An employee at a private art museum in India has been dismissed from his position in the latest instance of the nation’s continued suppression of and retaliation against critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his politics. Sandip K. Luis, the former curatorial research and publications manager at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Noida, was formally terminated from his post on July 5 due to a Facebook post criticizing an art exhibition celebrating Modi’s “propagandist” radio show at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi. In light of his termination, artists, educators, and scholars across South Asia have rallied in support of Luis by signing petitions and even withdrawing from exhibiting at KNMA.
The Jana Shakti: A Collective Power group exhibition was put together by curator Alka Pande and curatorial advisor, KNMA founder, and art collector Kiran Nadar in celebration of the 100th episode of Modi’s monthly radio program Mann Ki Baat (“Speaking from the heart”), during which he responds to Indian citizens’ concerns and opines on thematic national issues. The exhibition opened on April 30, consisting of works from 12 artists responding to specific themes from Mann Ki Baat segments including water conservation, climate change, yoga and Ayurveda (ancient Indian holistic medical practices), and Indian agriculture, among others.
One day after Modi’s highly publicized visit to NGMA, Luis shared his criticisms of the exhibition and the implications of Nadar’s involvement in a May 15 Facebook post, echoing shared sentiments of many others who denounced the show’s “propagandistic” endorsements of Modi’s Hindu Nationalist government through the majority-rule conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi and the BJP have been criticized internationally for promoting Islamophobia, misogyny, and casteism through encouraging targeted misinformation, suppression of rights, vigilante violence, and mob attacks.
“For we all in the art world still seem to believe, in one way or the other, in Schindler’s List — the gloomy yet soothing bedtime story about a cunning but good industrialist carrying a list of chosen people whom he would rescue from the genocide-to-come (cultural or otherwise),” Luis wrote in his post, drawing connections between Nadar’s position as an art philanthropist and German Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving over 1,000 Jewish people during the Holocaust by employing them.
“As the day of the deluge and cleansing is near, one might desperately try every means to enter the list of the chosen ones prepared by the new art world oligarchs and to board Modi’s Ark. Those who are left behind might perish forever,” Luis’s post continued.
Luis, who was employed at KNMA since 2019, told Hyperallergic that the museum’s head of marketing and reporting manager reached out within days to question him about the post. On May 31, the museum’s Human Resources point person emailed Luis stating that he violated the terms of his employment contract through “comments which are derogatory and not in good taste about the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art” and its leadership, and that he must submit an explanation outlining “why disciplinary action should not be taken by [the museum] against [him].” While he was asked not to attend work until his explanation was reviewed, Luis confirmed with Hyperallergic that he was paid during the suspension.
Luis submitted his explanation on May 31, defending his right to free speech under the Indian government and obligation to critique as a member of the museum’s curatorial team. He also requested clarifications regarding which clauses in his post violated the employment contract. Luis was subsequently served a termination letter on July 5, which he said he did not accept since it “chose to ignore [his] explanation” and failed to illuminate where he violated the contract. Luis took the matter publicly on Facebook, where the story began to circulate widely before gracing national headlines.
Neither KNMA, NGMA, nor the HR employee responded to Hyperallergic’s various requests for comment.
Since Luis went public, artists, educators, and scholars across South Asia and the diaspora have rallied around him in solidarity. Hundreds have signed a letter in support of the statement against Luis’s “arbitrary termination,” and dozens of individuals have shared statements demanding Luis’s reinstatement. In a direct confrontation, renowned Bangladeshi photojournalist, artist, and activist Shahidul Alam has withdrawn from an upcoming exhibition at KNMA that was meant to open later this month.
In his withdrawal letter, which was also provided to Hyperallergic, Alam noted that Luis’s critiques and subsequent termination “clearly position[s] Ms. Nadar, and by association KNMA, on the wrong side of history. I would like to distance myself from that position.”
“I also side with the artists in vigorously protesting the unfair, unethical and arbitrary termination of Dr Sandip K. Luis,” Alam confirmed in his letter before specifying that he would not go through with showcasing his Singed But Not Burnt exhibition, currently at the Wrightwood 659 in Chicago until Saturday, July 15, at KNMA.
As the pressure mounts on the museum to respond and reinstate Luis, the former research and publications manager told Hyperallergic that he gleaned a lot during his four years at the museum and will use what he learned to further explore the possibility of “developing an alternative discourse in contemporary art, both academically and organizationally, from the perspective of the political left.”
“I am planning to reach out to everyone who has expressed their solidarity and offered support, so that we all can collectively explore, and realise what needs to be done,” Luis concluded.