India at the Venice Biennale 2019

The most sarkaari art show ever (but that’s not the whole story)

Narendra Modi once wore a suit to welcome Barack Obama where the pinstripes were made of his own name. This suit, now recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive suit ever (after an auction won by a diamond merchant with a dodgy tax record) now graces a statue in a glass case. So, it seems the thinking goes, why not bring this aesthetic of celebration, art-making and spectacle before the whole world at the Venice Biennale — ostensibly as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary? Our proud nation has nothing to be ashamed of.

Shilpa Gupta’s FOR, IN YOUR TONGUE, I CAN NOT FIT was the exhibit that captured our political moment at the Venice Biennale 2019.

India had never quite gotten its act together to be officially at the Biennale for eight years. However, there had been a strong, individual presence. Four years ago, Raqs Media Collective had put up a set of amazing statutes in the Giardini campus, dotting the pavilions where people ate gelato and pizza with Bellinis and macchaiti, and there had been a palazzo where Indian artists had collaborated with Pakistani artists in a really wonderful show. Even earlier, eight years ago, I remember seeing a tongue-in-cheek Indian section in the Arsenale general exhibition titled “Everyone Agrees: It’s Going to Explode”. This was a joke about how people were always claiming that Indian art was going to be the next big thing, but somehow never was.

Well, it has exploded into something. What we didn’t realise is that the American-stye economic liberalisation would deliver us, once again, into the all controlling, suffocating dictatorship of the Indian bureaucrat and chartered accountant. There would be no escape even for art. The Indian pavilion at the Venice Biennale was the only one I saw where government bureaucrats of the culture ministries were credited above the curator and artists. This was perhaps because international sanctions kept North Korea and Iran from participating. Except for Shakuntala Kulkarni and Jitish Kallat, the ideas in the pavilion were primary school-level in their hagiography of Gandhi. They actually had postal stamps, the most governmental of governmental art, and a wall of Gandhi’s wooden clogs. Poor Nandalal Bose, who had drawn things in the margin for the first illustrated Constitution of India — habeaus corpus has ceased to be a political right in India — was dusted off and produced, too. The pavilion had the distinct vibe of Terminal 3 of the New Delhi Indira Gandhi International airport (which actually has some great art which I love) and the Swacch Bharat and Incredible India! campaign infomercials that you have to watch fifty times if you accidentally press a button on your Air India in-flight entertainment system.

It creates a bit of cognitive dissonance. While we were at the show, the State of Maharashtra was going to the polls. If re-elected, the government had promised to bestow Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, widely believed to have been a conspirator (though acquitted for lack of evidence; and not the only murder he has beaten the rap for organising) in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, with India’s highest civilian honour. When in power, they had installed his portrait right across Gandhi’s in the Central Hall of Parliament. Savarkar’s poisonous one-nation, one-religion modernist idea of ‘Hindutva’, to be realised through direct action and terror, is the shaping ideology of Modi’s BJP. It is diametrically opposite to Gandhi’s tolerance and non-violence. But here they were, the cheeky buggers, cashing in on Gandhi’s celebrity as an ‘artist of truth’ at the international level.

It’s getting pretty hard to keep up with the atrocities this government and its votaries have committed on the Indian people. Affiliates associated with this government have executed journalists and policemen, to walk free with no legal consequences. One terror accused was even elected to Parliament on a BJP ticket. They have set up “cow-protection” gangs and lynched cattle transporters. There was “demonetisation” — locking up the entire nation’s personal cash reserves by sudden fiat and demanding the whole country switch currency-notes in circulation, wrecking the economy. Several people died in bank queues, trying to access their own money. Then, there’s the chaotic creation of a “National Register of Citizens” in Assam, which has left nearly two million people facing statelessness and indefinite detention. But what this government is doing to the people of Kashmir exceeds all previous benchmarks of barbarity.

