I'm involved with The Skoda Prize Show, currently on view at the Lalit Kala Akademi. One of the three artists nominated this year, Bangalore's Navin Thomas, has a work on display that uses live pigeons. They sit in a room that's sixteen feet by twelve feet, and are being fed bird food bought from Khan Market. The room's walls are made from cotton mesh that allows fresh air in. The artwork involves sound, white noise emitted by transistors inside the room. At the opening, a few viewers were disturbed by the use of live animals, and the uncomfortably high sound level. Openings are noisy affairs. We have four other pieces in the show which use sound, and the artists who created them wanted their work to be audible to the large number of viewers who came for the inaugural function. In order for Navin's transistors to be heard above the noise of neighbouring works, he turned the sound up higher than it had been in his solo show at Bangalore's GallerySKE, which I saw a year and a half ago.
Once the opening was over, we put all videos on headphones, because henceforth there would rarely be more than two or three people wanting to see a given video at the same time. Navin then turned the volume inside the bird room down to a level perfectly comfortable to human ears.
Even during the two and a half hours of the opening, however, there was no indication whatsoever that the pigeons were in any discomfort. The door to the room was open for minutes on end, and none of the pigeons bothered to hop out. They sat on Navin's copper-wire aerials or pecked at their Khan Market food. Many viewers, though, were less interested in observing the pigeons' behaviour than to drawing conclusions based on anthropocentric assumptions.
One of these, clearly, was Isha Manchanda of Hindustan Times. She's published a piece in today's paper headlined 'Artiste in soup for confining pigeons'. The truth is that Navin Thomas (who is an 'artist' not an 'artiste') is not in any soup, but Isha Manchanda clearly wants him to be in one. I spoke to her and it was evident she's an extremist who will not listen to reason: the animal-rights equivalent of those wanting to persecute Salman Rushdie and M F Husain.
Manchanda has interviewed Navin, and four (count 'em) animal rights activists. None of these activists has seen the way the birds are actually exhibited, but that has never stopped ideologues from drawing conclusions. There is one point made in the article that might have got the Skoda Prize Show in a spot of bother. This is the assertion by members of the Animal Welfare Board that permission from the Board was required before we could exhibit Navin's birds. Manchanda, however, has substituted a quote from a person who knows nothing about the show for basic research. I just looked at the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and scrutinised with care the section which deals with exhibition of animals. The relevant paragraph (Chapter V, Clause 21) states: “Exhibit” and “train” defined : In this Chapter, " exhibit" means exhibit or any entertainment to which the public are admitted through sale of tickets, and "train" means train for the purpose of any such exhibition, and the expressions "exhibitor" and "trainer" have respectively the corresponding meanings."
The Skoda Prize Show does not fall into the category of 'exhibit' as defined by the Act. There are no tickets sold, it is not a show mounted for profit in the manner of, say, a circus. It is free to view in a public gallery. Ergo we did not and do not need any permission from the Animal Welfare Board.
Hopefully, this manufactured controversy will end right here, viewers will continue to appreciate the many excellent works on view at Lalit Kala Akademi, and the Hindustan Times will pull up its staff for bad research and dreadful language skills (an 'artiste' is , 'A skilled public performer or entertainer, especially a singer or dancer' ).