Mahatma Gandhi in Venice

Indian art marches ahead for the second time at the Venice Biennale  with ideologies of the Mahatma

Published: 12th May 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th May 2019 06:22 PM   |  A+A-

Delhi-based artist Ashim Purakayastha has built a hut-shaped installation using 350 stones albeit cement. The “jhuggi”, as he calls it, is a work-in-progress and represents the lament of the underprivileged sections of society who lack a permanent shelter, thus leading to encroachment in cities. The metaphor doesn’t end there for the stones of the hut are often used as savage weapons. The installation’s underlying themes are violence, discrimination and poverty in our society.

They are also the crux of the fight Mahatma Gandhi led during his lifetime. “I am not a Gandhi bhakt and this work only means to juxtapose non-violence and violence. I was born in Assam where violence and identity crisis is an ongoing problem. Their effect on my conscious mind has channelled my internal protest into my work,” says the artist. Gandhi has arrived in Venice, the city of lovers. For six months, it will be the city of art lovers. La Biennale di Venezia, better known as the Venice Biennale, with its 124-year legacy is the Olympics of the art world. 

It’s not just a big career opportunity for international artists, but also changes the way the world sees their countries. The 58th edition of the event, which opened on May 11 in the Italian city,  continues till November 24 with more than 90 countries bootstrapping to secure their position at this global art pageant. The theme for this year is ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ and India is returning only for the second time after a eight-year hiatus. Unlike other art fairs, a biennale has no direct commercial proposition for visitors. 

It simply allows artists 
and curators to present contemporary art and render public discourse on socio-political issues. Thus it is apt that Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary has been selected as the theme at the India Pavillion put together by The Union Ministry of Culture, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and is curated by Roobina Karode. “This participation is special as it is a commemoration of 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi who is revered in India as the Father of the Nation. Haripura Panels created by artist Nandalal Bose at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi shall be on display at the India Pavilion. His works are among the national treasures from the collection of National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi,” says Adwaita Charan Gadanayak, Director General NGMA. 

Gandhi’s message is undoubtedly India’s medium at Venice. Shakuntala Kulkarni uses cane highlights in her mixed media installation titled ‘Body of Armour’ to highlight Gandhi’s partiality to indigenous materials. Jitish Kallat brings Gandhi’s ideas on friendship and non-violence to the world through ‘Covering Letters’. These are a few of the Gandhi themes exhibits this year at the Biennale. 

While critics have called the theme “a trump card”, there is no denying that the Mahatma has evoked global interest for nearly a century. The pavilion aims to revisit his many facets that continue to inspire, provoke and challenge viewers, intellectuals and artists. On taking India to this global platform, Arun Goel, Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, says, “The 58th Venice Biennale will help put Indian artists and art on the world map. Gandhiji is an intrinsic part of our nation’s history and the curated presentation ‘Our Time for Future Caring’ is a call for understanding Gandhiji’s ideas as a solution to modern day complexities. The exhibition weaves together contemporary artworks of eminent artists and portrays physical acts like the charkha, fasting, protest and self-restraint which are relayed as allegory, reflections and narratives.”

Missing in action
The last time India actively participated at the Venice Biennale was in 2011, when works of alternative artists such as Zarina Hashmi, Praneet Soi, Gigi Scaria and The Desire Machine Collective (Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya) were displayed. The debut show organised by Lalit Kala Akademi and curated by Ranjit Hoskote was titled ‘Everyone Agrees: Its About to Explode’. But the following year Indian art went incognito. On the 2011 theme Hoskote says, “It is evident that a nation is the product of the political and cultural imagination of its people. It’s an administrative, juridical and territorial entity, but is also an entity materialised through the accretion of mythologies of identity and self-assertion. And increasingly, as diverse internal energies manifest themselves and a polyphony of voices begins to emerge from within the nation, it  becomes transformed into an array of fragments, each casting illumination on a possible whole. This understanding was what inspired the title of the pavilion.”

But why did India disappear from the Venice Biennale after 2011? A no-show for eight years has prompted questions about our cultural ambitions. Purkayastha says, “Perhaps we were not ready then. But we should now celebrate the opportunity to showcase our work at the Venice Biennale. There are so many biennales held all over the world. In fact, Kochi Biennale brings together great artists across the world in our own country.”

Another plausible reason for India’s disappearance from the Venice Biennale could be the absence of a driving personality. Poet and cultural advocate, Ashok Vajpeyi, who was one of the driving forces behind the 2011 pavilion, retired as chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi in December that year. But reasons can go only so far since pavilions from smaller countries such as Angola, Azerbaijan, Indonesia and Tuvalu showed off their artistic vitals while India was MIA. “Our long-standing absence from a platform like Venice Biennale, even when much smaller countries manage to participate, represents continuous neglect by successive Indian governments. I hope this time is not just a one-off instance. I hope the Gandhi theme inspires the government to participate more productively in the art and culture of the country,” wishes Kallat.

