The art of the matter
The Indian pavillion at the 58th Venice Biennale has been adjudged among the top 10, reinforcing the country as an international force to reckon with in the field of contemporary creativity
Mahatma Gandhi never travelled to Venice. Not until 2019, when Indian artists journeyed to the eternally romantic Italian city with works inspired by Gandhiji’s philosophy of peace and non-violence. This year, after a hiatus of eight years, India’s representation at the Venice Biennale, the world’s largest and most reputed art extravaganza, is being hailed not just for creative thoughts but for it being themed on Gandhian philosophy. The fact that it has been listed among the top 10 country pavilions from a total of 90 by the Financial Times and leading art website artsy.net, alongside the US, Switzerland, Poland and debut country Ghana, speaks a lot about our creativity backed by Gandhiji’s thoughts.
There are eight Indian artists, such as Nandalal Bose, MF Husain, Jitish Kallat and Atul Dodiya showcasing at the official India Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale (on till November 24). Other than them, contemporary artists like Gauri Gill, Shilpa Gupta and Soham Gupta, who have won global critical acclaim with their work are represented as part of the main exhibition of the Biennale curated by Ralph Rugoff, an American curator and the man behind the 2019 edition of the event. India debuted at the biennale, with a national pavilion in 2011, nearly 116 years after the event first started! In 1931, Gandhiji had visited Rome and in a letter to a friend he wrote that he found Mussolini (Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini) a riddle. Gandhiji also wrote a letter about Adolf Hitler. It is this piece of history that artist Jitish Kallat brings to life in his immersive installation Covering Letter, one of the key displays of the Indian pavillion at the Venice Biennale. The letter unfolds, projected upon a smoky screen where Gandhiji’s words and signature are scrawled, making the viewer a witness in history.
The India Pavilion has been the result of the joint efforts of the National Gallery of Modern Art, acting as commissioner, and the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) as partners. It has been curated by Roobina Karode, the chief curator of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA). “I didn’t conceive the exhibition as a literal representation of Gandhiji in a documentary-like format, or by resurrecting him from the archives,” says Karode. Adding, “Gandhiji’s image/presence is not fixed in time and space. He keeps returning to public conscience in periods of crisis or despair. He is not a subject that rests only in sentiment or nostalgia. Rather he is the subject of contemporary reflection. I was more inclined to look at aspects of his practice. And also the idea of craft, dignity of labour and emphasis on self-reliance.”
India’s participation in the Biennale this year comes as welcome relief and will work as an impetus to the Indian art fratenity, that has for long lamented India’s sporadic presence at global art events. “It is an exciting time for India, which is being represented at international museums like the MET Breuer in New York, for example, documenta, is an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, and now the Venice Biennale,” observes Shanay Jhaveri, who is the assistant curator of the South Asian Art section at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET). Jhaveri has been promoting Indian artists and the MET hosted a retrospective of late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi and is currently hosting a solo show of sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee.
Since India Pavilion happened only once before, the curatorial team has deliberated a substantial representation of eight Indian artists in a 530 sq. mt. area. “We have opted for the space to be fluid, evoking resonances through the works displayed, keeping the temperament of the pavilion meditative to pause and reflect. I chose not to have a symmetrical design of the space, wishing for more odd edges and unusual encounters,” says Karode.
Jitish Kallat reveals the story behind his work Covering Letter. “Every visitor brings in different personal, social and historical experiences to the work, in a way altering its meaning,” says Kallat. Covering Letter, much like his three Public Notice works, reflects on an utterance from history that might be repurposed to re-think the present. He tells us that the work is a piece of historical correspondence beamed onto a curtain of traversable dry-fog; a brief letter written by Gandhiji to Adolf Hitler in 1939 urging the German leader to reconsider his violent means. “There is a sense of perplexity in the way that Gandhiji words his address; as the principal proponent of peace from a historical moment,” muses Kallat. “Like many of Gandhiji’s gestures and his life experiments, this piece of correspondence seems like an open letter destined to travel beyond its delivery date and intended recipient – a letter written to anyone, anytime, anywhere,” he explains.
Karode and her curatorial team chose artist Atul Dodiya’s Broken Branches because it struck a “universal chord” and revolves around the dialogue of violence. “What is perhaps sad is that this work of mine is still relevant today, and the violence continues,” observes Dodiya. The installation consists of nine wooden cabinets with hand-coloured framed photographs, prosthetic limbs, tools, found objects and other memorabilia.
In a similar vein, artist GR Iranna revisits his 2010 work featuring padukas or holy slippers. “The installation is titled Naavu, a Kannada word that stands for hum, or in English, together. It is symbolic of when we are all united and stand in solidity for a cause,” says Iranna. The work features hundreds of padukas, displayed in a heap, and also tacked to the wall as if people were walking across the walls and ceiling together. In India, padukas are worn by monks and other holy acolytes, and reflects the principle of peace and non-violence. Attached to each of the footwear is a little object that indicates a profession or religion, like a pair of scissors. “This stands for their individuality and indicates that while we are together we continue to retain our unique identity,” says Iranna. Grains of sand attached to the padukas indicate that the footwear is worn by people walking near the sea and this alludes to Gandhiji’s march to Dandi to protest a draconian rule enforced in British-India.
The late Rummana Hussain is represented by one of her most significant works: Fragments. It consists of a broken pot or “tomb”, and it speaks of loss, of silence; laid bare on mirrors. While another Husain by Maqbool Fida Husain, is represented through his painting, Zameen. A historic work that brings together ruminations on India’s syncretic nature of India’s past.
The pavillion becomes even more relevant as India celebrated Gandhiji’s 150 birth anniversary last year and the relevance of his philosophies ring true in today’s violent world. “The exhibition attempts to evaluate the relevance of Gandhian values in the contemporary world,” says Karode, adding, “it’s unfortunate but true that even today, we need his experiments with truth to guide us!”