Scheduled to begin on 11 May, the Venice Biennale will have an India pavilion this time around, where an exhibition inspired by Gandhian ideas will be hosted. Works of eight modern and contemporary artists are to be displayed there, writes Bhumika Popli.
For the first time in eight years, there will be an India pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. This facility will host an India-specific exhibition on the theme of “Hundred and Fifty Years of Mahatma Gandhi”, entitled Our Time for a Future Calling, in which eight artists are participating.
The biennale is set to open on 11 May and runs till the end of November. On display at the Indian pavilion will be a range of paintings, installations and photographs, by leading modern and contemporary artists.
Tempera works by the renowned artist Nandalal Bose, which were commissioned by Mahatma Gandhi himself, will be among the highlights of the Indian exhibition. Likewise, an M.F. Husain painting entitled Zameen.
Spearheaded by the government of India’s Ministry of Culture, this exhibition is conceptualised by three different Indian organisations. It is chiefly curated by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), with support from the Confederation of Indian Industry and National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA).
Adwaita Gadanayak, director general, NGMA, believes that Gandhi’s relevance to the present times makes him an appropriate subject for an international cultural event of the scale of the Venice Biennale. “Given the present situation in the world, the principles laid by Mahatma Gandhi, such as nonviolence and equality among different sections of society, are all the more relevant today. When people belonging to other ethnicities will visit the Biennale, they will very well relate to Gandhian values,” he says.
Those values are embodied in the tempera posters painted by Nandalal Bose, which are now owned by the NGMA. The posters, soon to be on view at the Biennale, feature ordinary people: cobblers, tailors, potters etc. The posters were commissioned by Gandhi and were used to decorate a pandal at a 1938 Indian National Congress session, held at the Haripura village in Gujarat. Gadanayak says, “Gandhi believed in people who were attached to their roots and for him Bose was one such artist.”
Delhi-based gallerist Kiran Nadar spoke to Guardian 20 about the approach taken by her gallery curator, Roobina Karode, who has played a central role in putting together the India show. Nadar says, “The curatorial call was to bring forth those artworks which have some linkages with the thoughts of Gandhi. It is assumed that there will be a very exciting response by the viewers as the pavilion is long overdue. Even the tiny countries have had their presence in the past and India has been substantially missing.”
Jitish Kallat’s installation piece, Covering Letter (2012), brings a historical element to the show. It is a visual projection of a letter on a curtain. The letter was written in 1939, by Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, as an appeal that Hitler abjure his violent politics.
Like many of Kallat’s previous works, Covering Letter too provides viewers lessons on the past and urges them to think about the future. Kallat says, “The immersive work is a piece of historical correspondence beamed onto a curtain. There is a sense of perplexity in the way that Gandhi words his address, as the principal proponent of peace from a historical moment. He greets Hitler, one of the most violent individuals of that era, as a friend. Like many of Gandhi’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.”
Another artwork that has travelled to Venice is G.R. Iranna’s installation entitled Naavu, which is Kannada for “we together”. It represents Gandhi’s philosophy of togetherness. As part of this installation, Iranna has mounted as many as 1,500 wooden sandals, popularly known as paduks, on the wall. The reference is to Gandhi’s protest campaign against the British that began with Dandi March on 12 March 1930.
“I have used padukas because it is a symbol of spirituality as seen throughout history. More than 1,500 padukas are displayed towards a single direction on the wall. Once you go closer, towards the padukas, you see different elements like scissors and hammers, either painted over or attached to the footwear. My idea was to make a statement of unity, as was seen in Dandi March,” says Iranna.
Considered a Mecca for art enthusiasts, the Venice Biennale is known for promoting multidisciplinary art. So it is an ideal setting for the performance artist Shakuntala Kulkarni. On display at the India show are photos of Kulkarni, from her 2010 show Of Bodies, Armor, and Cages, for which she walked on the streets of Bombay in an armour suit made of wood.
With this project, her idea was to demand a safe space for women all over the world. She says, “Gandhiji believed in nonviolence and also in having a critical sense of things. My work too talks about the violation of the female body in the public and private spaces through the armour. I have been following rape cases in the newspapers for a long time and the news earlier used to appear at the corner of the page in every newspaper. Only nowadays proper reporting on violations on the female body has started. But still, we have a lot to do. I have been working on such issues faced by women since the ’90s.”
The other artists from India included in this show are Atul Dodiya, Ashim Purkayatha and the late Rummana Hussain.