Recently, the artist community of Karnataka has been making waves in the social media to mark their protest against the ‘privatization of the Venkatappa Art Gallery’ in the city of Bangalore. This protest has irrupted as a response to the government scheme of ppp (public private partnership), where the government of Karnataka has declared some 40 odd sites in the state to be ‘adopted’ by the private/corporate firms. While one of the sites to be adopted is Venkatappa Art Gallery (henceforth VAG), the list also includes other sites of cultural significance such as Halebidu, Beluru,Ranganathittu etc. An MoU was signed by the Department of Archeology, Museums and Heritage and Abhishek Poddar,Tasveer Foundation last June 2015. Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), a division of the foundation, has shown interest to renovate/develop the gallery space and facilitating it with additional exhibits and resources.
The artist community across Karnataka has collectively raised voice against this move of privatization of VAG and demanded the Government to scrap the MoU. Since past few weeks a number of protest-events have been organized by the artist community of Bangalore to generate awareness and support for their concerns. While it is very important to criticize and challenge Government’s policy of PPP as a larger structural problem, the public protests by the artists from Karnataka asking to ‘stop privatization of VAG’ also needs to be engaged with critically.
The public space v/s the Privatization
One of the leading artist figures of the protest stated that ““How can a middleman who collects what he fancies with subjective opinion be allowed to adopt the gallery?” (Deccan Herald, 7th March 2016). Here, Mr. Poddar, referred as a middleman, is reduced to an individual with ‘subjective opinion’ based on his ‘fancy’, as against the so called ‘collective opinion’ of the protesting artists/self-acclaimed representatives of the public. Here, I must point that not just the contemporary established Indian artists, but also public in general have benefitted from art collectors at various points in time in India. It is not so easy to negate the role of an art collector today, even in this particular instance of adoption of a public space. In this move by the artists to question the credibility of Mr. Poddar to manage VAG on the basis of his profession, i.e. art collector and art buyer, seems rather unconvincing.
At first glance, this binary of public-private does seem pretty convincing in rendering the ‘public’ as more rewarding than the ‘private’. But then, if we review this binary on a larger plane, we have to admit that the art practice in India has always relied upon both public and private resources, be it in terms of exhibiting spaces, monitory support or exposure. The term ‘privatization’ has often been used by the protesting artists in a belittling sense and has been rendered incapable of imagining the ‘public’. But then, are these artists-as representatives of the public- really outside of the very discourse of privatization? Is it really possible to put oneself outside of the benefits of privatization in order to critique it? And if this discomfort with privatization is restricted only to this one site of VAG, then what are the reasons for this selective dissent?
Protest of a Spectacle
The number of protests that have followed as ‘Save VAG’ needs to be looked at/examined carefully for their critical and visual disseminations. I say this because we know that a protest is not just a tool of expression but is a crucial political mode of critique. Considering the history of protests that have been taking place in public spaces in India, one is required to pause and engage with them. In the times of social and print media, a protest does not merely produce an image of dissent, it is also a space claimed by the protesters to project that which is not allowed to be seen/ shown/claimed. A protest, in the context of VAG, coming from a community of artists becomes an inevitable engagement.
There have been a number of protests by artists community in the previous times, for claiming either their institutional spaces (FFA protest, Vadodara 2007), or for claiming their right to voice an opinion as individuals (responses to M.F.Hussain’s exile). This particular protest in case is certainly very different in its nature as it is led by the artist community of Karnataka as ‘citizens’, rejecting government’s move to privatize VAG.
