Jitish Kallat, “Covering Letter” (2012) (all images courtesy India Pavilion Archive)

VENICE, Italy — National pavilions are legitimized by a set of dead-end propositions. The first is that of nationhood itself, and then, trickier still, the promise of a comprehensive representation of the discourse of the nation state in question. The only logical recourse, as many have taken in the 58th Venice Biennale (as well as in editions previous), is to deconstruct the premise of the nation state. To do so requires a leap of faith, because to acknowledge the death of the nation state, as Rana Dasgupta wrote for The Guardian last year, “is to acknowledge the end of politics.”

This end of politics, or that of political discourse as we know it, is often handled as a purposeful new approach to old debates. This is especially true of nation states that have a rare presence at the Biennale. Since the first national pavilion in the Giardini (which was Belgium in 1907), only 29 others have a permanent (and specially designed) venue in the biennale gardens. Others must apply and pay a fee to participate in each edition. The national pavilions remain independent from the biennale itself, and require the participating countries to assume all funding, curatorial, and production responsibilities. The pavilions thus become a place to draw out contemporary resonance with bold strokes. The burden of representation is total, and towers over the scene. For this year’s Our Time for a Future Caring — the second-ever India Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, curated by Roobina Karode and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) — Karode takes a poetic approach, one that is made up of small, precise gestures.

India Pavilion at the Arsenale, 58th Venice Biennale 2019

The theme takes Gandhi to be its central protagonist, as dictated by the Indian Ministry of Culture, in light of 2019 being 150 years since his birth. As such, “two acts run simultaneously through the works exhibited at the pavilion,” Karode told Hyperallergic, “the first, is one of resistance, and the second, an act of recuperation, which is really the need of our time.”

The show begins with the 1939 “Haripura Panels” by Nandanlal Bose, which were commissioned by Gandhi in 1938 to decorate the pavilions for an Indian National Congress Assembly meeting in his home state of Gujarat, nine years before Indian independence. Bose was perhaps the only artist Gandhi ever worked with (for the panels, and also to illustrate pages of the Indian constitution). Gandhi advised Bose to typify a “village republic,” as he imagined the new nation state of India would be, and to use simple materials.

Nandalal Bose’s Haripura Collection (1938), National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

“Gandhi wanted Bose to represent the dignity of labor, which was a way to get out of the inferiority complex that came from colonial rule,” said Karode. It was also a way to resist British industrialization, which, by the 20th century, had begun forcing Indians to purchase machine-made textiles from British manufacturing companies. Bose painted scenes of women splitting husks of grain and pounding rice, potters at their wheels, and farmers out in the paddy fields. He used natural pigments from crushed vegetable and stone, and made the panels from thatch, bamboo, and hand-spun cotton. The artist’s turn to the pastoral was a defiant act of decolonization.

At the center of the pavilion, and opposite the “Haripura Panels,” is a dark room with the immersive work “Covering Letter” (2012) by Jitish Kallat. In July 1939, Gandhi wrote a letter to Hitler. Germany had just occupied Czechoslovakia, and it was about five weeks before the start of the second World War. The letter, which is only seven lines long, reads “almost like a haiku” says Kallat, who makes it the protagonist of “Covering Letter,” where he projects the text onto a thick layer of mist.

In fact, Gandhi wrote a second letter to Hitler in December 1940, in which he decries the “humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark” and makes an astonishing parallel: “But ours [in India] is a unique position. We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism. If there is a difference, it is in degree.” Gandhi is at his best when he is unflinching. Both letters were intercepted by British authorities, and never reached their intended recipient. Regardless, “like a typically Gandhian gesture,” says Kallat, the letters “convey a freight of provocations” and move beyond their initial purpose. “Covering Letter” allows us a moment to steep in this history: the mist shimmers before us, fragile and diaphanous.

