The India Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale seeks to interpret Gandhian values in a contemporary context
The exhibition, Our Time for a Future Caring, marks India’s second stint at the biennale after a hiatus of eight years
The historic pavilions of Giardini and Arsenale are all set to serve as a backdrop to works by eight Indian artists, such as Nandalal Bose, M.F. Husain, Jitish Kallat and Atul Dodiya. Part of the exhibition Our Time For A Future Caring, these works mark India’s second stint at the 58th Venice Biennale (11 May- 24 November)—the world’s oldest and most prestigious art event—after a hiatus of eight years. The country’s debut at the biennale, with a national pavilion, came about only in 2011—nearly 116 years after the event first started—with Everyone Agrees: It’s About To Explode, curated by Ranjit Hoskote. In subsequent years, India was conspicuous by its absence, even as countries such as Angola, Georgia, Maldives and Tuvalu continued to participate. There was a murmur of a presence in 2015 when Delhi-based art patron Feroze Gujral commissioned a project, My East Is Your West, as a collateral event at the 56th Venice Biennale. Which is why India’s return to the biennale is significant, especially since “the event is an important platform for the best of their artists (of the participating nations), as well as an opportunity to conduct soft diplomacy through culture," noted a recent Guardian article.
One wonders if India has taken the most obvious route by falling back on the figure of Mahatma Gandhi, though, at a time when the Nordic pavilion is presenting Weather Report: Forecasting Future, based on the changing relationship between humans and other organisms, or when Russia’s State Hermitage Museum is interpreting the Gospel of Luke through director Alexander Sokurov’s installation.
The organizers disagree. Presented by the Union ministry of culture and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), in collaboration with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Our Time For A Future Caring is an attempt to evaluate the relevance of Gandhian values in the contemporary world. According to Kiran Nadar, founder, KNMA, the biggest consideration was to select artists who have had a long-standing engagement with Gandhi.
With India’s inclusion in the biennale having been decided barely six-eight months ago, however, no new works could be commissioned, barring Ashim Purkayastha’s installation Shelter. Both Nadar and Tarana Sawhney, chairperson, CII task force on art and culture, maintain that none of the works are literal representations of Gandhi’s life. “You can see his influences in the use of materials, about going back to basics, and in the meditative nature of the works," says Sawhney.
There is a striking image of Shakuntala Kulkarni, dressed in bamboo and metal armour, sitting on Juhu beach. Seven such photographs of the Mumbai-based artist, in which she has donned kinds of armour to highlight the violation of the body in public and private spaces, can be seen at the India Pavilion. The trigger was a walk on a summer evening in 2006, when hot tar fell on her. “My thoughts flew to the ordeal of acid attack victims and how unsafe it was to walk on the streets. The armour is not just a metaphor for protection but also for the feeling of being trapped," she says.
Many of Kulkarni’s photo performances are also about protecting and reclaiming spaces and cultures that are fast vanishing. So, you have a photograph of her standing on a pillar outside Ashok Tower, which was earlier Morarjee Mills.
Farmers and Holy Water(2013), Shelter (2018-19)
The biennale showcases Ashim Purkayastha’s long-standing engagement with postage stamps in works such as Holy Water . Since moving to Delhi from Santiniketan in 1998, he has been creating miniature images on stamp paper: some grim, others laced with subtle humour. His series Farmers dwells on the fact that revenue from stamps never reaches the tillers of the soil.
Purkayastha is one of the few artists who is showing a new work at the India Pavilion. “I love walking around in Delhi, and always end up picking up stones wherever I go. Six-eight months ago, I realized that none of these stones tell the story of where they hail from," he says. So Purkayastha started covering them with rice paper and painting on them. “These stones could be seen as symbols of violence, or as tools to build a house," he says. The artist chose the latter and built an installation, Shelter. It is representative of the evasive dream chased by many migrants to the city.