The first public protest which took place on 6th March was called ‘Hug Venkatappa’ or Appiko VAG as a means to claim the space of the gallery through physical proximity. A number of photographs were circulated in print media and social networking sites such as Facebook, of well known artists and art lovers/supporters hugging the walls, pillars, name plate of VAG as part of the protest. the artists got themselves photographed while hugging the building and other properties of the gallery (trees, sculptures), forming a human chain on the main road etc. (Image 1,2,3) The term ‘Appiko’ is derived from the Appiko Chaluvali , a movement spearheaded by Pandurang Hegde a well known environmentalist in Uttar Karnataka in 1983, and was inspired by the Chipko Aandolan in Uttarakhand. Hegde led the people of Salkani to ‘hug the trees’ in Kalase forest as the mark of protest against the government. This protest raised concerns of deforestation, agriculture and sustainability of the people who depended on these forests for their livelihood. However, in the context of the present protest, the ‘symbolic’ gesture of hugging the building of VAG renders itself as a mere enacting, as none of the protesting artists depend on VAG for their sustainability or livelihood. Unlike the protesting villagers who spearheaded this movement, the artist community for VAG is privileged with cultural capital.
Image 1, artists and art lovers hugging VAG (Source: vagblog, for all images)
Image 2, artist Pushpamala N. hugging one of the walls at VAG
Image 3, artists and art lovers forming a human chain outside Bangalore Museum
Image 4: a crowd of artists in front of VAG
Here, one of the protesters was dressed as Onake Obavva, carrying a poster and pestle. It is crucial to note that Obavva is an important historical figure from the 18th century, who fought against the intruding soldiers of Hyder Ali at Chitradurga fort. So what relevance does this iconography hold for the protesters today? Is the public and the private to be defined by the historical enmity between two kingdoms?
I would like to talk about another such image from the protest, where the protesting artists are posing from a grill, and acting as if they are were trapped/jailed/prisoned. So what exactly does this image convey? Are they trying to say that they are trapped by the bureaucratic government? They are feeling vulnerable, targeted. But then this photograph also looks highly staged and designed. The artists have chosen an almost undefining site at the gallery – a grilled space-which does not hold any purpose for the visitors or the gallery. It is the mere appearance of the fence-like-structure-at-VAG that the artists have used as an image of dissent. Also, the expressions of the artists are highly dramatic or ‘performed’. The well known artist Sheela Gowda is posing with her hands in the air with an expression of horror, while another artist Umesh M. is kneeling down and looking out from the grills, not facing the camera, looking in despair. So, what are we to make of this image which is highly staged? Especially In the context of the recent farmers’ protest which took place on 3rd March 2016 in Bangalore, the protesting farmers were brutally attacked by the police and detained as well. In that case, this particular image comes across as a mere mockery.
Image 5: artists posing as jailed at VAG grounds (Source: VAG blog)
VAG as a shrine
Another interesting aspect this protest has pointed towards is projecting VAG, metaphorically as a site of devotion. One of the anxieties the protesting artists seem to have is that with Tasveer foundation adopting this public space, the kind of works that would be added on display from then on, will be incapable of carrying the legacy of VAG. For example, there was a statement by the VAG forum that “The museum coming up (at VAG), showcasing Abhishek’s personal matchbox and broomsticks, is going to be a blessing to the visitors” (Prajavaani10th march). While this supposedly sarcastic statement renders Abhishek’s collection as reductive, it also projects VAG as a sanctified site. So this leaves us with a question that is this protest striving to regard VAG as a shrine by these artists?
Image 6: artist Dimple Shah dressed as Venkatappa at Town Hall (source: facebook)
So, I am tempted to ask if this act of ‘dressing up as Venkatappa’ is at all relevant for the debates around public-private binaries in today’s context; and if not then is this act meant as an attempt to make Venkatappa an animated witness to the site of the protest, a mere visual presence ?
While VAG has already been treated like a shrine by the mode of protest, this act of impersonation ends up evoking the legacy of Venkatappa, as caught in a sense of nostalgia. Considering the serious implications of the act of ‘protesting’ in today’s times when the protesters’ basic human rights as citizens are under threat, this particular protest of staging, designing, being photographed, dressing up- seems like a mere farce and seems to be comfortably avoiding a critical engagement with any social or political history of protests.