested him to share more about his anecdotes and fond memories of the artist, who was being celebrated 24 years after his demise… Views that are not directly related to the subject of the evening—the art and life of Barwe—can always be expressed at another more suitable time and space, directly addressing the issues raised.”
The Economic Times reports that Palekar and his wife, Sandhya Gokhale, were told by Thacker that gallery director Anita Rupavataram was under pressure to ensure that Palekar not be “permitted to make any antigovernment statements”.
After Palekar’s speech, Rupavataram took the podium and said, “You should appreciate that this is the national gallery of modern art, a government gallery, sir.”
Palekar responded that had he been allowed to finish his speech, he would have thanked the “Ministry of Culture for this magnanimity” and gestured to the audience at the event. Instead, Rupavataram curtly responded, “I don’t take this backhanded compliment at all.”
Palekar told the Indian Express, “So many artists were aware of these changes in policy and there were murmurs all around, and I couldn’t stay silent on the occasion, particularly because this exhibition is the last one to be decided by the advisory committee.”
Public support for Palekar
Other members of the Indian art and media fraternity expressed their support for Palekar. Writer and Director Lipstick Under My Burkha Alankrita Shrivastava said, “Thank you #AmolPalekar for your courage. There cannot be space for censorship in a true democracy.”
Onir, award-winning director and writer, said “Why is becoming any kind of criticism un acceptable [sic]. we should be open enough for dialogue… cant do this!!! #AmolPalekar”
TV host Mini Mathur, writer Richa Singh, former Unnao MP Annu Tandon, director Rahul Dholakia, and news anchor Sagarika Ghose all tweeted their own words of support for Palekar and disagreed with the handling of his speech. The Congress office in Mumbai also called the video “shocking”.
‘Climate of intolerance’
Palekar isn’t the first artist to voice his disagreement with Indian policy. In 2015, 40 authors, poets, and essayists, including Sahgal, returned awards from Sahitya Akademi, the country’s most illustrious literary institution.
Sahgal said, “India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault.” Salman Rushdie also expressed concern about the “degree of thuggish violence” in India. That same year, 24 filmmakers, including Saeed Mirza, Ajay Raina, and Arundhati Roy also gave back national awards in support of students at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) who were pushing for the removal of Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chairman.
Statement by Ministry of Culture
On February 10, the Ministry of Culture addressed the issue and posted a statement clarifying that advisory committees in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Delhi have not been dissolved and will be reconstituted.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius.
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