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Gandhi, Guernica, and an India pavilion at the Venice Biennale

  • India returns to the Venice Biennale after an eight-year hiatus with '150 years of Gandhi' theme
  • Works by pioneering Bengal School artist Nandalal Bose and contemporary artist Jitish Kallat will be part of this exhibition

A Gandhi statue in Udupi, Karnataka.
A Gandhi statue in Udupi, Karnataka.

In 2011, India announced that it would participate in the Venice Biennale for the first time in the art event’s storied, 116-year history. Art critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote was tasked with producing a national pavilion. It was titled “Everyone Agrees: It’s About To Explode". The exhibition, like the theme, was tentative.

After this late arrival to the global art party, India was a no-show in the next edition in 2013. Indian artists have been occasionally invited to participate in the Biennale’s other sections, and this continued to happen. In 2013, for instance, the German pavilion showed the works of photographic artist Dayanita Singh; the idea was to question the basis of identity. Speaking to me later, Singh said that even as she received praise for her work, she felt “a little bit ashamed".

It isn’t that Singh is easily shamed. It is that countries like Angola, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Bangladesh and Maldives have all had national pavilions. Even the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, forecast to be one of the first countries to disappear due to rising sea levels, put forward its first national pavilion in 2013 to highlight the effects of global warming on the island. India was absent in the next two editions as well, although Delhi-based art patron Feroze Gujral sponsored an unofficial joint India-Pakistan pavilion in 2015.

Unlike art fairs, a biennale—which has no direct commercial proposition for visitors—allows artists and curators to chart new routes in contemporary art and public discourse. It allows room for statements, both spectacular and sharp.

Pablo Picasso painted Guernica—now one of the most recognizable anti-war images—as an immediate reaction to the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of Guernica. It was a commission by the Spanish Republican government, displayed at the 1937 World Fair in Paris and then at other venues around the globe, focusing worldwide attention on the Spanish Civil War.

The messaging of India’s sophomore appearance is loud and clear—we’re playing Gandhi, our trump card. It is in keeping with UK-based curator Ralph Rugoff’s overall theme for the Biennale this year, “May You Live in Interesting Times", which considers the role of art in response to the current political climate, especially in the context of fake news and alternative facts.

As a lead-up to the 58th edition of the Biennale (11 May-24 November), an IANS wire report on Wednesday announced that India will extend Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations to the Venice Biennale with a pavilion themed on 150 years of Gandhi. While the Union ministry of culture hasn’t made an official announcement yet, Nirupama Kotru, joint secretary in the ministry, confirmed the news on email. It is a somewhat complex network of roles: “…organized under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture, with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) as a partner, the Director General of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) as commissioner and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) as curator."

Gujral, who had been campaigning for an India Pavilion since 2011, is missing from this list. Over the phone, Gujral tells me she “backed off" in January after a string of delays. “That said, for me, it’s really important that it’s happening. We turn up for the Olympics, for Davos…art and culture seem to be a poor cousin. But this is our power more than sports by a long shot."

Given the theme for the India Pavilion, it is interesting that both Pakistan and Ghana will make their debuts this year—as recently as December, a statue of Gandhi was pulled down at the University of Ghana campus following protests against his racist views.

‘Covering Letter’ (2012) by Jitish Kallat. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art
‘Covering Letter’ (2012) by Jitish Kallat. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

From Haripura to Hitler

“The whole list will be ready within two-three days, but the pavilion starts with Nandalal Bose’s Haripura Posters and ends in the 21st century, featuring Jitish Kallat and other young artists of today," says Adwaita Gadanayak, director general, NGMA.

Gandhi’s views on art appear to be more generous than his views on film. “Gandhi wrote letters to Bose, where he felt that artists should recognize the value of their art and use it correctly," he says, adding, “It is the right time to present Gandhi and everything he stood for."

Not everyone agrees. “The singular celebration of Gandhi as a symbol at this point in our history as a nation and broader region is ridiculous," a curator told me on condition of anonymity.

Aparajita Jain, co-director of Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery, is glad that the overriding message is that of peace. “One hopes that the artworks that get selected are not too direct," she says, “This should not be about Gandhi but the values he embodied."

Tarana Sawhney, chairperson of the CII task force on art and culture, as well as Kiran Nadar, are at great pains to state that the pavilion is themed on the relevance of Gandhi’s philosophy today. “In the exhibition…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…," says Nadar (see interview).

But with Bose’s Haripura Posters, on loan from the NGMA, the connection is too direct, too steeped in India’s political history: In 1935, Gandhi sought Bose’s help to install art at the Lucknow session of the Congress. Bose built a team that would create installations for Congress sessions in Faizpur in Uttar Pradesh and Haripura in Gujarat. The choice of Bose, as someone who has illustrated the Constitution of India, is a fair one. But the Haripura Posters themselves, depicting hunters, musicians and bull handlers, are a far cry from his elegant woodcut- and Japanese watercolour-inspired paintings. They are simplistic works of propaganda.

‘Cobbler’, Haripura Congress Panel (1937) by Nandalal Bose. Photo: National Gallery of Modern Art
‘Cobbler’, Haripura Congress Panel (1937) by Nandalal Bose. Photo: National Gallery of Modern Art

Kallat’s Covering Letter (2012), on the other hand, is an immersive installation. Projected on to a curtain of fog, it presents a historical letter by Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, written weeks before the start of World War II. In the spirit of his doctrine of universal friendship, Gandhi begins the letter with the greeting “Dear friend."

“It is a work that speaks to our times in a pertinent way," says Kallat, commenting on its inclusion at the Biennale. “While it’s a plea from a great proponent of peace to one of the most violent individuals who ever lived, it is equally an open invitation for self-reflection."

Covering Letter has been exhibited internationally in Philadelphia, Sydney, Mumbai and Paris. What does it mean for it to be exhibited now, in a year when India’s defence activities have been prime-time news? “The Venice Biennale is a symbolic congregation of nations and it creates an environment for a work like this to speak," says Kallat, adding that it was shown in Philadelphia three days after Donald Trump came to power and east coast Americans were walking into the installation and weeping. “Artworks find meaning as times change."

Whose Gandhi is it?

The India Pavilion is an important milestone in terms of public-private partnership in the art and culture space, which has largely been tricky territory. “The government has paid for the space, NGMA has loaned works, CII has been a co-organizer all along and KNMA will do the last mile," says Sawhney.

CII’s first arts and culture task force is in itself a step forward. “We’ve been working on this since August 2018," Sawhney says over the phone from London, where she is at present finalizing details.

While many national pavilions are supported by private organizations, the Union government has been reluctant. For a country to endorse a private exhibition can be a tricky proposition as personal and commercial agendas can mix with public ones.

Sawhney adds that the announcement would have happened two-three weeks ago if not for the ongoing tension. “Finally, we felt we had to make an announcement ahead of the Venice Biennale’s press conference," she says.

“The idea is to do it in a way that there’s longevity," she adds. Let’s hope there isn’t a gap of eight years between this and the next one and the India Pavilion becomes a regular feature. Kotru says this is definitely the plan. If longevity is the goal, Gandhi is the ideal mascot.

—With inputs from Radhika Iyengar

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