After an eight-year hiatus, India will make a crucial return at the Venice Biennale (11 May-24 November), the world’s oldest and most prestigious art event held every two years. With the theme “150 years of Gandhi", this is the second time India will participate, after 2011. In a historic first, the Union ministry of culture and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) will collaborate with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), a private cultural institution; the latter is responsible for curating the art. Ahead of the official press conference for the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale, Lounge spoke to KNMA founder Kiran Nadar. Edited excerpts:
What are your thoughts on “150 years of Gandhi" as a theme, in relation to the present political climate in India?
This was a theme picked by the government for the pavilion. They were very keen to do 150 years of Gandhi and look at the situation as it stands today. So we are doing whatever we can to translate it in more ways than one, because Gandhi’s ideals are not just important in relation to the last 150 years, they will be relevant in the future as well.
Will the works exhibited be direct interpretations of Gandhi or his values?
There isn’t going to be a direct reference to his values, but it will be alluded to in all the works. In the exhibition, we start with Nandalal Bose’s Haripura posters (created for the 1938 Congress session in Haripura, Gujarat) and then we have imaginary conversations with Gandhi and various Modern artists. So it’s not about the charkha or Khadi; we are trying to make it more intellectual, trying to give people an image of the way he was in the larger sense.
Given the time frame, what are some of the gaps that need to be filled?
Our curator, Roobina Karode, is in Venice and we are trying to see the allotted space for the pavilion. Depending on how big the space eventually turns out to be, we’ll know how many artists we can fit in. As of now, we have six-seven artists who are currently in our plan, but we aren’t sure whether the venue will be able to hold all of them. We will make an official announcement at Art Dubai (20-23 March).
Will an official Indian pavilion at the biennale amplify Indian art’s presence internationally?
The pavilion in 2011 was just one and then they stopped completely. There was nothing for the following seven editions. So the revival of this pavilion is crucial. It’s important to have the India Pavilion because it puts Indian art on the map. Indian art, compared to other countries, hasn’t had the traction that we require. Being part of the Venice Biennale is very important for a country like ours. Other smaller countries, like Azerbaijan, have pavilions—I would never have imagined that they would have a pavilion before us. So really, the importance of such a biennale cannot be underestimated.
How did the public-private collaboration come about?
The CII played a big role in this. They wanted the government to work on a public-private partnership, because the government was unwilling to fund the entire sum that was required for participation. The only thing it was willing to pay for was the venue. This cannot be brokered through a private individual—it has to go from the Indian government to the Venice Biennale. So there had to be government participation. Plus, the National Gallery of Modern Art is loaning works for the show. KNMA is the principal partner and the curator.
Will new works be commissioned or will you be picking works which are already part of the artists’ oeuvre?
The biennale made the India Pavilion decision only two weeks ago, so that doesn’t leave us with much time for new works to be commissioned. While we might commission a work or two, by and large we will be looking at earlier works. But, hopefully, these will be works which have not been shown before.
What has the process been for you so far?
It’s very nerve-racking. We are in the middle of the devil and the deep sea, and we are trying to find ways to hopefully reach the shore. There’s still lots of be done. Having said that, it is very exciting, but I wish we had more time to plan it properly.