It is a pity that the opening of the Bangalore branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) should get mired in controversy not of its making, but of a minister shooting off his mouth on the sanctity of Indian tradition and culture — yes, again! — and how artists must be accountable to a public morality. A pity because the remarks, and the consequent umbrage by artists, took the focus away from the fact that India’s premier arts museum is in overdrive writes, Kishore Singh.
A month before it launched its Bangalore extension, Sonia Gandhi had inaugurated the extension or annex wing of the New Delhi NGMA, a space that though it has been criticised by a few art lovers as not being or doing enough, is today the most extensive museum gallery space available at any institution in India. “Everything could not be in place to coincide with the opening,” concedes NGMA director Rajeev Lochan because, clearly, the timing was a political rather than an administrative decision, “as for instance the sensors that control and match the ambient lighting in the phenomenally flexible galleries”.
Two days before tempers flared in Bangalore, Lochan had been in a reflective mood as we sat down for lunch at Baci, the Italian restaurant close to his NGMA adda, but one he nevertheless had not visited before. For those who have not met this green tea addict, Lochan is a cherubic and jovial person who, most strangely, compares himself to the young Ishaan of Taare Zameen Par, the Aamir Khan-starrer about a dyslexic child’s loneliness and struggle for recognition through art.
Two for lunch and an extensive menu means we end up sharing a three-course meal that includes an excellent insalata con prosciutto, a salad of rocket leaves and parma ham dusted with freshly ground pepper, over which Lochan launches into his childhood memories of growing up in Dehradun, where he was the first student to join Carman School, when it started in the 10-acre Nabha Estate. “Its impact on me was great,” he reminisces of the ponies and gardens and creative freedom, “I’d look at the drooping bottle-brushes, then at how they were painted in the miniatures, I’d listen to music…”
Those idyllic days were to prove ephemeral when he shifted, in class five, to St Joseph’s. “All that competition,” he shudders delicately, “it was shattering.” A good if not brilliant student, “I became a loner”, he recalls, “I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, but the excellent brothers at the school realised the boy needed empathy, not discipline, and in a rare departure, let him study geography and psychology, subjects that were not offered by the school, for his board exams. It is a debt Lochan says he has never forgotten, and recalls meeting Brother E A T Donne years later at a Rashtrapati Bhawan function when he broke down at his remembered kindnesses.
Lochan’s father was a zamindar who gave up the pleasures of prosperity for artistic endeavours and genteel poverty, but he was determined that his son should be an artist of eminence. When Lochan rejected his father’s alma mater in Mumbai, and didn’t care much for the college of art in Kolkata, settling on the experimental and interactive Baroda school instead — “the teachers went into the spirit and psyche of each individual to understand rather than provide initiation,” Lochan explains — his father would await each journey home with more than just anxiety. “I’d carry three crates of my works back after each term,” Lochan recalls, “and these would be opened, the paintings displayed, observed, before he’d so much as have a cup of tea with me. It took my father twenty years before he came to my exhibition, to see it and to record that it was interesting and had a new vision.” In case I mistake the equation between them, Lochan intercedes to say, “I adored my father, I loved him.”
We’re sharing our pizza alla diavola — a pepperoni with attitude — and the lasagna al raqu, with the pizza winning hands down, though Lochan, disturbingly, refuses to let go of the bread basket. “These breads,” he helps himself generously to the batch baked fresh just hours before, “are fabulous.” He started his career teaching, very briefly, at the Bishop Cotton School in Shimla, before going on to start with other artists the course in fine arts at the Jamia Milia University and, later, joining the department of painting at the Delhi College of Art. His move to the National Gallery of Modern Art, in 2001, was not without its share of controversy.
He’d been handpicked for the post when the culture secretary had seen him introduce, and then act as interlocutor at a show on Japanese printmaking at the NGMA, and insisted he apply to the UPSC for the job. He was then asked to apply all over again because the first appointment was challenged by a few other contenders to the post, and when he moved into the director’s office, it was to realise that “we were treated as a gallery, the comprehension of a museum did not exist”. With premier shows like that on Picasso going to the National Museum, he says, “My agenda was to develop programmes and infrastructure that showcased the best of our inheritance and made the best use of cultural exchanges in the space of art.”
If this included clearing the dusty files for the extension wing in New Delhi that had been on hold for ever, it also included laying the foundation stone for the NGMA in Bangalore “within three months of my being on the seat” and including the programming for the NGMA in Mumbai within a common, national ambit. “We have 17,000 works of art in the museum,” says Lochan, “and my concern was how to share it nationwide.”
There’s some pizza and a lot of lasagna left over, so we have it packed for Lochan to take back to share with his office, and we eschew dessert for herbal teas — and more bread for Lochan! “It’s unfortunate that in India,” Lochan says now, “art has never got the impetus and sensitivity that it so deserves. The works of artists in the past is so profound that it’s comparable with important artists elsewhere in the world.” But what about our late start in the more cutting-edge world of new media art? “Indians are good at beating others at their own game in a very short time,” Lochan smiles contentedly. “Conceptual themes have been amalgamated and digested very fast here, and are being churned back now.” As for the worth of our stars among the contemporary crop, he’s a little more discreet. “How we will gauge them,” he says, “only time will tell”, explaining that the price escalations “had to happen but they happened too early” in the case of some artists. Their longevity will now depend “on the strength of the artists” but he’s willing to wager that “in the next couple of years I see another surge in prices, and this is going to be very vibrant”.
Now that he’s sewn up at least three Indian cities, and has others on his global fix, Lochan says he’s “written to 102 artists for the loan of their works to curate a large travelling show of Indian art”, and along with his directorial role at NGMA, finds his own painting “taking a backseat”, though his more recent series, Man in Search of Utopia has been critically acclaimed and “has so much to do in terms of my own existence”. “Once things are settled,” he says as we get ready to leave, “I’ll have a better understanding between my personal world and official role.”
Fittingly, the owner of Baci is there to wave us off. “I think I might have painted too,” he says to Lochan, when I introduce them. “Your food is a form of art too,” Lochan tells him. I know he’s thinking of the bread...