Playing to the Gallery

How corporate patrons enable the art of least resistance

Kiran Nadar is arguably India’s biggest art patron and collector. Ramesh Pathania / Mint / Getty Images
Kiran Nadar is arguably India’s biggest art patron and collector. Ramesh Pathania / Mint / Getty Images
01 December, 2023

ARTISTS PARTICIPATING in Delhi’s high-profile group shows usually take time out of their busy schedules to come together for a preview on the night before their exhibition is opened to the public. They are photographed having a drink, posing next to their work, taking in their collaborators’ contributions and catching up with friends from their small but elite milieu. The participants of Jana Shakti: A Collective Power, a group exhibit that ran in the capital’s National Gallery of Modern Art, earlier this year, gathered not once but twice: for its opening, on 30 April, which was dampened by rain, and then, unexpectedly, two weeks later, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a visit.

Organised to celebrate a hundred episodes of Modi’s monthly radio show, Mann Ki BaatJana Shakti featured a dozen artists who had allegedly been inspired by themes he had covered in the show to create paintings and installations. In fact, many of the artists had repurposed old work, and at least one artist used work created before Modi was even elected prime minister. In contrast to what one of them described as the “very dry and very sad shows” the NGMA usually organises, Jana Shakti was well put together, with slick lighting and immersive projections on the building’s gargantuan dome. It had been a long time, the artist said, since the gallery had held “that kind of a contemporary show.”

The artworks were accompanied with curatorial texts linking them to a specific theme, such as sports, farmers or COVID-19; videos of artists talking about their inspiration; and quotes from Modi’s radio addresses, which sometimes dwarfed the work itself. This was no accident. The exhibition was essentially a propaganda event organised at a state-run gallery—yet another institution, known for its past autonomy, that the Modi government has appropriated in service of his cult of personality.

During the tenure of the Manmohan Singh government, the NGMA once displayed an installation dedicated to the controversial conversations with senior ministers of the lobbyist Niira Radia, recorded by the income tax department, in 2008–09, during an investigation into possible tax evasion and money-laundering. In recent years, however, it has hosted five exhibitions and auctions of the various gifts received by Modi, whose artistic value is, at best, questionable. These auctions, the former culture secretary Jawhar Sircar—now a Rajya Sabha MP from the Trinamool Congress—told me, fall outside the remit of the gallery. “The NGMA is not an extension of the prime minister’s office,” he said.