For art’s sake
Malaysia debuts in Venice this year. Kuala Lumpur-based gallery owner Wei-ling Lim has crowd-sourced her way to the international stage with the support of the new Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. The Indian government may be confused over promoting its cultural ambitions but the private sector (such as KNMA) has taken up the cause. The collaboration between government and public institutions is the primarily factor behind this year’s success. According to reports, the foundation has contributed `6 crore. “Disseminating and engaging with South Asian contemporary art on the global art map has been KNMA’s mandate. We have supported, sponsored, and curated international exhibitions of contemporary and modern artists since 2010. It is an honour to represent some significant works by eminent Indian artists,” says Kiran Nadar, Founder and Chairperson, KNMA.

The artworks on display will emphasise historical moments (such as Bose’s Haripura Congress Panels that were commissioned by Gandhi) and encourage contemporary critical thinking connected to Gandhism (such as Shakuntala Kulkarni’s ‘Of Bodies, Armour and Cages’).  “The India Pavilion is an important milestone as it brings together for the first time the Ministry of Culture and private art institutions to showcase Indian art to an international audience. Projects like these raise interest and change perceptions. The theme this time is of utmost relevance in a world divided by many conflicts. The Mahatma espoused peaceful resolutions and this presentation will draw attention to his noble philosophy,” says Tarana Sawhney, Chairperson, the CII taskforce on art and culture.

 On display
The eight artists chosen to display the timelessness of Gandhi’s philosophies in today’s world are not all alive: they include MF Husain along with Rummana Hussain and GR Iranna. Artists Shilpa Gupta and Gauri Gill will also be arriving to participate in the exhibition at the Central Pavilion, which is part of the main biennale.  “Mahatma Gandhi’s life was his message. Gandhian values have always been an intrinsic part of the Indian ethos. Art is nothing but an expression of a nation’s culture. It is, therefore, befitting that in the year we express his moral principles through art. The installations and art works are an expression of the universal Gandhian values of truth, non-violence, compassion towards fellow beings and nature, self-reliance, simplicity and sustainability,” says Nirupama Kotru, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

On the selection of artists,  Nadar says, “These are significant Indian modern and contemporary artists from across India whose work reflects strikingly different responses to Gandhi’s figure and philosophy. We haven’t chosen too many modernistic works.”The first work on display is ‘Haripura Panels’ by Bose (the posters he created for the Haripura Congress held in February 1938). These works will be shown in Europe for the first time on loan from the National Gallery of Art, followed by Kallat’s poignant video installation, ‘Covering Letter’, which will also be on display in Europe for the first time, featuring a letter from Gandhi to Hitler, projected onto fog, in July 1939, just weeks before the start of World War II.

In the letter Gandhi makes a radical appeal for peace, anticipating the brutal bloodshed that the impending war would unleash. In the spirit of his doctrine of universal friendship he begins the letter with the salutation, “Dear Friend…” urging Hitler to resist “reducing humanity to a savage state.” Audiences walk through the screen of descending mist, simultaneously inhabiting and dissipating the moving text. Kallat describes the letter as a space for self-reflection; a petition from one of the greatest proponents of peace to one of the most violent individuals who ever lived. The work can be read as an open letter from the past destined to carry its message into our turbulent present, well beyond its delivery date and intended recipient.

“At the centre of this work is the viewer. Every visitor brings in different personal, social and historical experiences to the work, in a way altering its meaning. To illustrate, 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 altered the reading of ‘Covering Letter’. I often can say that Gandhi’s words to Hitler seem equally addressed to anyone, at any given point in time as it allows one to self-reflect and introspect,” says Kallat about ‘Covering Letter’.

Acclaimed artist Atul Dodiya,  who is also part of the pavilion refers to Gandhi as ‘an artist of non-violence’ and continues to reinvent and probe Gandhi’s legacy in his work. His ‘Broken Branches’ consists of cabinets and was created in 2002 after looking at a set of works in the Gandhi Museum in Delhi. “There are nine wooden cabinets with hand-coloured framed photographs, used artificial limbs, tools, found objects and billboard paintings. This is the first body of cabinets that I made. We see a lot of violence in the world. My work tries to focus on ideology of tolerance. When I created this in 2002, the world was facing the aftermath of the 2001,” he says.

Purkayastha’s display would be of miniature stamps titled ‘Farmers’ and a 6x16 ft canvas showcasing stones that he has been collecting since 2015 along with a hut-shaped installation titled ‘Shelter’ made of stones. Iranna’s ‘Naavu’ (We Together) is a mixed media work of many padukas (wooden sandals) that stand as a symbol of unity in spirit as well as a testimony to a certain belief that builds on the principles of non-violence. MF Husain’s ‘Zameen’ created in 1955-56 is in the format of a long continuous frieze and reads like a mural. Rummana Hussain’s works through painting, sculpture, mixed media video installations and photography represent other thought processes of the leader.

