India was returning to the Venice Biennale after eight years, and Roobina Karode had just four months to curate a show themed on Mahatma Gandhi.
What new could a Gandhi theme possibly offer, wondered sceptics, but the director and chief curator at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art was firm in her belief that the Mahatma will never go out of fashion and set out to convince the naysayers.
“Gandhi is a figure of his own time and our times as well,” Karode told PTI, positive that Gandhi will continue to resonate even 200 years after his time.
“He is somebody who is in public discourse very strongly because of his writings, his values, his complexity in thinking and, above all, he practised what he preached,” she added.
For the India pavilion at the Biennale – which began on May 11 and will continue till November 24 – she did not want Gandhi to be present in the form we know. She did not want Bapu’s spectacles, walking staff or ‘charkha’.
Karode said she wanted the walls of the old Venetian building housing the pavilion to echo with the essence that is Gandhi, and this determined the choice of artists she decided to showcase.
The India Pavilion features 50 works by eight artists, including Nandalal Bose, M F Husain, Atul Dodiya, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Rumana Husain, Ashim Purkayastha, G R Iranna, and Jitish Kallat.
“I started thinking about Gandhi almost in a way that he is invisible, and yet so visible,” she said.
Karode, who specialises in art history and has been involved with the teaching of Western and Indian Art History at various institutions, was interested in the different approaches to Gandhi and the different materialities in which the artists work.
“I didn’t use any of the widely popular memorabilia of Gandhi, but I did use one symbol, a lesser know one — the paduka in Iranna’s work.”
Iranna’s work features a swarm of padukas, the rudimentary footwear with just a knob to go between the big and the second toes, pinned to the wall, almost taking on the form of a mass of energy.
The curator said the innumerable padukas were representative of people, beyond caste, creed, religion, or occupation, who joined Gandhi in his revolutions.
“He was a person who moved through mass action. So, the satyagrahas were very important, the walking was very important and it was a way for him to empower people… to give the power to them.
“This whole idea of unity and togetherness is something that India needs to think of even today,” she said.
Another factor that governed Karode’s curatorial process was her desire to celebrate 150 years of Gandhi not just by looking at what the younger generation of artists have been doing, but going back to the time when he started what could have been India’s first public art project.
For this, she included artists like Bose and Husain.
Bose’s Haripura posters, part of the show in Venice, were commissioned by Gandhi in 1938, to be displayed at the then Indian National Congress’ session.
The posters, which were painted on paper, stretched on cheap strawboard, capture the ordinariness of the way of life at the time.
There are images of a mother feeding her child, women cooking, husking or pounding rice, a drummer, a tailor and more.
“I was always fond of Bose’s Haripura works because in a very linear way, in a few strokes, he has created such energy in the works which are all earth pigments. Also, in a pre-independence time, what Gandhi was really wanting to do was a public art project with Nandalal,” Karode said.
“He wanted to shake the masses, to engage with art and to bring them back to the understanding of their own dignity, their own artistic strength, and thus empower them,” she added.
Bose’s programme of nation building with Gandhi went on to continue in Husain’s “Zameen”, but in a very modern language. The 1955 panoramic oil on canvas is peppered with images of a rooster, a wheel, bulls and more.
“It talks about the changing times. It is incorporating the rural and the urban, but very significantly it is about a syncretic language in an India which is a composite nation that has many diverse strengths,” Karode said.
With several works, she revealed, her objective was to revive the idea of the artisan or the indigenous crafts of India that were completely destroyed during the colonial times.
For instance, Kukarni used cane to build armours for women, and Purkayastha’s raw material was something as ordinary as stones picked up from the street.
“There is no manufactured or industrial material. This, in a way, was about Gandhi’s idea of minimal consumption,” Karode said.