Modern India Comes to the Venice Biennale

Installation view of Broken Branches, 2002, by Atul Dodiya. Nine wooden cabinets containing hand-coloured framed photographs, used artificial limbs, tools, found objects, billboard paintings. India Pavilion, Our Time for a Future Caring, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.
 (Collection of Shumita and Arani Bose, New York. )
The India Pavilion shows a sizzling art scene.

The India Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is only the country’s second since India’s independence in 1947. It’s entrancing and educational as well as historic. It’s a big show at the Arsenale, once Venice’s military shipyard, and it was, in my opinion, the most impressive in the world’s oldest and most prestigious art fair.

It marks India’s coming-of-age as an international art powerhouse. This has taken a long time and is happening in fits and starts, but that’s fine. The art of India is a huge topic, and it’s a lumbering country. The exhibition is a smart distillation of art from this vibrant, massively complex country, the world’s biggest democracy. There are only eight artists in the show.

Our Time for a Future Caring — I hate the title — introduces Indian art in the context of the 150th birthday of the philosopher and politician Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948). Hitching this very punctuated survey to Gandhi’s star is a good idea. The show eloquently observes that “the vast art landscape of India, its modern and contemporary art history, is not linear.” Agreed. The country offers countless vernacular voices, many religions, and layers of history. Gandhi is universally known, still, 70 years after his death, as a symbol of peaceful, determined resistance to powerful overlords, self-reliance, and simplicity.

The show focuses on art, weaving Gandhi and the past hundred years of India’s history in and out of a story that’s meaningful to eager, new students of Indian art like me. This is an accomplishment and took discipline. India has lots of artists. The exhibition isn’t small. It functions as a traditional museum show, with distinct spaces, multiple artists, and a balance of linear narrative and room for visitors to explore what appeals to them. It’s rich and rewarding.

The exhibition doesn’t try to define Gandhi as a connoisseur. He wasn’t. Art was a tool. For much of his life, he was a lawyer, an itinerant and eventually famous dissident, and India’s founding father. He was image-conscious, though. With a big, bald head, spindly legs, big smile, in a white wraparound, he was as recognizable as his contemporaries Queen Victoria and Greta Garbo, but unique. He had a look.

In the 1930s, Gandhi engineered exhibitions of art at India National Congress annual sessions. The show has a couple of starting points, but mine took me to a gallery of art, a pavilion-within-a-pavilion, by Nandalal Bose (1882–1966) done for the 1938 Congress in Haripura.

Haripura Congress Panels, Tiller of the Soil, 1937, by Nandalal Bose. Tempera on paper. (National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Photo: Courtesy Sutton Communication)

The work is scenes of everyday village life, consistent with the INC’s engagement and empowerment of India’s immense rural population. They have the directness of 1930s Soviet propaganda art, which isn’t an insult on my part. It’s effective art for a political convention. The figures are symbols, easy to access. These INC art pavilions in the 1930s were 1960s-style “happenings” as well as art shows. Nandalal and his team tailor-built the spaces in a local style using hay, bamboo, and wicker, creating the excitement as well as the civic dynamics of a barn raising. They were building a new country.

The art throughout the exhibition is good. My experience, training, and instinct as an art historian go only so far since this isn’t Western art. It’s different, and everyone is free to explore and respond mostly on their own terms. That said, an artist such as Maqpool Fida Husain (1915–2011) was Mumbai-based — a city slicker — and exhibited in the 1954 open-submission show at the Biennale and many subsequent shows in Europe. He is what I would call a modernist.

Zameen (1955-56), by MF Husain. Oil on canvas. (National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Photo: Courtesy Sutton Communication)

I loved his work. I’d seen a show earlier in the day in Venice at the Ca’ Pesaro museum on Arshile Gorky, and Husain is in the same universe, but his vocabulary is Indian: village life, Indian spinning wheels, women giving very abstract births, and earth colors. It’s foreign and fresh the way Marc Chagall’s best work of remembered life in Russia is.

Husain’s work in the show is from the 1950s. Gandhi was dead, but the work in the exhibition shows his impact on a new, national aesthetic. Atul Dodiya (b. 1958) creates cabinets filled with found objects, photographs, old tools, crutches, prosthetic body parts, and poems. He lives in Mumbai, a place he describes as “giving so much joy and so much pain” for its sheer sensual excess. It’s art that seeks order from chaos — objects are enclosed in glass cabinets — and the nine big cabinets of Broken Branches, from 2002, are meant to be seen in a sequence. He calls Gandhi “the first Conceptual artist,” and this does make sense to me. His art isn’t gestural. He’s not a slasher or a splasher. He creates the art of asceticism and self-control, which can be very expressive, just different.

