April 2014: The staircase leading to the first-floor gallery at National Museum, New Delhi, is choc-a-bloc with people. In contrast to the handful of schoolchildren, art students and academics normally, this is the first time that hordes of visitors from all walks of life — defence personnel, ladies in chiffons with manicured talons, big fat Indian families — are enthusing about the art on display as part of the exhibition titled The Body in Indian Art.
Five months later, Naman Ahuja, curator of the exhibition, smiles, “I have to say that I slightly surprised myself.” The exhibition is considered a landmark in many ways. Not only did it feature an unprecedented 350 objects from 44 institutions — village and town museums, private collections, archaeological institutions, national cultural organisations — but it also heralded the movement towards making art accessible to the masses. “I had to fight marketing gurus to have an exhibition that I wanted. I just knew that it would work,” he says. And work it did. “The spin doctors couldn’t imagine that an exhibition could attract 70,000 people. There are movies that haven’t done as well,” laughs Ahuja. The effort earned Ahuja the reputation of India’s curator to watch out for.
He had only 15 months to put together the exhibition for Europalia, an international festival in Brussels, after which it came to the National Museum. However, Ahuja believes that he has been subconsciously working towards this exhibition for a long time. “In the past 15 years, he has travelled to site museums in small villages and towns across the country to create a unique visual archive. That’s how he pieced the exhibition together,” says Joyoti Roy, outreach consultant with the National Museum. “In fact, he said that once he found out what the theme was, he knew which museum and which site to source a particular object from.”
During his visits, Ahuja realised that these museums were treated poorly, largely because administrators and politicians believed that archaeology and culture ought to be handled by officials who were not fit to be in more dynamic posts. “Ironically, in small towns, the site museums benefitted because of less tampering by these officials,” he says.
Then, at the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute in Jodhpur, the director refused to address his request until the state’s culture secretary intervened. On yet another trip, Ahuja’s team was held by a baraat on the road from Nalanda to Patna for several hours late at night and they had to call the police to rescue them.
I ask him to recount the challenges that he has faced in the past 15 years. He takes a deep breath, as if the memory of the bureaucratic web of delays is painful. Everything from a bulb and pedestal to the logistics of getting a 2,000-kg sculpture from Bhopal to Delhi for The Body in Indian Art, needed firefighting. “Many in the administration, especially at the lower levels, spend months thinking about everything that can go wrong with a project,” he says. “It would have been more fruitful if they had spent the time trying to make things happen.”
For years, Ahuja has been toying with the idea of making museums in India as “inclusive” as possible. This first occurred to him while working on his doctoral degree on terracotta objects 17 years ago that appeal to both the rich and the poor. People used to comment that he studied terracotta, the art of the common man. “To me, that itself was a breakthrough as it meant that it was possible to have a category like that because ‘art’ and ‘common man’ are not even used together,” he says. That’s when the belief took root that notions about artwork being elitist or functioning only with high philosophy needed to be questioned.
Narrative plays a huge role in Ahuja’s works. Even as we speak, I can sense him constructing a flow to the interview in his mind, after which he articulates the idea, bringing the jigsaw pieces of the story together. “Narrative is indeed important to him. Years of scholarship have equipped him with the ability to express a complex narrative in a lucid way,” says Roy, about what sets him apart from other curators. Also, unlike others, he works closely with the designer to construct a flow and is on the floor 24/7. This was also evident during his exhibition on Devi Prasad held at Lalit Kala Akademi in 2010 where he encapsulated 65 years of the artist’s work — leading with the famous photograph of Gandhi’s last meeting with Tagore to his tools, dairies and recipes for clays and glazes.
Ahuja doesn’t just look at the broader picture but also at the details that complete the narrative. “The history of society resides in small everyday objects. Unfortunately in museums the emphasis is only on the large scale objects. But he includes items such as amulets which have their own story to tell,” says Shukla Sawant, associate professor at the School of Art and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has known Ahuja since he joined the faculty six years ago.
Ahuja hopes the exhibition he curated isn’t a flash in the pan but turns into a full-fledged movement. “The public should demand such exhibitions and the government should deliver,” he says. The beginning of this can be seen at the National Museum where the outreach department was established in January this year for this very purpose. “Everything that now goes on display has the visitor in mind — in terms of signages, language, design. It is to create a sense of accessibility, be it creating such content or even seeing if the toilets are working,” says Roy. Hope is that “art for the common man” will no longer remain an anomaly but become a norm, and if that doesn’t happen, “then maybe the public just doesn’t deserve museums,” says Ahuja.