Saturday, January 29, 2011

Husain at the Art Summit

The removal and reinstatement of an M.F.Husain painting from Delhi Art Gallery’s booth at the India Art Summit in Delhi last week may have been a storm in a teacup, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. The Husain canvas had earlier been part of a larger show of paintings displayed in Delhi Art Gallery’s Hauz Khas Village space. There were in fact a number of Husain works on show there, freely on view in a gallery that had very little security. Anybody walking into DAG intending to vandalise a Husain canvas would have encountered hardly any resistance. Even as one Husain picture was transferred to Pragati Maidan, others continued to hang on DAG’s walls.
At the art fair, visitors had to go through ticket checks, metal detectors and pat downs, before being allowed entry. Delhi Art Gallery hired a couple of intimidating bouncers who stood next to the Husain, glaring at everybody who passed. The state and central goverment had assured support to the Art Summit, with officials publicly stating that displaying Husain works would be no problem. This was after the Summit authorities had refused to show Husain in previous editions citing security issues.
To sum up: there was absolutely no reason not to have an M.F.Husain painting on display throughout the Art Summit.
Yet, the evening of the VIP preview, just as proceedings were winding down, we heard the Husain was being removed. Threatening emails had apparently been received, and the organisers feared a stampede. That evening, news organisations like CNN-IBN led their prime time news with the Husain story.
I was furious, seeing the episode as a craven capitulation on the part of the Art Summit organisers. It sends a terrible signal to give in to anonymous emails despite the presence of great numbers of state and private security personnel, after activists and influential people in the art world had lobbied for months to ensure all conditions were in place for a public viewing of Husain’s paintings. The next afternoon, Neha Kirpal, the head of the Art Summit, told me a solution was being worked out. A couple of hours later, the Husain was back up in the DAG booth. Nothing much had changed on the ground. Maybe an extra platoon had been posted outside, but it would hardly make a difference to a determined vandal inside the hall.
The entire episode left me feeling depressed, and wondering if the Husain issue had not been cynically used to garner valuable publicity. The Art Summit depends on footfalls, and these can best be guaranteed through the media. In a crowded media space, it’s extraordinarily difficult to receive the kind of coverage that draws real public attention. The broadcast time and column inches granted the Art Summit a few hours before its public opening were priceless. It would have taken crores of rupees to get that sort of notice through advertising. Whether capitulation or cynical ploy, there’s no doubt the latest Husain fracas helped the Summit massively.
A number of representatives of media outlets were present at the VIP opening, but the alacrity with which the news spread still seemed calculated. It would’ve been fairly easy to keep an event like this under wraps; but it was burning up the newswires within a few minutes of the paintings coming down.
Neha Kirpal’s done a tremendous job in creating an event that has grown so quickly in popularity and influence. The Husain episode, though, made me think less of the fair as a whole.

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