Close-up of Broken Branches, 2002, by Atul Dobiya. Nine wooden cabinet cabinets. (Shumita and Arani Bose Collection. Photo: Prakash Rao)

There isn’t a national, anti-foreign aesthetic, as in Italy or Germany under Fascism, and it’s not historicist. It’s not religious, either, which might be a gap in the show. One of the serious fault lines in India is religious, but that’s not for this show. My sense is that India’s artists today are like American artists: omnivorous, intensely entrepreneurial, and aggressive, joyful appropriators of anything that makes sense. India has been not on one crossroads but limitless crossroads. I listened to an interview with Dodiya. He’s an international figure, thinking about Chinese art, Mondrian, Josef Albers, and Joseph Cornell. He’s the pivot in the show. He’s international and, thus, ambiguous.

I was curious about one thing when I thought about the show, walking the endless path through the Arsenale. That’s Gandhi and Hitler. Jitish Kallat (b. 1974), the youngest artist in the show, did a video projecting one of two letters Gandhi wrote to Hitler — a 1939 letter, and he wrote a second, longer one in 1940 — and I’m sure what I think about the video. It’s not art but a video transcription, and it draws the curtain showing Gandhi the politician. He lived in the real world, as do artists. In the letter, he was writing for history and, by the way, directly told Hitler that he was a bum.

GR Iranna (b. 1970) assembled dozens of wooden slippers. It’s a mass of footwear arranged evenly in rows, so there’s a collective. Each shoe is different. Arranged together, it’s a chorus of arches, going forward. Naavu (We Together), from 2019, is a tribute to “walking and marching as collective action, overcoming all differences in caste, color, and creed to be together and united.”

It’s sculpture, with each shoe different, all made from wood, no leather, and aesthetically engrossing. I thought of the piles of shoes found by the Allies at concentration camps in Germany and Poland after the Second World War, or the skulls of Pol Pot’s casualties in Cambodia. Not the artist’s goal, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Each viewer brings his or her own point of view to the show, and it’s to the curator’s credit that she makes this possible. My point of view privileges the individual. The show left me hungry to learn more about how this maze of a country, utterly different from what I consider home, privileges the individual, too. There’s the wood and terra-cotta sculpture of Rummana Hussain (1952–1999), which draws on Muslim poetry. It’s word and hands moving together. There’s the funky feminist Of Bodies, Armour, and Cages, by Shakuntala Kulkarni (b. 1958), my favorite for its balanced, weird, elegant magnificence.

Shakuntala Kulkari, photo performance, Tahu Beach, 2010-12 (Collection of the artist. Photo: Shivani Gupta.)

Ashim Purkayastha (b. 1967) takes us back to Bose and the India National Congress shows celebrating rural life. Bose did it in a direct, sincere poster style. Purkayastha is a rascal. He takes government stamps extolling Potemkin Village–like rural life and gives them the perverse, sardonic look of experience and reality. He’s a brilliant miniaturist. Defacing stamps is the most delicate, subtle bit of bomb-throwing.

This isn’t a predictable show. Roobina Karode, the director of the Kiran Nadar Museum in New Delhi, curated the show. She leads India’s first private, philanthropically funded museum. Forbes magazine called its founder, Kiran Nadar, a “hero of philanthropy” when this contemporary art museum opened in 2010, and I think they’re right. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Alice Walton’s courage, passion, vision, determination, and good taste in leading the Crystal Bridges Museum, and in Nadar, India she has her peer. India has millionaires and billionaires now but an undeveloped philanthropy sector. I think this is bound to change. The world doesn’t move in a good way without people like Nadar.

India, I’m sure, has lots of clunky antiquities museums. Its commercial gallery scene is exploding and fantastic. Diplomatically, America and India are closer than ever. Still, there’s little understanding of Indian art in America, though, and in that sense, India is about ten years behind Chinese art. When I was a museum director, American art museums were cautiously starting to lend to Chinese museums. Around the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, cultural collaboration was developing as Chinese museums upgraded their facilities, and Americans felt more confident about art exchanges with a country that is, after all, a police state.

I think the India museum system is developing, on the one hand, in terms of reliability and facilities, but, on the other, like the country itself, the system is rambunctious, freewheeling, and far more decentralized. The last India Pavilion at the Biennale was in 2011, a sign that the art world there is still developing. For the entrepreneurial American museum, it’s a great opportunity to be creative. The NEA, NEH, and the State Department’s Culture and Education Department can certainly advance art collaborations, but that takes imagination and verve. Judging from the State Department’s Martin Puryear show at the American Pavilion in Venice, I wonder whether either exists in discernible quantities. The show was a snooze.

“Our Time for a Future Caring” is a bad title. What does it mean? When it comes to caring, there’s no time like the present. “Let’s promise to care . . . tomorrow” is like the old saying “Lord, make me good, but not yet,” which can also double as a toast before a bacchanalian debauch. “Our Time for a Future Caring” is a squishy title that makes the libertarian in me squirm. It sounds like the happy, clappy fundraising campaign. Next time, send the marketing consultants to Bhutan.

I don’t often have the honor to write about a historic art show. I’m looking forward to seeing more and learning more about art in this big place.


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