Culture Cameo in Election Cacophony: National museum Gets Its Mojo
This is a fascinating tale of how MD Niche Media Consultants pitchforked a serene art event in the media and into the nation's mindscape in the midst of India's high-octane and boisterous Lok Sabha elections in 2014.
Making a voice heard from the sober precincts of the National Museum bang in the middle of India's cacophonous general elections in 2014 was a challenge that bordered on incredulity. After all, the museum was hosting just an art event - though a colossal one - and finding space for it in the national media, known for its insatiable appetite for politics, was a task fraught with perils and imponderables.
MD Niche decided to become chivalrous, though not in a Don Quixotic way. We had to turn "The Body in Indian Art" into a splendorous exhibition that was an aesthetic voyage into the representation of the body in Indian art spanning four millennia across regions, religions, cultures, philosophies and mythologies.
The task was doubly challenging as we had to save the reputation of the museum itself, which had opened its vaults, along with 43 other exhibitors, to lend some of the never-seen-before objects for the showpiece event. It was the biggest collaboration ever undertaken by the museum: 365 artefacts, including sculptures, paintings, masks, jewellery, textiles and video installations, of exquisite grandeur, mounted in an 18,500 sq ft carpeted area.
Call it our sixth sense, but we realised its potential as a culture humdinger, notwithstanding heavy odds. Our efforts paid off handsomely even before the 11-week, eight-gallery art extravaganza, which began on March 14, had concluded.
The New York Times listed "The Body in Indian Art" in its Global Arts Guide section; Reuters did a 12-photo story; Yahoo! essayed a remarkable write-up. William Dalrymple tweeted about the 'brilliant' exhibition: "…the best exhibition ever mounted by the National Museum- cudos." And India's leading TV channel NDTV carried a 4-minute report on it.
Such was the magnetism of the art event -- amplified by its consistent media appearance -- that even Congress president Sonia Gandhi made an impromptu visit to the museum in the midst of elections.
For us, it was a high-stake assignment. By crafting a dexterous media strategy, we ensured a spectacular coverage for the event, turning it into an iconic showstopper. The museum registered an impressive 25 per cent surge in footfalls as we launched a relentless campaign to embed the event in people's mindscape. They came in droves; some came to the museum after two decades! From a custodian and exhibitor of artefacts, the museum has transitioned into a happening place for the contemporary audience. The burgeoning crowd at the museum in March, considered a lean touristy month, was a badge of honour for us.
The task was easier said than done, though. Besides the cacophony of Indian elections, there was another reason that gave us trepidation: The exhibition was colossal but cerebral too. We were unsure of its reception by the people and the media. We were right. A media preview saw a decent attendance, but the impact in next day's newspapers was almost cipher. Scribes wowed at the objects, but the complexity of its philosophy deterred them from reporting it.
The strategy had to be rejigged. We held a brainstorming with the organisers -- Dr Naman Ahuja, the brilliant curator; Siddartha Chatterjee, the ebullient designer; Dr. Venu V, the enterprising Director-General of National Museum; and the museum's outreach team. We prepared a comprehensive pitch note. In simple terms, we established the majesty of the event, unravelled its mystique and gave several story pegs to newspersons and art critics. This prompted most of them to visit the exhibition even 2-3 times. Once they grasped the essence, there was a deluge in media.
We set the ball rolling by focusing on the objects that had remained in the vaults of provincial museums and private collectors; hence out of public purview. The idea was to trigger interest in the objects first and delve into the philosophical underpinning of the exhibition later. Our first story was lapped up by Times of India. We heaved a sigh of relief. Our reworked strategy took off in the right direction, setting the tone for other newspapers.
Now we can list all top newspapers in the country which carried our press releases or filed their reports –The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Mint, Deccan Herald, The Indian Express, Business Standard, The Financial Express, Business Line, Mail Today, Mid-Day, The Sunday Guardian, Sakal Times, Gulf Today - almost everyone. So did all top Hindi dailies and regional newspapers like Sakshi, Eenadu, Dinakaran, Mathrubhumi and Malayala Manorama.
