Why was a national centre for the arts host to the many faces of Modi Last Week?

By ATUL DEV | 3 June 2015

For the past week, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA)—a government-funded arts organisation located in New Delhi—has been hosting an event that is quite unlike the usual fare the centre’s visitors are used to: a multimedia exhibition to commemorate Narendra Modi’s first anniversary as the prime minister of India. One of the galleries at the INGCA, usually reserved for art exhibitions, film screenings and academic discourse on history and literature, was booked for what was termed a Photographic Exhibition on One year of Governance. From 25 May 2015 onwards, Gallery One at the IGNCA was booked by the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP), the advertising department of the central government, for a duration of seven days.

The aim of the exhibition was unclear. According to the receptionist at IGNCA, who claimed to have been there all week, the highest turn-out on a day was 80 people. When I visited the gallery at around 11 am on Saturday, 31 May 2015, the exhibition was deserted.

The path up to entrance of the gallery had been lined with multi-coloured pennants that were waving in the wind as they proclaimed “Saal ek; Shuruat Anek”—One year; several beginnings. Empty chairs that had presumably been left over from the opening of the exhibit by the Information and Broadcasting Minister, Arun Jaitley, on Monday, 25 May 2015, were facing an empty stage. Inside the gallery, a young woman handed me two booklets: one, a compilation of extracts from Modi’s umpteen speeches and, the other, a document that listed the schemes that the government had initiated. Inside the hall, it was impossible to miss the visage of the prime minister, no matter where one turned. The only surfaces that appeared to display pictures of people other than Modi were some of the pages in one of the books that were showcased at the exhibition. These included pictures of those who had been rescued by the Indian Army in Nepal in the aftermath of the recent earthquake, and an image of a farmer standing in a government office.

At the entrance to the hall stood a life-size cut-out of Modi standing behind a podium in front of the Red Fort with his fingers pointed upwards; this cut-out uttered (on loop) Modi’s Ekta ka SandeshMessage of Unity. There were digital kiosks, widescreen televisions and a projector. All of them had a video montage showcasing One Year of Governance on loop: Modi smiling, Modi shaking hands with people, Modi holding a broom, Modi being sworn-in as the prime minister and Modi giving speeches. Many voices of many Modis reverberated through the empty, carpeted hall. There were three people in the large room, including the guard and a photographer who had been assigned to the exhibition by the DAVP.

In the hour or so that I spent sitting in the comfortably air-conditioned gallery, only two people ventured in. The DAVP photographer sat on the floor, clicking pictures of the screens. Front-lit sun-boards—about a hundred—that covered the walls and were akin to brand hoardings, provided information about the various schemes the present dispensation had initiated in the past year. “Prime Minister Skill Development Scheme—A scheme worth Rs 1500 crore,” read one. Some pronouncements, on the other hand, were framed in present continuous, that beloved tense of bureaucrats: “… schemes like pension and scholarships are being started across the country.”

One long wall was dedicated in its entirety to the Make in India program. Words like Aviation, Manufacturing, Automobile Components and Renewable Energy were sprinkled on it, without any elaboration, around the wooden figurine of a lion. With ten gear wheels protruding out of its mechanised interior, spinning in a slow but smooth fashion, the lion looked impressive. But then one of the two visitors whom I had seen during my time in the exhibition, went too close, and a gentle touch from her index finger abruptly brought the circular motion of a wheel to a halt.  She turned around to check if anyone was looking, no one except for me. “It’s cardboard,” she said, almost giggling.

Outside the hall, a model village had posters of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao—two schemes launched by the new government to provide banking facilities to the poor and to promote the education of the girl child, respectively. For a hall that according to the IGNCA’s website, costs around Rs 10,000 per day, the DAVP didn’t seem to be getting much from its money. I met Madan Mohan, whose number was helpfully given with the exhibition listing by the DAVP. However, he refused to identify what his role within the organisation was when I asked him. “So are you writing a positive article or a negative one?” he inquired. I didn’t reply. “I am not authorised to speak at all, but I think this government at least has a head now,” he said, pointing to one of the screens. “Do you think enough people turned up?” I asked. “Oh yes. This hall was packed yesterday,” he said.

NC Das, the chief exhibition officer at the DAVP, said this was not a political event. “This was just an exhibition of our government’s achievements in the last year,” he told me during a phone conversation. It was clear, though, that the DAVP’s idea of this government consisted of the many faces of Modi.

It was not clear why the IGNCA was chosen as a venue. Certainly images of even the best-run government programmes do not qualify as art by themselves. Officials told me that over the past several years, galleries of the IGNCA were being given out on payment to the government. Although the IGNCA celebrates 19 November—Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary—every year as its foundation day, there is nothing in its online archive that resembles the exhibition it hosted last week. “We had a multimedia exhibition on the 90th birthday of Atal Behari Vajpayee last year, that was also organised by the DAVP, but other than that I can’t recall anything that was like last week’s exhibition,” a senior official at the IGNCA told me over the phone.

An internal committee had been set up within the centre to pick and choose from among those events that were proposed for the gallery to host. But a glance through the aims and objectives of the IGNCA, whose focus is on the arts, appeared to leave no space for projecting the anniversary of a government. Despite my repeated attempts to get in touch with Veena Joshi, the joint secretary of the IGNCA, I was unable to get a response to any of the questions that I had sent to her.

The exhibition will now move to Noida. Mohan didn’t think that the installations would change very much, but perhaps there the DAVP will not have to pretend that an exhibit on the many faces of Modi qualifies as an appropriate subject for one of the republic’s premium centres of art.

Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan. 

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