Naavu (We Together) (2012) GR Iranna

As the results of the Indian general election 2019 have just been declared — with Narendra Modi’s Hindu right-wing party, the BJP, securing another term — the contemporary moment is more ready than ever for a critical investigation of Gandhi’s legacy. Mob violence, warmongering propaganda, casteism and religious discrimination continue to tear through our contemporary discourse, fracturing the national politic. Rummana Hussain’s “Fragments” (1993) sets up a tableau of five sculptural installations that bring together pulverized terracotta, dirt, charcoal, painted mirrors, and pigment. In one of the five sculptures, a brick-red powder tips over from a large clay pot, spilling to the ground. The work serves well as metaphor: the materials of our everyday objects lay smashed on the floor as we struggle to reclaim meaning from the debris.

Similarly, in a series of small acrylic and sindoor (red lead pigment) paintings on postage stamps — “Rashtra Pita” (2004), “Harijan” (2004), “Farmers” (2003), “Gandhi/Man without Specs X” (2003) and “Holy Water” (2003) — Ashim Purkayastha repeatedly redraws Gandhian iconography, reimagining Gandhi’s ubiquitous image by infusing it with a critique of the violence of contemporary India. We see symbols that gesture towards farmers’ suicides and discrimination against minorities. Purkayastha’s work does the most to reflect concerns of a contemporary India, where he “shifts our focus to the marginalized and the dispossessed stakeholders in a modern nation-state,” as described by Karode. Purkayastha is especially concerned with those at the edges of legitimized citizenship (like indigenous people and Dalit people), who are compromised or manipulated by national population registers. This is Purkayastha’s clear critique of the nation state: Especially in the world’s largest democracy, it is becoming increasingly important to question the legitimizing mechanisms used by the democratic method.

Ashim Purkayastha, “Harijan” (2004), acrylic and ink on revenue stamps

Here, the pavilion misses an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader, lawyer and revolutionary who also played an instrumental role in writing the Indian constitution. Contemporary discourse has come to show us that Ambedkar has just as much importance in the history of India as does Gandhi. As Arundhati Roy writes in her essay The Doctor and The Saint, “Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most formidable adversary. He challenged him not just politically or intellectually, but also morally. To have excised Ambedkar from Gandhi’s story, which is the story we all grew up on, is a travesty.”

Our Time for a Future Caring primarily brings together the work of eight artists, from different generations, who have reflected on the Gandhian legacy of decolonization. This also includes M. F. Husain’s rolling, frieze-like, oil on canvas “Zamin” (1975), which sets the tone with its symbolic references to nation building and secular politics; Atul Dodiya’s nine wooden cabinets as part of “Broken Branches” (2002), which are delicately arranged with found objects like tools, prosthetic limbs, billboard paintings, and hand-painted photographs; Shakuntala Kulkarni’s cane armor and accessories from “Of Bodies, Armour and Cages” (2010–2012) in which she takes to the streets as a statement against the objectification of femme bodies; and the photographs of Gandhi’s grandnephew Kanu Gandhi, who lived with him for many years and intimately chronicled that time.

Shakuntala Kulkarni, “Of Bodies, Armour and Cages” (2010–2012)

Shakuntala Kulkarni, “Of Bodies, Armour and Cages” (2010–2012) (detail view)

With the quiet reflection required by each of the works on display, Our Time for a Future Caring is a thoughtful dialogue on resistance and nonviolence. In this regard, GR Iranna’s “Naavu (We Together)” (2012) fills up a wall with undulating sets of padukas (slippers made from wood) in order to signify Gandhi’s long walks across the villages of India. They act as testament to his most successful form of collective mass action: the march. This contemporary moment does well to reflect on the spirit of this collective action, and the potential of the nonviolent protest.

The India Pavilion, with the exhibition Our Time for a Future Caring, continues through November 2019 at the Arsenale as part of the 58th Venice Biennale. It has been curated by Roobina Karode and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer and editor based in Mumbai.