We constantly fed news agencies with our releases, some of which were taken almost verbatim by newspapers and websites. Impressively, they gave considerable space to the event -- half-page and at times even full-page. We also kept releasing photos of the scintillating objects to the media houses.
Our multi-layered strategy included positioning the event in the country's top magazines. India Today, OPEN, Outlook Traveller, Tehelka, Time Out and The Man featured the event. With MD Niche sustaining the buzz around the event, the popular Brunch, the weekly magazine supplement of The Hindustan Times, carried a story. So did The Speaking Tree, a prestigious supplement of The Times of India on spiritualism.
There were some more happy tidings for us. The Speaking Tree carried an additional report (front page, lead) on the art extravaganza as its lead article. Surely a superlative recognition for us! That was not all. The Times of India, the world's largest daily, even put up a quarter page advertisement on Page 2 about the article in The Speaking Tree that was to appear a day later. The paper came out with the ad on its own. If the ad and the article are to be monetized, they will have a combined value of around Rs 80 lakh!!
Jet Wings International, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways, prominently listed the event. And, Vogue (India) carried an in-depth analysis of this splendid art show.
Targeting regional and vernacular newspapers was a key aspect of the strategy. Since the artefacts had come from different state museums, we targeted media in those states and issued press releases in English as well as regional languages like Malayalam and Odiya. Our press release appearing in Odisha dailies prompted state chief minister Naveen Patnaik to make an unannounced visit to the Museum in Delhi where he evinced keen interest in artefacts, particularly the medieval stone sculptures of Ashtadigpalas (guardians of eight directions) lent by the state museum.
The exhibition was an incredible depiction of the body in its scale and depth. In each of the eight specially-designed galleries, it depicted both the thesis and the antithesis. The trail followed no chronological order; instead, it went by themes such as death, rebirth, heroism, asceticism and rapture. We highlighted all these aspects in our releases, triggering interest among newspersons.
The total article size in the print media in just 17 days (March 14-31) was 32,663 sq cm - bigger than the floor area of the exhibition! The impact was staggering by the time it concluded on June 7 as India finished with its election process by mid-May, and space was not be a crunch in newspapers.
One strategy that worked in attracting art cognoscenti, commoners and media was the Curator's Walk. We made it a high point of the event by getting it listed in newspapers. Ahuja, who teaches art and architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is blessed with oratorical brilliance and story-telling ability. We latched on those attributes as people came in droves to hear him explain the idea behind the exhibition and the story behind the objects.
We also leveraged the platform of the museum's monthly lecture series, wherein museum experts and art historians deliver lectures. In March, it was the turn of Mr. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. The famous art historian talked about the art show during his lecture on the role of exhibitions in the revival of museums. A press release on it gave us good publicity.
For us, it was a task accomplished. Museums have a stereotypical image of being elite spaces for art exhibitions. We played our part in altering that perception. If the exhibition saw the attendance of celebrities like Nobel laureate and former Costa Rica President, Mr. Oscar Arias Sanchez, William Dalrymple, Romila Thapar, Anjali Ela Menon, Dr Karan Singh, Feroze Gujral and Ritu Kumar, it also saw a group of army jawans discussing art with their wives. It was our moment of triumph. We were thrilled when some inquisitive gun-wielding CISF women personnel on duty at the museum sought information on the art objects and the concept of 'sunyata' (nothingness) on display at the event.
What happens when you go to a museum exhibition: you look at the objects, marvel at them and forget. This one was different. Our idea was to make people experience and converse with the objects. We projected the exhibition. Alongside, we rescued the idea of a museum. We upped the excitement quotient, catapulting the museum to a new high.
If the museum broke all the rules to mount the mammoth exhibition in about a month's time; we broke all the clichés to ensure a proportionate media coverage, positioning it as an event both for the urban intelligentsia and the commoners.
The affirmation for our efforts came when a museum official remarked: "The exhibition has experienced sort of overkill in the media. Incredible! Great work!" Well, we would not like to disagree with the official.