Kulkarani’s ‘Of Bodies, Armour and Cages’ is a suit made out of cane for a woman’s body. “Gandhiji was a supporter of indigenous goods thus my work represents that facet. After making the body suit with cane sourced from Guwahati. I put it on and walked on the streets. My team made a video of it. For a moment, the crowd stopped and stared at me. The suit was meant to deflect the gaze but I was also attracting people’s gaze. The costume was meant to represent protection and break down the notion that only men can wear armours. The projection film along with the costume will be on display. The viewer has to stand in the middle while the film projects from four sides. It is an uncomfortable watch and is meant to be that way to symbolise how women face discomfort on a daily basis,” says Kulkarni about her work.

Indian galleries and art fairs are trying to bring art to the Indian mind and homes. In a nation of living art, where villages have murals on houses and festival flower arrangements on their yard, a dedicated approach to promoting art in an organised manner is yet to catch on. Dodiya feels a huge gap between viewers and artists. He says, “We have a long way to go. Indian art is doing well. Diverse art events are happening without any great government support. But every state in India should have its own modern art gallery, since only the big cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata have one each. We need to involve art critics, art historians along with the audience.

Modern art is perceived as complex by the uninitiated since there is not enough information on styles and artists. We need more programs on television, write-ups and reviews on art. In Europe, parents take children to galleries but such a culture doesn’t exist in India.” Unlike India’s film industry, and the most internationally recognised film genre being Bollywood, the country’s contemporary art field is yet to enjoy the international creative acclaim it deserves. Indian artists such as SH Raza, Husain and Bharti Kher, who sell for millions and are preferred by critics, are few and far between. Perhaps, Venice will be the turning point India needs to mark its unabashed arrival on the global art scene.


Nandalal Bose (1882-1966)
One of the  pioneers of the ‘nationalist-modern’ Indian art, Bose adorned the original manuscript of the Constitution of India. He made linocuts commemorating Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930, and designed Haripura Congress posters on Gandhi’s invitation which will  be shown at the Biennale.


Jitish Kallat 
Kallat’s works span painting, photography, drawing, video and sculptural installations. The 45-year-old’s mid-career retrospective ‘Here After Here’ was curated by Catherine David and organised at the NGMA, New Delhi in 2017. He served as the curator and artistic director of the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014. His works have been part of the Havana Biennale, Gwangju Biennale, Asia Pacific Triennale, Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, Asian Art Biennale, Curitiba Biennale, Guangzhou Triennale and the Kiev Biennale and are included in collections at the NGMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Singapore Art Museum. At the Venice Biennale, Kallat has turned a historical letter into a piece of contemporary art titled ‘Covering Letter’.

MF Husain (1915-2011)
Maqbool Fida Husain is a canonical figure in post-independence Indian art. In 1947, he joined aritsts such as FN Souza and SH Raza to form the Progressive Artists’ Group. In 60s, he painted the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata; the latter was displayed at the Sao Paulo Biennale where Husain was a special invitee along with Pablo Picasso. He was honoured with Padma Shri and later in 1973 and 1991 with Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. Husain’s ‘Zameen’ (above) created in 1955-56 was chosen for the Biennale.

G R Iranna 
Iranna’s works are part of collections at NGMA, David Robert Collection, London; KNMA; Chester & David Hurwitz, USA; and Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal. Iranna was presented with the National Award from the Lalit Kala Academy and the AIFACS Award, at the show ‘50 Years of Art in Independent India’ in 1997.  ‘Naavu’ (above), which features wooden slippers, symbolises unity in spirit has been chosen this year. 

Rummana Hussain (1952–1999)
Her artistic expression involved installations, performances, videography and activism. The shattered dome-like shape of a mosque is a recurring spectral motif in her sculptures and drawings such as ‘Conflux’ (1993) which will be seen at the Biennale. ‘Living on the Margins’, performed by Hussain in 1995 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, is among the first contemporary performative works in India. 

Shakuntala Kulkarni 
Kulkarni’s style lies at the intersection of many disciplines though her initial training in visual arts stems from mural painting. She showcased ‘Of Bodies, Armour And Cages’ (above), which is part of the India Pavillion this year, in 2012 at KNMA, Delhi and CSMVS Museum, Mumbai, besides ‘And When She Roared The Universe Quaked’, 2007 at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai and Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh in 2016. 

Ashim Purkayastha 
Born in Digboi, Assam, Purkayastha voices concerns around societal reactions triggered by the economy and politics. His work also focuses on issues faced in the northeast of India. His acrylic on postage stamps (set of 100 postage stamps), 23 x 25 cm, titled ‘Farmers’ (left) has been chosen for the India Pavillion along with other installations.


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