The impressively long queue at Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel ticket office made our hearts sink. Did we really want to see Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, the Renaissance artist Raphael’s tapestries and Botticelli’s paintings, or would we rather sit in a café with our guide books and glasses of chianti? It wasn’t a choice, really — not when we were tourists, anyway — and we joined the serpentine row which, surprisingly, cleared fast. But the visiting hordes had merely moved inside, and like sheep, we were herded from room to hall, from courtyard to chamber, barely able to spend time on what we’d lined up to see. And when my wife proposed queueing up a second time because she’d missed Michelangelo’s Pieta, the family came close to blows.
The West’s fascination for its arts is contagious. They’ll stand in file, if not in rank, at the V&A and MOMA, return to galleries to view favourite artists, support new initiatives, lend their voices to museum or gallery extensions, turn up for public installations, and raise funds to support local arts or artists. Can we think of anything similar in India where our institutes appear moribund less for lack of facilities or content than public support? For that matter, how many tour operators bother with including our museums and galleries on their itineraries of forts, temples and palaces?
As art tours get more expensive in the West (we paid euro 24 each for tickets at the Sistine Chapel minus audio or tour guides) and the viewing pleasure diminishes on account of the crowds, perhaps it’s time for India to develop art tours to fill the void and attract new segments of travellers who might want to see art sans the multitudes, and at a cost that is liberating (the National Gallery of Modern Art charges a modest Rs 150 per visitor of foreign origin). To begin with, the existing institutions can be at the forefront of the revolution — if tourists in Venice will sign up for viewing a Klimt exhibition, surely in India they can be sold on the highlights of S H Raza, or F N Souza (both multicultural enough in their art as well as in their choice of homes in Paris, London and New York), or the peripatetic and popular M F Husain, or a Subodh Gupta retrospective, or exhibitions of miniatures (remember the popularity of the Padshahnama collection when it was shown in India?).
A logical next step would be to invite the top institutions of art to open branches in India. If Abu Dhabi can conceive of the Guggenheim and the Louvre in the sheikhdom, why can’t we have the V&A in New Delhi, the Tate Britain in Mumbai? Not only does it mean that more of their collections will get an airing, it might even provide the impetus for Indians to get into art and antiquity viewing. For now, it is almost impossible to motivate Indians to step inside a gallery or a museum in India, though they appear to have no issues when it comes to signing up for a Monet or a Turner exhibition in London or Paris.
In time, it might spur yet another revolution — of families opening their private collections for viewing by visitors. Who would have thought that a tiny Corsican island would have an important assortment of French art owned by the Bonaparte family? Hearteningly, we saw Indian families happy to pay for a visit to this, as to other apparently unknown or at least inconsequential museums and galleries, simply because it was the touristy thing to do. Maybe it’s time Indians in general, and Indian art institutions in particular, woke up to the potential of the tourist appeal of art in India.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated