Whose gallery is it, anyway?
The plans for housing the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore are the focus of a controversy. ADITI DE speaks to the architects and artists involved.
The Manikyavelu Mansion where the National Gallery for Modern Arts will be housed.
BANGALORE has many claims to fame. But none of them as a centre for Indian contemporary art or modern architecture. When the Ministry of Culture selected Bangalore to house the southern wing of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), it offered the city the chance to stake a claim to artistic fame.
But will Bangalore rise to the occasion? The venue chosen in 2000 Manickyavelu Mansion on Palace Cross Road is a verdant 3.5 acre campus with a beautiful but crumbling colonial-style mansion. On June 23, 2001, the then Union Minister for Culture and Tourism, Ananth Kumar, laid the foundation stone at the campus. But the history of the project dates back about 15 years to when Secretary, Finance, Chiranjeev Singh, was Karnataka Government's Secretary, Culture. "I spoke to the then NGMA director Farooqui," he recalls, "and he agreed."
Can the IT-centric city outsource the finest of Indian design and conservation talent to improve on New Delhi's NGMA at Jaipur House? Though the central NGMA has hosted Picasso and Rodin exhibitions, its storage facilities are dismal. Also its curatorial choices have been wrapped in controversy in the recent past. Reliable sources reveal that a Rs. 50 crore-extension project is slated. Will the Bangalore centre be in the same league as the recent NGMA at Mumbai's Jehangir Cowasjee Hall? How far have Bangalore's NGMA plans progressed?
An "open contest" for architects was held in 2000. How many vied for this project, worth Rs. 8 to 10 crore? Just five, says V. Narasimhan (Naresh to his friends), chief architect of Venkatramanan Associates, who bagged the contract.
The jurors included the then director of NGMA, the chief architect of the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and his deputy, and representatives from the Ministry of Culture. Was it a fair contest? Bangalore architect Edgar Demello, one of the contestants, responds, "Architects were invited to participate in a limited competition. The project was complex in nature since multiple issues were at stake: the dialectic between old and new, putting a heritage building to reuse, protecting landscape, and imagining an `urban space' where art and people would come together. It was quite horrific when one was made to present the designs to a vast panel of people with very little to say on these issues. Not one architect of national or regional renown was on the jury. We decided, in protest, to withdraw our submissions."
In an interview, Narasimhan states, "I've thrown the design open to the architectural fraternity of Bangalore." Demello refutes this, "There is no consultative process under way. My personal opinion, shared by many, was that the NGMA competition was not fair. It beats me how such a prestigious project can be awarded to an architect who claimed he had not brought any designs at all!"
Architects apart, who are the NGMA's other stake-holders? The Central and State Governments, the artist community, exhibition designers, art collectors, conservationists, art schools, and future users of this public domain.
Is there a schedule for the construction of the NGMA? Narasimhan hoped to complete plans by late July, to be followed by tender bids, so that construction could begin by September-October. By early 2004, a section of the NGMA should be ready for commissioning. But what do his plans look like? Unveiled at the Sumukha Gallery in June, followed by a response session at the Sakshi Gallery in July, the design drew flak for its lack of vision and flair. But will the local artists' protests prove too feeble, too late?
An architect's plan for the gallery.
As contemporary art evolves beyond conventional painting or sculpture, what does an artist require of a gallery? Sheela Gowda, winner of the first Sotheby's Prize for Contemporary Indian Art in 1998, whose work has been exhibited in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan, explains, "We need spaces to be as neutral and friendly to the user as possible, without the constraints of loud architectural statements. Art today doesn't happen only where it's designated to." Every element the walls, flooring, ceilings, skirting, lighting, ventilators has to be subjugated to the individualistic overview.
Narasimhan, who admits on record that his firm has handled neither a major public space nor a renovation/ restoration project to date, explains their concept: "We took design cues for new spaces from the colonial bungalow. We made sure that the green spaces were carefully articulated. The buildings almost feint with the trees. Only the auditorium to the rear is retained. The access is randomised. Anything could happen in the sculpture court near the new multi-purpose building. We've put in a small open-air theatre. The interpretations are left open-ended."
To the rear are workshops, the administration block, generator rooms and other utility spaces, their façade cued to Manickyavelu Mansion. But where, amidst the mundane sprawl of plans presented, is the grand, sweeping vision of a modern gallery space the south can be proud of?
A slew of issues arise from extending the present 14,000 sq. ft. of carpet space to about 70,000 sq. ft. to encompass permanent collections, travelling exhibitions, and flexible spaces. Is the auditorium built for its former incumbents the UN Asia Pacific Centre for the Transfer of Technology (APCTT) relevant to the NGMA? Can the design provide for multiple viewing points for each exhibition? Has adequate thought been lent to the preservation of artworks in the event of a calamity, either natural or manmade, in keeping with international conventions? Will routing the NGMA's construction through the CPWD prove a major constraint, as Narasimhan insists?
Highly placed bureaucrats in the Karnataka Government do not agree, explaining the central construction agency is merely a conduit, at liberty to engage skilled contractors, capable of executing world-class designs. Will Bangalore's art future be stymied by poverty of resources or poverty of ideas?
How do local artists respond? Balan Nambiar strikes a dissonant chord, "Additions should be confined to a minimum area, more localised than spread out. If they occupy too much campus space, it could jeopardise future expansion. Why not build one or two floors below the ground level, with a foundation strong enough to support four to five floors above? The lower floors could house storage, restoration, archives, a library." Narasimhan points out that this would double construction costs. He fears possible seepage constraints. But are those insurmountable obstacles? S.G. Vasudev says, "Naresh had a free hand, even to demolish the main building. But I wish he had studied more galleries in depth. Or interacted with younger local artists, who have done remarkable installation and site-specific work. Why has it taken Naresh eight months to share his plans with us? Personally, I feel it's time for the artist community to unite in protest."
Yusuf Arakkal adds, "I've been to art galleries from Sao Paolo to San Francisco, New York to Hong Kong. I don't see the need for theatre space in a contemporary art gallery."
Does India have museums or galleries to compare with the global best? Bhopal's Bharat Bhavan, envisaged by Charles Correa, allows for landscape and art to interplay in the tradition of the Kroeller-Mueller Museum in Netherlands. The Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad, guided by Gira Sarabhai's passion, melds the past and the future perfectly in a restored haveli. Outside Chennai, the Dakshinachitra heritage museum with transplanted traditional buildings is an idea-rich lode.
Reinterpretation-wise, cues abound in Bangalore's ITC "Epicentre" for learning in a century-old tobacco warehouse, now as brilliantly contemporary as Berlin's Hamburger Banhof, the converted railway station that celebrates Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg and their kin.
Other aspects to the ongoing debate? Arakkal, like Nambiar, is incensed that without prior written or telephonic intimation a sloppy note, addressing them by name only on the envelope, summoned them to a NGMA "local advisory committee" meeting on July 22, listing an agenda of issues for consideration. They were in the dark about their colleagues on the panel T.P. Issar (former chairman, Bangalore Urban Art Commission), present NGMA head Rajeev Lochan, Mumbai NGMA director Sarayu Doshi, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad founder M.S. Nanjunda Rao, art collector H.K. Hejriwal, Andhra artist K. Laxma Goud, Joint Secretary, Culture, K.N. Srivastava and others. The upshot? Arakkal boycotted the meeting in protest, while Nambiar was travelling abroad.
For Bangalore's NGMA stakeholders, the countdown begins now. Can they stop the rot before demolitions ensue? Can they initiate a public debate on the designs? If they protest only in whispers, future generations can damn them for missing a date with artistic-architectural history. Their other option? To build a NGMA that will attract universal acclaim. It's time to ask themselves: Whose gallery is this, anyway?
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