Kashmir has been in indefinite lock-down for months now, apparently an internal matter of India purely to with constitutional reorganisation and fighting cross-border terrorism, with internet access and telephone services non-existent for common people. Initially, I thought India’s governmental functionaries had converted Kashmir into one of the world’s biggest, open-air jails. However, a few days ago, they took a bunch of European Parliament MEPs on a guided tour to Kashmir, that included boating on the Dal lake. No Indian MP, on the other hand, can visit Kashmir at the moment. Many of these European MPs were drawn from right-wing parties with extremely problematic views on cultural diversity. What the BJP has done to Kashmir is that they’ve made it into a human zoo, where Muslim-haters can go and look at Muslims living behind barbed wire and police-check points. Now that’s art!

So, while the Indian government works overtime to deliver on their electoral mandate of revoking the citizenship of Muslims, they’ve actually dusted off one of their M.F. Hussain collages. The hypocrisy is jaw-dropping. Hussain’s work and life celebrated India’s culture of syncretism. However, when he painted Hindu goddesses, the same forces that are now in government, put a bounty on his head and chased him out of the country. The artist lived the last of his days in Dubai, buying sports cars in cash. The mentality here is more than evident. I’ve been in more than one well-appointed living room where a proud BJP uncle spouted some bilious conspiracy theory about Islam and the amazing intellect of Arun Jaitley over his whisky, while his wife proudly boasted that the painting over there was a M.F. Hussain that is worth Rs. 1.5 crore. There was a time when art meant M.F. Hussain, the same way the Indian novel in English meant Salman Rushdie. I God, are we still in that age and era?

Neither is Mohandas Gandhi some kind of saint, like these government types would like us to believe. A lot of his ideas, to put it mildly, were exceedingly simple. When it came to young women, he was a Catholic priest-level proper sicko. But even in his long and prodigious career, one of the absolute peaches that Gandhi came up with was to write a letter to Adolf Hitler asking him to chill out about the whole invasion of Europe thing. The false modesty in that letter would put Donald Trump to shame. Jitish Kallat has a series going where he converts important letters by politicians into public art. No matter how they spin it, Kallat’s work allows you the special thrill of walking all over Mahatma Gandhi’s pious nonsense. Well done, Jitish Kallat, for getting one past our minders.

Before you wonder if India stopped making anything of cultural value the moment Vinayak Savarkar put Nathuram Godse up to ventilate Mohandas Gandhi with a Beretta M 1934, fortunately someone included the works of Shilpa Gupta, Gauri Gill and Soham Gupta in the general exhibition.

Now that’s art!: Modi’s pinstriped suit made of his own name (now housed on a statue in a glass case) is valued at £448,944/$693,174

In the massive warehouses and pavilions of Venice, where any manner of art from every corner of the planet is crammed to the brim, it seems incredible that some of the strongest voices can be that of Indians working without any government support. Yet, amongst the massive airplane tires wrapped in t-shirts, the videos of artists urinating in the rain, giant rocks thrown on land by tsunamis, and other such enthralling work, Soham Gupta’s grotesque Sri Lankan witch-doctoresque masks of Calcutta’s night citizens dominate the entrance to the Arsenale. Shilpa Gupta’s massive automated gate throws up smashed plaster as it destroys both sides of a wall (the same room has a cow going round and round on rails bedecked by plastic flowers and lights— this government would perhaps have preferred Indians stick to motifs like this). Her grid of black microphones, reverse-wired to broadcast the poetry of jailed writers, is the definitive work of the exhibition that addresses the truth of the global political situation. Gauri Gill’s photographs of Indian villagers in masks are fun but rooted in tradition. This is the India I know, recognise and love.

So there we have it: the interesting times of two Indias. One throttled by government operatives and their hoodlums, looking to hagiograph and will their exceedingly silly, convoluted and contradictory delusions about history into existence. The other India, a country whose average age is below 30, is talented as fuck, and nobody’s fools.

Time to cut down on the Mahatma Gandhi veneration and get behind some real artists.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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