Monthly Archives: June 2011

‘Homi Bhabha and Modern Indian Art’

Poster: Homi Bhabha and Modern Indian Art

The other day I visited an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. It wouldn’t have been anything special for a student of the sciences, were it not for the story behind how this collection came to be curated.

There were paintings, sculptures and photographs on display – work from a coterie of artists that conveyed the art scence in post-independent India. I’ve never studied the visual arts formally so I’m going to desist from adding any more about the work itself, lest I end up trivialising the matter.

While this is the case, it helps for me to read the accompanying descriptions of the artwork. During this exhibition, this was particularly helpful, possibly also because I can relate to the cultural context without much difficulty.

These paintings are housed at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, a Mumbai-based institute that is also one of the most reputed in the country. It was founded just after independence in 1947, by Dr Homi Bhabha, one of India’s best known scientists and a key figure in the country’s atomic energy programme, with support from Indian industrialists and later the government.

The poster aroused my interest because it related a key scientific figure to the arts.

I should explain. I’ve been painting since I was four. I fell sick during a summer vacation and my father noticed me sketch something – I think it was on the side of newspapers, although I’m not sure. He asked if I’d like to paint with water colours, and without a clue as to how, I said yes. I was handed a little palette of watercolour cakes and a little A4 notebook whose pages would crimp at the slightest touch of water. I’m not sure what I painted, I cannot remember, but I’d finished the entire book by the end of the vacation. One painting, I distinctly remember, was a sunset between the mountains.

I’ve always been drawn to the arts and the sciences equally. Not being in touch with either for over about a month makes me feel incomplete. But while studying the sciences, I was often discouraged (not necessarily by teachers) from practising painting. Without going into why, how, and by whom I was discouraged, I will tell you that when I first started painting murals, it was a rebellious act. I’m not sure why, but not fitting into a stereotype can often be threatening to others. I often look for an artistic streak in scientists and vice versa; my search for my own sanity in others.

Bharat Bhagya Vidhata, M F Husain, 1964. Source:

This is why a visit to this exhibition was such a joy. Not only was Dr Homi Bhabha an amateur artist himself, but apart from rallying for the basic sciences, he encouraged artists and maintained a sort of working group of advisors, connoisseurs of art, who would advise him on encouraging a pursuit of the arts and supporting artists in their work.

The one photograph that stayed with me was that of Homi Bhabha, Albert Einstein, John Wheeler and Hideki Yukawa at Princeton. A Husain mural, titled ‘Bharat Bhagya Vidhata’ held me for tens of minutes. This painting was the winning entry in a mural competition held by the Institute.

The basic sciences suffer in India as the best minds are drawn to applications in industry, or they leave abroad in pursuit of research interests. The condition of the arts is worse: underfunded and underrespected. The interest of greats like Dr Bhabha in both was a shot of encouragement for me.

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The right to dissent

I was reluctant to post this.

You may have noticed, my specialty is one but I have many diverging interests. Too many, if there is such a thing. So, having drafted this, I was asking myself, why does a person like Amruta have to write about the Freedom of Speech? What does she have to do with sedition or exploitative laws. I thought I was bringing myself back down to the ground, keeping a check on my dreams.

But we know what has happened since then. The gruesome murder of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad shook me up last night. This should matter not only to Pakistanis, but to people in the subcontinent. Without trying to sound alarming, the events in Pakistan should be a reminder to Indians to work towards repealing laws that threaten our basic freedoms.

Be it laws on alleged sedition, homosexuality (it is still to be challenged in the Supreme Court), blasphemy, or the proposed new IT rules, things are getting out of hand. Our sovereignty – not of the State, but of citizens – is under threat.


Before I say any more, I should note that I didn’t follow Dr. Binayak Sen‘s case closely until about six months ago. I am not sure why, but I didn’t see much about him in the international media that I am usually exposed to, nor the major Indian publications I was familiar with.

This ignorance will reflect in what I am about to tell you. In order to keep things as clear as possible, I will do my best to avoid interpretations of what was said on Monday evening, minimise my take, and only share my notes on what I heard yesterday. The full talk and performance will be available to watch on video that a friend is to upload soon.

On the 30th of May, I first attended an art show, convened by Tushar Joag, and then a discussion that included a distinguished (this word is appropriate at this time, believe me) panel and a mind-blowing Dastangoi performance that concluded the evening.

From what I understand, the artists were brought together by Tushar Joag in support of the case of Dr. Binayak Sen and our right to dissent. Joag’s piece was one where he confined himself to a 5’x3′ space, allowing only access to a washroom. He spent his time writing the following line in as many books as possible: “I will not lose faith in the Indian judiciary and democracy.” Visitors were encouraged to help by penning the line on as many pages as possible in the books that were available just outside the installation. I contributed seven pages.

The works on display included video installations on Kashmir and Assam, the Preamble of the Constitution of India projected in Braille on a large prayerbook, and several others.

I have to say that writing those lines in that book was liberating, in a quiet little way. It was real and it meant something, meditative and profound.

The panel included Advocate Mihir Desai, journalist Jyoti Punwani, Lawyer Flavia Agnes, Dr. Ilina Sen, Dean at Wardha University also the wife of Dr. Binayak Sen, and Dr. Binayak Sen himself. Justice P. B. Sawant who was supposed to be present was unable to make it for health reasons.

It is rare for speakers to hold your attention and present a topic in several different perspectives, each as enlightening as the other if not more. Each and every one of these speakers did this and more – there was substance in every word.

The one observation I will make is this: I was at Kashish (the Mumbai International Queer Film Festival), over the weekend. I had the chance to watch ‘I Am’ by Onir. The Director, Onir, was present for a Q&A session along with the actor Sanjay Suri after the screening. The one point the Director made was this: we wanted to show how the law can be misused to terrorise citizens. I don’t need to say more to point out the parallels between sedition, AFSPA, Section 377.

The repeal of Section 377 is still to be challenged in the Supreme Court and we hope that good sense will prevail. Also, the new Internet Control Rules proposed by the government will surely matter to all Indian Internet users and will affect the Freedom of Expression deeply.

I was mostly too engrossed to take notes. I suggest you come back in a few days, Satyen Bordoloi is expected to put up the recordings of the entire evening, discussion and performance, on his YouTube channel. I will embed the videos once they are uploaded.

This was also the first meeting in India where I have seen real respect (you have to excuse me for being away for so long), not the fake fawning kind that attaches ten ‘Shri’s before every name hoping their grovelling behaviour will be noticed. The panelists referred to Binayakji as ‘Binayak’, and the audience referred to him as ‘Sir’. There were no special invitees who were mentioned before the speakers began the meeting. A refreshing change.


Update on 5 June, circa 3 pm

Satyen has posted the videos on his YouTube channel. Here they are, in the order of events on 30 May:

Dr. Binayak Sen’s press conference (I was not present for this first one):

Advocate Mihir Desai: A brief history of sedition

Lawyer Flavia Agnes

Ilina Sen on Binayakji’s arrest and trauma

Dr. Binayak Sen

The Dastangoi performance: Dastan-E-Sedition (in Urdu and Hindi)

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