Art Attack: A Newbie Aesthete’s Discoveries at NGMA, Bangalore

Lessons in art appreciation and organised chaos at Bangalore’s National Gallery of Modern Art.  
Art Attack: A Newbie Aesthete’s Discoveries at NGMA, Bangalore
Photo courtesy: NGMA

For every newbie aesthete, like me, seeking an entry into the art soirée, there is a secret passcode: the frown, step back, nod, and sigh. However, that is only admission. Membership to the elite art world is a lot more arduous and nuanced, almost as much as finding your way around a government office. You must have the skills and tact. There is no room for a casual art appreciator; you are either a connoisseur or not.

Suffice it is to say that I have been learning. Not making sense of much, more the rote learning most of our education system prescribes to, but it has been getting me by. Had. It changed when I chanced upon a gallery that helped me unlearn in what was perhaps my first real conversation with art, the Nation Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). No, not the palatial one in New Delhi, but the blink-and-you-miss-it one in Bangalore. And I have fallen in love with Indian art ever since.

Nestled in the heart of the city, the Manikyavelu Mansion that houses NGMA does much justice to the road it is on, the Palace Road. Whilst all the colonial style bungalows on the road are just as stately, the white Manikyavelu Mansion draws you in. There’s a certain exhilaration that fills you as you step through its towering gates, as if the building is going to open up to reveal something splendid; and NGMA delivers.

Before you tread the pebbled path, making your way through the sculptures lined along the walk. Be prepared for chaos—a rather impish disregard for art organization, which is possibly the greatest charm of NGMA, Bangalore. That coupled with its breathable calmness.

Art Attack: A Newbie Aesthete’s Discoveries at NGMA, Bangalore 1

Photo courtesy: NGMA

However, instead of structured presentation, NGMA, Bangalore kicks you into the thick of things, and much like a child thrown into the water, you learn to swim, finally beginning to enjoy it. There are those watching over you, sitting by to provide assistance, but there is hardly any need for it.

Perhaps it would be incorrect to say it is all chaos. It does start with thematically: the first room on the ground floor is a marvellous display of 16th-century miniature paintings from the royal courts: gold-embellished drawings as small as credit cards with splendid detail, which still manage to steal the glamour of the period.

However, from then on there is that chaos that I absolutely love. From A.E. Harris’ colonial drawings, Abanindranath Tagore’s sketches, and M.F. Pithwala’s “Portrait of a Parsi Woman” to Nicholas Roerich’s study of the Himalayas, Husain, Binode Behari Mukherjee, S.H. Raza, and more, everything is thrown into an amusing mix. One minute you are drowning in the gleam of the oil paints in the 1893 “Portrait of a Lady” by Raja Ravi Varma (much like those of the European traveller-artists that inspired him), and the next you are looking at a 1943 etching by K. Laxman, next to a Jamini Roy, a head study by Haren Das, and a lithograph by Thomas Daniell. And then, thrown in this strange collage is Raghu Rai’s photograph of “Visitor at Kanyakumari.”

The lack of literature guiding you through the different time periods and revolutions in Indian art, coupled with the bad network service in the mansion, leaves you to appreciate the art all alone. Especially for someone who knows little of art, it helps that your views and imagination are not coloured by any literature. With only the year, the name of the painting and the artist, deciphering the whats and whys of the art leads to discovering much more than any organisation will bring you. In the midst of the serenity that NGMA is synonymous with, you truly begin to appreciate the company of art, enjoying its changing character and perhaps even falling in love with a few works. I know many pen sketches of Binode Behari Mukherjee, and Jamini Roy left me mesmerised.

Once you’re done living all that beautiful history—which could be a while even with the quaint collection—a peek into the latest revolving exhibits is a must.

After all these hours, have a sit down at their outdoor canteen with the setting sun, overhearing tit-bits of artistic conversation, and enjoy their chilli-cheese toast (stuffed with lots of stringy cheese, just the right way) with a cup of coffee. Before you leave, make sure to take home some of the prints from the art shop—it is after all a collector’s market (and they are incredibly cheap).

Finally, as you step out, you are one step further into the small, claustrophobic world of art. Of course, we aren’t connoisseurs yet, far from it, but NGMA, Bangalore, almost sneakily suggests not fitting in.

  • Stuti Agarwal is a struggling children’s writer and artist. She writes about her experiments with inordinately planned travels, global art, and local cuisine.

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