At the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale, titled as ‘May You Live in Interesting Times,’ India marks its presence for the second time following an interval of eight long years. The exhibition ‘Our time for a future caring,’ at the Indian Pavilion revolves around the ongoing celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gandhi. The display highlights some of the rich artistic works that have been created in response to the memory and philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi, from the previous century to the present day. Hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), the show is curated by Roobina Karode. The artists showcased at the pavilion include, Nandalal Bose, M F Husain, Rummana Hussain, Atul Dodiya, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Ashim Purkayastha, Jitish Kallat and G R Iranna.
PB: It took India nearly 116 years to reach Venice for the first time in 2011, followed by a gap of 8 years. According to you, why there have been these voids in India’s participation?
Kiran Nadar: After an 8 year hiatus, India makes a crucial return to the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest and most prestigious art event with the theme ‘150 years of Gandhi.’ This is only the second time that India has participated, which makes the revival of the pavilion so crucial. Through this, we hope to establish a sustainable private-public partnership model that can be replicated with ease in the future. We feel the India Pavilion is important because it puts Indian art on the map, bringing with it recognition and awareness of our country’s rich artistic heritage and talent. It is so important that we maintain our presence at the Venice Biennale, to help open up different avenues and nurture the talent of Indian artists.
Director General, NGMA: Lalit Kala Akademi (the National Academy of Arts) organized and managed the India Pavilion in 2011. Afterwards, no one came forward to take on this responsibility because there was no impetus from the artists’ community and the government did not consider the Venice Biennale seriously. This is the first time the NGMA has created the pavilion in collaboration with private bodies and the experience has been great. I am hopeful that the India Pavilion will become a regular fixture in the coming editions, as we are in discussion with the government and the Director of the Venice Biennale to acquire a permanent space for India.
Jitish Kallat: India’s long-standing absence from a platform like the Venice Biennale, even when much smaller countries manage to participate, represents the continual neglect of our successive governments when it comes to art and culture. I hope this participation is not just a one-off instance and it will inspire the government to engage more productively in the art and culture of this country.
PB: The successful presentation of the Indian Pavilion is an outcome of the collaboration between the government and private institutions. Do you feel that this partnership will help open a path for the India pavilion at the Venice Biennale from now onwards?
Kiran Nadar: Working with the public-private partnership enabled various different organisations to join forces, including the NGMA, CII, Ministry of Culture and us at KNMA. It is crucial to have the government involved as pavilions are only allocated through their association. They also provide access to national treasures works such as Nandalal Bose’s ‘Haripura Posters’ (1937) which are currently on display.
‘Our Time for a Future Caring’ celebrates the indelible memory of Mahatma Gandhi, his philosophies, his ideas on peace and non-violence, his democratic politics, and the many facets of his personality which continue to live in the Indian public and intellectual space, through the participating artists’ interpretation. The government was very keen to tie the pavilion in with the anniversary celebrations taking place across India. So, we are doing whatever we can to express this 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.
PB: The folk-inspired ‘Haripura Posters’ created by Nandalal Bose and commissioned by Gandhi in a suite of tempera on paper depicting India’s rural life, are also a part of the exhibition. How do you see the juxtaposition of these period panels with the surrounding contemporary works? What kinds of dialogues do they generate?
Director General, NGMA: When we talk about the ‘150 years of Gandhi,’ we are also discussing the journey of Nandalal Bose and a later generation of artists who are continuing to connect with Gandhi and his philosophies. The ‘Haripura Posters’ were a kind of inaugural form of public art in India, a term that came to define them much later. So, when we look at these works today, they feel very contemporary. In this exhibition Bose stands like the base or the main pillar of the show and the other artists seem like the branches.
PB: How do you feel to be in the Indian Pavilion? Does it mean anything different from other large-scale exhibitions?
Ashim Purkayastha: The experience of working alongside so many curators and artists from around the world was a first for me. Painting onsite made the event truly unique and allowed me to develop an intimate relationship with the space. The innumerable visitors are so sensitive and patient in the way they look at the works and read each and every text. I was also impressed by the state’s involvement in every aspect, which I have not seen in the pavilions of many other countries.
G R Iranna: The Venice Biennale is one of the largest exhibitions in the world. You can’t compare it to any other show for the quality of its audience. Curators, writers, artists, and collectors from every corner of the globe visit the Biennale. And your work is valued not in terms of money, but recognition on an international platform. I have been a part of many international exhibitions before, but nothing quite on the same scale as the Venice Biennale. I think the opinions, criticism and appreciation on so many different levels really makes you learn about your work.
PB: The innumerable padukas (wooden holy slippers), pinned to the wall like a mass of energy, look astounding. How have visitors responded to the installation? What are the connotations associated with the various objects attached and painted imageries on each of these padukas?
G R Iranna: The paduka symbolizes non-violence. The saints used to wear them instead of leather footwear because leather is grounded in violence against animals. In the pavilion, each and every object attached or painted on the padukas symbolises a person from each religion, caste and profession – comprising a multitude of stories. When you see the work from a distance, it seems like a river flowing with vigour down the wall. It starts with a small streak that expands gradually to a width of 15 feet. The title of the work is the Kannada word ‘Naavu,’ which means ‘we all together’ and has a spiritual meaning that describes the fading away of ego and violence. The wooden paduka was new and surprising for most people at the Biennale. These were collected by me from different sites across India and are a crucial part of my process.
PB: Your work ‘Covering Letter’ (2012) - written by Gandhi to Hitler in 1939 – creates an inimitable experience with its immersive format as a video projection which viewers can walk through. How do you think this letter is read differently today?
Jitish Kallat: At the centre of ‘Covering Letter’ is the viewer. Every visitor brings a different personal, social and historical experience to the work that entirely alters its meaning. The context and the moment in which the work is viewed also add further layers of meaning. For instance, just two days prior to the work being exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Donald Trump was voted to power at the end of a very toxic and divisive election. This development completely changed the reading of ‘Covering Letter.’ I would say that Gandhi’s words to Hitler could be equally addressed to anyone, at any given point in time, as they encourage self-reflection and introspection.
PB: How do you anticipate that visitors will react to and engage with your work? What will they take away from their visit to the India Pavilion?
Jitish Kallat: As an artist I try to avoid guessing how an individual might react or what they will take away from a work. As I said, every visitor will bring in their own biography and even biology to the experience of the work.
G R Iranna: I always want my viewers to carry something with them. The work should force them to think. The work should overpower the ego, like a mountain or a field of energy greater than our selves. I want energy to be like truth. As Gandhi used to say; no one can beat the Truth.