Young man from B'lore told me a year ago, " I am moving to Delhi because I like its elite culture."  I nearly rolled down the steps laughing. At the time I was superior South Indian content to become part of the weed and rot and mud of my wannabe but mostly civilised Bangalore. Here I am now mewling weakly in the Outer Mongolia of Delhi. How did this happen to me?

Many dheergashwasams later I am barely ready to admit that on Saturday I went to a museum and it was rather cool. The National Gallery of Modern Arts to be precise. And it was all rather socialist, subsidised, well-designed and inclined to make one mildly approve of the state. And Moolchandji at the reception is a sweetheart who does not laugh at you when you make contrived bilingual puns while buying prints.

I strongly recommend going off to the NGMA and gazing at the Benodbehari Mukherjee centenary retrospective. Earlier I had dawdled past the SH Raza exhibit, with an expression of subnormal intelligence as I saw painting after painting of The Bindu! I looked around at the four or five other visitors who were staring at the paintings with the too-familiar Insect Woman expression.

(The Insect Woman expression, if you have not heard this one from me before, is the expression people have at cultural events when they do not know whether to be appalled or deeply appreciative and don't want to let on that they are waiting for someone else to bell the critical cat. Origins of this phrase (circa 2000) lie in the incident of 25 bearded men and lionesses looking profoundly stoic after a screening of the Shohei Imamura film Insect Woman. The film had several rather puzzling scenes of incest including one where the female protagonist working in the field soon after childbirth casually asks her father to suck her breasts to make them less swollen with milk. I came out of the movie with my hair standing on end and was then outraged to find that no one, absolutely no one in the lobby would make eye contact, for fear of being asked what they thought of the movie. Hence the phrase.)

So. The Raza exhibit puzzled me as abstract art usually does. Mostly they were outsized canvases with outsized circles in virulent colours and I almost channelled the scornful spirit of my ancestors in Pathanamthitta. Except when a cool one called Bangladesh spoke clearly to me. Then I wished I knew a little more about art.

However, the vast Benodbehari Mukherjee (1904-1980) retrospective (after your run past the Raza with its hypnotic circles) is wonderful and accessible. He seemed like the artistic equivalent of Sai Paranjpe, witty, poignant, observant but very janta.  I thought of Snegum and my other ardent tree-worshipping friends when I saw many of his landscapes. He also has a heart-warming portrait called The Tree-Lover. His portraits are in general very satisfying and so are the paintings from his spell in Japan and Nepal. If you are a philistine like I am, I think he is the artist to start with because he makes you so happy.

The photo exhibit about his life deserves a lingering read as well. His eyesight was damaged when he was a child and he became completely  blind in his fifties. Nevertheless, he spent the last couple of decades of his life working and even inspiring cinematic tribute by Ray in a film called The Inner Eye.

At the exhibition spot this picture of the embryonic artist with his brothers. As they looked at the camera, he looked at them.


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