NGMA takes the viewer on a compelling journey of modern and contemporary Indian art, detailing its roots and evolution

It was just the right time to choose National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) for my next outing in this series. Subodh Gupta’s massive retrospective “Everything is inside” has recently got over. So have the school exams barring the Boards. The present weather is a great help for encouraging parents to take their kids out to experience the city. So before the premier cultural institution (under Ministry of Culture) rolls out yet another show — believed to be senior architect Raj Rewal’s retrospective — I decided it is time to head there.

The NGMA is housed in the imposing building known as Jaipur House at the India Gate roundabout. And it is where anyone interested in tracing the trajectory of modern and contemporary Indian art should go. It came into being in 1954, and a new wing was added to the structure in 2009. One look at the space and you feel NGMA couldn’t have been better located. Its sprawling lawns dotted with sculptures of all shapes, sizes and material, counter the frigidness of the structure and Subodh’s towering steel tree contributes too. On the fortuitous day I visited NGMA, I saw a group of differently-abled kids sitting below the tree and participating in a painting session. Their presence lent such spark to the space that it came alive for me like never before. School kids, families, foreigners, young students — I was impressed by the number of visitors, but Ruchi Kumar, Assistant Curator, told me that the footfall has actually fallen since Subodh’s show got over.

The collection at NGMA comprises approximately 18,000 works, of which some masterpieces are on display in different galleries in the new wing. “In the Seeds of Time” begins on the second floor with splendid Rajput miniatures and goes on to works by European artists who were travelling to India, to capture the country in its entirety. Thomas and William Daniell, an uncle-nephew pair, were two of the earliest artists to do so and their realistic portrayals of Varanasi depicting Aurangzeb’s Mosque, various ghatst, are a few samples of the vast body of work the duo produced that the viewer can see. Painting of temples, forts, people by artists such as Jilly Kettle are almost visceral. How European academism is pursued further in Company Paintings, then amalgamated and internalised by Raja Ravi Varma is amply visible in the pieces on view here. Delicate Company art, Kalighat paintings, Raja Ravi Varmas are to be relished here. Robin Stokes and Catherine Reiss, a couple from Scotland, were very happy to have been able to view these paintings from close quarters, unlike back home.

It’s a magnificent collection which can only be made more engaging with slightly more detailed captions. The texts summarising a particular period in art history do have meat but some interestingly written captions would achieve so much more. Maybe a quirk of the artist, a little known fact about him or her. What about listing the names of nine national art treasures along with the explanation of the term?

It will be of great service to a first-timer such as Neha, a young software engineer, or a foreign visitor such as Robin, who wanted to know who among the Tagores was the world renowned poet in the Bengal School section. While academically NGMA has been moving in the right direction – with its increasing involvement with the world of contemporary - it is yet to embrace the masses with interactive and innovative outreach programming.

Gallery 3a gives a peek into the modern period, a time when Indian artists familiar with Western aesthetics made a conscious choice to return to their roots. Known and obscure works of modernists such as N.S. Bendre, K.K. Hebbar, B.C. Sanyal; Gopal Ghose, Paritosh Sen of Calcutta Group; M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta, S. Bakre, H.A. Gade, K.H. Ara and others of the seminal group Bombay Progressive Artists Group occupy this section. But my jaw dropped when I confronted V.S. Gaitonde’s abstract works. If subtlety is your style then, like me, you might feel that you can gaze at these works for hours.

In Block 2, contemporary artists such as Jogen Chowdhury, K.G. Subramanyan, Madhvi Parekh, A. Ramachandran, Vivan Sundaram, Ghulammohammed Sheikh, Anjolie Ela Menon await you. I was glad to interact with Brij Pal, a staff member, who was keen to share information about the art on display. Our museums need more people like him, an objective which the Culture Ministry hopes to achieve with its ambitious museum renewal programme. Photography and the young guns of contemporary Indian art are down below in Block 2.

The Art Shop

Its fastest selling item remains artists’ portfolios but it can do with some more exciting merchandise like Subodh Gupta t-shirts, recently added to the collection.