MM: How did the idea of having an Indian Pavilion come about? How did the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) get involved and what is its role?
RK: The absence of the India Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has been a glaring one. Ranjit Hoskote had done a good articulation through his curation of the India Pavilion for the first time in 2011. India and Indian artists have had their presence at the Biennale as early as the 1950s and ’60s in group exhibitions and collateral events as well. A dedicated pavilion carries its own story and fulfils the requirement of the Biennale in Venice. Kiran Nadar has been vocal about the need to support contemporary art practices of India and endorsing the need for an Indian Pavilion at Venice. The Ministry of Culture, Government of India and CII roped in KNMA as a principal partner to push forward the realization of the India Pavilion. Once invited to collaborate, KNMA initiated several processes pertaining to curation, evolved the curatorial vision and selected artworks and artists since there was hardly enough time to commission new works, and transport and install them. Mr. Adwaita Gadanayak, the Director General of NGMA and Commissioner of the India Pavilion, was extremely co-operative and considerate of the curatorial vision.
Exhibition view of Of Bodies, Armour and Cages by Shakuntala Kulkarni, 2010-2012. Cane armour. Image courtesy the India Pavilion Archive. Collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.
MM: The notion of national pavilions is often critiqued as anachronistic in today’s day and age. Some go as far as saying it is xenophobic. How do you respond to this criticism?
RK: A national pavilion continues to be a contested and problematic format. The pressing issue is of representing a country of around 1.3 billion people and their rich artistic output. And yet the format is unique: each pavilion is independent yet aligned, bound spatially, in proximity to each other, reflecting on contemporary art thinking around the world. In setting the curatorial narrative of this edition of India Pavilion, we have been mindful of this aspect of the general reception at the Venice Biennale.
MM: The underlying theme of the Indian pavilion is the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. What is the relevance of Gandhi to our present times?
RK: Gandhi is a contemporary figure, a man of his own time as much as ours. So many aspects of our time like passive resistance, peaceful protests, ecological concerns, even minimal consumption and vegetarianism have been espoused by Gandhi. He continues to stir and shake the world, appreciated as well as critiqued, but hard to ignore in a steadily violent and intolerant world. The subtlest evocation of the man, in terms of his pronounced values and his persistent provocations to re-think our complex world, makes for a compelling pavilion in this day and age.
MM: Unlike your other curatorial projects, this time the theme was given to you. How did you go about interpreting the theme and what curatorial strategies did you use?
RK: This was a given theme that the Government of India proposed under the broader thematic of 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi. However, I must say, I didn’t resist it for this contemporary showing as much as I thought. It is an open-ended theme that lends itself to various ways of entering, articulating and interpreting. I saw in it an opportunity to explore the potential and transformative force the theme offers, and also in the context of the Venice Biennale with national pavilions, to revisit Gandhi amidst the current debates on de-colonisation and reflect on artistic production that has happened in India around the figure of Gandhi.
MM: How did you select the artists for the pavilion? Was the choice of artists entirely yours or were there other considerations as well? For example, Nandalal Bose’s works have been loaned by the NGMA.
RK: The Pavilion eludes a literal representation of Gandhi. The idea was not to retrieve him from the archives through his documentaries, archival documents and his popular icons. It adheres to the premise that Gandhi is not a subject of sentiment and nostalgia, but a subject of contemporary reflection.
MM: While some of the artists have directly referred to Gandhi in their practice like Jitish Kallat, Ashim Purkayastha and Atul Dodiya, how did others like Rummana Hussain and Shakuntala Kulkarni tie in with the theme?
RK: From Gandhi’s spinning of homespun cloth to Shakuntala’s weaving of natural cane, there has been a return to indigenous crafts and age-old artisanal skills, emphasizing the dignity of the hand-made. In her artistic project Of Bodies, Armour and Cages, Shakuntala combines urban contemporary thinking with rural artisan skills, making wearable costumes for women in cane, rearticulating the use of the medium. The project materialized through creative intersections between the urban artist and two artisans, a cane repair labourer and a weaver from a village in Assam, in her Mumbai studio for close to a year. None of them had made such life-size cane sculptures of women’s body-wear before. The organic learning process dissolved socio-economic disparities and artistic hierarchies, creating a common ground for receptivity, a space for co-existence and co-opting.
The fragility and austerity of the material of the clay pot and the economy of expression draw our attention to Rummana Hussain’s Fragments. The simple act of placing together a pot split into two exudes a compelling power; the material turns poetic, provocative as well as meditative. In the village economy of India, the broken shards of a terracotta pot signal everyday usage and the recycling of natural materials. Placed on a mirror or glass surface, Rummana’s Fragments signal breakage and severance. Through the regenerative potential of the earthen material, she reinstates faith and hope in the restoration of the body, nation and life.
Atul Dodiya and Ashim Purkayastha have been preoccupied with Gandhi, his writings and practical actions for several years. Iranna’s clusters of padukas (wooden slippers), Rummana’s earthen pots and shards, M. F. Husain’s painted frieze, Atul’s wooden cabinets with mutilated bones, prosthetic objects and photographs, all transact intense responses to the theme. Jitish Kallat’s installation using a dematerializing medium, a fog screen on which Gandhi’s brief letter to Hitler appears and disappears in mist as one walks from darkness to light through it, culminates into an experiential space.
MM: The title of the show is Our Time for a Future Caring. How do the various art works speak to it?
RK: Through the voices of eight artists, Our Time for a Future Caring alludes to acts of resistance, resilience and recuperation. The works call for attentiveness and an invocation to shared futures.