No go for show at National Gallery

NEW DELHI, SEPT. 2. The normally sedate openings at the National Gallery of Modern Art here came in for a sharp reversal this evening with abrupt closure and withdrawal of a much talked about new exhibition, ``Combine''.

Sponsored by two Delhi-based galleries, Art Inc. and Vis a Vis, the show intended to present the works of 25 young Indian artists from different parts of the country. However, minutes before the opening, the chief guest, Dr. R. V. V. Ayyar, Secretary in the Central Department of Culture, asked the organisers to remove a painting deemed objectionable as ``unconstitutional''. The Baroda-based artist Surendran Nair, whose painting titled ``An actor rehearsing the interior monologue of Icarus'' was at the heart of the controversy, chose to withdraw from the show rather than remove the painting. In support, the other artists and the organisers refused to continue with the exhibition. Combine created history of sorts as the first exhibition to attract Government disapproval at the National Gallery of Modern Art.

The response to this event of potentially far-reaching consequences was sharply polarised. Ms. Mukta Nidhi Sanhotra, Director of the National Gallery of Modern Art, said that the painting which uses the image of Icarus, wings outspread poised above a national emblem, the Ashoka Pillar, cannot be used within a government institution. Expressing apprehension that it might attract a ``fundamental reaction'', she went on record to say that a single work cannot be allowed to jeopardise the safety of the works within the gallery, and that the institution had no objection to the exhibition continuing after the exclusion of Surendran Nair's painting.

To the large group of artists assembled outside the National Gallery of Modern Art, however, the objection to the work amounts to ``precensorship'' and ``an attack on artistic freedom. Surendran Nair's own response was to withdraw along with another participating artist, Rekha Rodwittiya, regretting ``that an institution such as the NGMA is governed by conservative and reactionary attitudes''.

``Freedom of speech, which is a constitutional right, must be upheld. Censorship of this type becomes an imposition within this basic premise,'' the artists said.

Nair and Rodwittiya are both internationally respected artists, and the fear is that all shows to be held at the NGMA from now on would attract this kind of official scrutiny. It is also likely that sponsorship of such events by private galleries may come in for a sharp decline in the immediate future.

One seasoned artist noted that some extremely well-known works of art like ``Flag'', a painting of the American flag by Jasper Johns, are housed in the U.S. Museum of Modern Art, and that the use of such emblems is a matter of interpretation in the context in which they are used.

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