Created in 1955, soon after the creation of Mumbai’s Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), Zamin presents M.F. Husain at his best. Featuring the late artist’s signature sharp angular lines, the work is a large horizontal oil on canvas which explores the relationship between man and soil. “It is from that period when each artist from the Progressive group was trying to create an individual identity, while looking at the idea of modernism in an independent India," says Adwaita Gadanayak, director general, National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). The painting features earthy colours along with Husain’s trademark motifs such as the rooster. “The drawings feature basic line and form. It has a simplicity which even Gandhiji advocated all his life," he adds.
Conflux, dissected projection(1993)
In the works by the late Rummana Hussain, one can see everyday objects come together to create a narrative about the personal and the political. For instance, Conflux has a halved terracotta pot, lying upturned on a black tile. The lopsided pot allows geru, a vivid natural pigment, to spill through, symbolizing violence and conflict. Dissected Projection features broken pieces of terracotta and wood on a mirror. It makes one wonder about the disjointed reality and the perception of it when viewed through a mirror. “Being a woman who lived through the Babri Masjid riots turned her practice by 360 degrees. That moment affected how she addressed herself as a woman," says Shireen Gandhy of Gallery Chemould, who showed these works in 1994.
Broken Branches (2002)
Atul Dodiya first made Broken Branches in 2002 as nine cabinets, in response to the communal tension that had been building up in the country since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. “(In the work) I talk about Gandhi in an oblique way. The idea was how constructing or structuring something is difficult, but destroying it is easy," he says. The artist wanted to capture the sorrow, pain and hopelessness of those who lost everything in the violence. Each cabinet has found objects, photographs of Gandhi, the Twin Towers, as well as construction tools and prosthetic limbs, which are elements of hope, resurgence and the building of new lives. “Each cabinet is around 4ft wide, 6.5ft tall and 7 inches deep. I had not done three-dimensional works before this. I felt 3D suited the immediacy and realistic nature of the theme of the work," says Dodiya. The cabinets have always been displayed in an L shape; in Venice, all nine are being displayed in one row for a full frontal view.
Naavu (We are together) (2012)
From afar, G.R. Iranna’s installation looks like a haphazard pile of padukas—age-old wooden footwear—but go closer and you realize that each piece tells a story. Wood has been paired with found objects, collected by Iranna from across Delhi. There is one featuring a pair of scissors, which possibly once belonged to a barber. Another is embellished with anklets.
In the installation, on view at the India Pavilion, it feels like 2,500 of these padukas are inching their way across the walls and the ground. “The work has been inspired by the Dandi March, an event when no one thought about caste, creed or religion. Everyone was united by one cause," says Iranna. He calls the march a deeply spiritual act, one imbued with activism.
Covering Letter (2012)
An immersive installation and video projection, Covering Letter is inspired by a letter sent by Gandhi, the biggest proponent of non-violence, to Adolf Hitler, the most brutal perpetrator of violence, just weeks before World War II. Even though the work has been exhibited extensively across the world, the reading of it changes with each viewing. “It was shown as a solo exhibition by the Philadelphia Museum of Art barely days after the election results were announced in the US and Donald Trump came to power. Covering Letter touched a chord with an audience which was living through a very tense and dense political climate," says Jitish Kallat. He says that at the heart of this work is the viewer, who walks through the letter, briefly inhabiting the white corridor between two extreme world-views. “Within this triangulation lies a space of self-reflection for the viewer."
Haripura Posters (1937)
These were created when Gandhi commissioned Nandalal Bose to decorate the pandal for the session of the Indian National Congress at Haripura. With concepts drawn from the daily lives of people and the rural landscape, the set of 16 posters features local materials such as handmade paper stretched on strawboard and natural pigments. “You can sense the connection between Gandhi and Bose, with the artist having translated the former’s thoughts on to the panels," says Adwaita Gadanayak of the NGMA, which has loaned these works for the biennale.