Thou Shalt Not Criticise the Government! Amol Palekar & the Muting of Artistic Freedom in India

Social Commentary

Thou Shalt Not Criticise the Government! Amol Palekar & the Muting of Artistic Freedom in India

Illustration: Shruti Yatam


In 1942, Hitler’s chief propagandist and right hand man Joseph Goebbels told the film fraternity in Berlin that the Nazi Party would not rule Europe until they didn’t “also make [themselves] supreme in the cultural field”. The German-Italian coalition of soft power is historically perhaps stealthier than their association on the battlefields. After all, Goebbels was, the guest of honour at the Venice Film Festival in 1939.

Our closest sense of the future comes from looking at the past. From the time of Galileo, even before the nation state was born, art has been perceived by the ruling powers as an opportunity – and a threat; the likes of Stalin and Hitler only found ways to use it to their advantage.

On February 9, actor and director Amol Palekar was repeatedly interrupted and eventually snubbed, mid-way through a speech at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, because he chose to criticise the government. The veteran actor and director was speaking at the opening of a retrospective of artist Prabhakar Barwe’s work, and was calling into question, certain decisions that enabled the Ministry of Culture to have complete control over the exhibits at the gallery.

This comes close on the heels of another speech that Palekar had delivered at an award ceremony recently, where he had urged the audience “to be wiser and not believe in the world of black or white duality. I am appealing to all of us to accommodate a grey palette, allowing ideological ambiguities, nuanced dissent and fearless dialogue. Creation of grey-friendly tolerance – where seemingly antithetical ideas will not be summarily thrashed without deeper analysis – is the need of our time… Let’s not succumb to the narratives which have brought us villains like ‘urban naxals’. Let’s agree to disagree.”

How ironic and prophetic that Palekar should be interrupted like this. That a man of his stature wasn’t allowed to say what he wanted to at a modest gathering, does not bode well for the state of intellectual freedom in India.

How ironic and prophetic that Palekar should be interrupted like this.

About a year ago, while reporting about the landmark exhibition India and the World (perhaps the most important exhibit to travel to India in years) I was informed by the National Museum, that a sculpture had been removed from the exhibit because it was deemed “offensive”. The piece in question was a rendition of the dancing Shiva figure, covered in sludge and dirt, a comment perhaps on the way we have polluted a landscape we otherwise consider sacred. Look at the Ganga, for example, cursed because it is considered holy. Little fuss was made about this moralistic treatment of an artist’s vision. That incident died out, with scarcely a news report on it.

Palekar’s interrupted speech in comparison has made news because he is a considerable public figure that people know of. Under the sheets of public existence, for the last couple of years, hundreds of artists and curators have had to speak with their tongues rolled inward. We don’t know of it, because we don’t care to.

The art world has been disadvantaged by the government’s righteousness, especially its near-ritualistic incursion into the industry of art and expression. The government intrudes when it shouldn’t, and doesn’t when required. When the Karni Sena was burning buses to contest the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, the government refused to check its violent rhetoric, ultimately shaming democracy. The hatred spewed by those associated with the BJP against critical writers like Arundhati Roy, has been endorsed, let alone condemned.

The NGMA, though poorly operated, is the largest, most auspicious site available to showcase artistic work in the country. To have a retrospective (a show that looks at an artist’s entire oeuvre) at the NGMA is still considered an accomplishment. Given how handicapped private galleries are in the country, how dependant they are on patrons and the money they make through sales, government institutions like the NGMA and the National Museum occupy a critical place in this ecosystem where they must serve as incubators for inquiry and expression. But the NGMA has been reduced to a puppet, an extension of the government’s ideology, acting with the kind of restraint that is symptomatic of imprisoned minds. Only last year, NGMA Delhi hosted an absurd, never-done-before, week-long display of objects gifted to the Prime Minister, later auctioned under the aegis of philanthropy; an exhibition that had more to do with the cult of Modi than the culture of critique that the NGMA ought to be promoting.

The general public has little regard for India’s museums and its cultural heritage.

But why blame the powers-that-be, when spectators have no interest in preserving the freedoms that artistic endeavours require. The general public has little regard for India’s museums and its cultural heritage.

To add to all of this, art and galleries aren’t the only sites where the state has sought, and to an extent has acquired control. Our films have, distinctly begun to look and sound propagandist, betraying the very purpose for which any piece of art must be conceived – the inquiry of thought. Literature has done marginally better, but has similarly struggled to sieve through at will. Last year, for example, Priyanka Pathak-Narain’s matter-of-fact account of Baba Ramdev’s sudden rise from baba to baron was banned by the courts.

This has now become an ecosystem of disabilities, where blank canvases suddenly appear to have margins within which the artist must imagine the most he can from the least he is allowed to. Other than the fact that it sounds and feels Stalinesque, matters aren’t helped when the majority of the artistic establishment is either dependent on the state’s funds and programmes for survival (especially local craftsmen) or are too elated by the benefits, proximity to higher powers can bring.

Palekar, himself a graduate of the JJ School of Art intended to voice his concerns about the way NGMA, Mumbai was now completely controlled by the Ministry of Culture, including selecting the artists to exhibit. Palekar believed it would lead to selections based on bureaucratic and political motivations, a problem that is now commonplace across art centres controlled by the central government. Silencing Palekar does not make his statement a lie, but only something that the state’s stooges don’t want heard.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the man we so revile now, believed art was the mirror to a country’s people. It is about time we notice the cracks in it.