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The India Pavilion at Venice
A couple of years ago, renowned contemporary Indian artist Jitish Kallat rued the fact that even though several of the world's tiniest nations had their very own government sanctioned national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, India still remained without one at the prestigious event. Even smaller countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan, with no significant push to promote contemporary art, had their pavilions. The Government of India for some reasons remained non-committal on active patronage in the international arena.

Striking a positive chord, Kallat had pointed to some optimism in the growing representation of Indian artists within the curated section at the Venice Biennale, hoping that the Indian pavilion would happen. Indeed, for the first time, India will have an official pavilion at the prestigious event this year. It’s indeed a significant development, as the government has finally accepted an invitation from its organizers to host a pavilion. In 2007, a formal invitation was extended, but the country missed a golden opportunity due to some bureaucratic bungles.

Noted art critic Ranjit Hoskote’s take on this whole debate then was: “We should not contemplate such a pavilion until we are able to demonstrate the self-critical maturity necessary to transcend local politics and also sustain it at an international level of excellence. A national pavilion in Venice would register a triumphal note of arrival both for the Indian nation-state and for the Indian art world. But it must embody the soft-power ambitions of the former and the cultural accomplishments of the latter.”

Incidentally, he is now working as the commissioner-curator of the India pavilion. He has stated: “Some very key people in the bureaucracy are committed to this, so it’s working well.” Indian galleries and artists have been regularly featuring at the specially curated shows. However, the official participation will add a formal touch to the Indian showcase at the event that draws the best of international art. Beyond the official budget is Rs 10 million ($217,000), there is need for additional fund-raising to ensure a smooth launch.

Mr. Hoskote has served as curator of many prestigious events like the Gwangju Biennale in 2008. The renowned poet, writer and art scholar recently has crisscrossed the Netherlands, Germany and his home country. He intends to ‘stretch the idea of India’ through the showcase at Venice, built around the issues of history, past connections, migration and irrevocable displacement, laced with a teeming transcultural approach. The broader theme is to ‘critique the nation-state’s idea as something unitary or territorial.’

Pavilion of India to be erected at Arsenale (Artiglierie) encompasses an exhibition, entitled ‘Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode’. The contemporary artists and groups to represent India at the Venice Biennale have been selected after considerable deliberation, based on their talent and ability to articulate diverse visual idioms, ideascapes and constituencies that is crucial while reflecting India’s immense plurality. The names may sound less fanciful and familiar: Praneet Soi, Zarina Hashmi, The Desire Machine Collective (Sonal Jain & Mriganka Madhukaillya), and Gigi Scaria. But the curator is very assured and clear about his choice. His idea is to represent a gamut of aesthetically rich and conceptually rigorous practices staged in parallel to the mainstream art market.

Transcultural in the range of their conceptions and their practice, these artists remain anchored in a steadfast commitment to the specific historical dynamic of their region and its exploration. Together, they essentially embody impulses drawn from diverse regional modalities, sub-cultural locations, aesthetic choices, philosophical perspectives and religious lineages, within the larger formation of their home country. The Indian manifestation will focus on key artistic positions, emphasizing the cross-cultural approach of recent artistic production today that is inspired by a diversity of curious locations, different economies and scales of image-making as well as varied cultural histories.

Zarina Hashmi is a veteran printmaker, whose minimalist works deftly explores spatial boundaries. In his installations, videos and photographic works, Gigi Scaria often poses pointed questions about the issues related to displacement and class prejudice. Praneet Soi’s paintings and sculptures grasp political undertone to war and other global issues. The Desire Machine Collective from Guwahati in Assam looks to experiment with digital videos, sound installations, film, installation and public space projects with strong regional commitments, albeit taking it out to the world, airing silenced voices in an nuanced manner.

Organized by the Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA), the pavilion will cut through the tropes of transcultural art practices, migration and complex cross-pollination. It will act as a laboratory to test and evaluate certain key propositions concerning India’s contemporary art scene, and project it as a conceptual entity more as extensive in a wider global space of the imagination instead of just territorially based. Apart from India, other first-time national participations this year at Venice include Bangladesh (Exhibition: ‘Parables/Parabole’ that interprets contemporary cultural difference); Iraq (Exhibition: ‘Acqua Ferita /Wounded Water’ that interprets the theme of water): Saudi Arabia (Exhibition: ‘The Black Arch’ by Raja and Shadia Alem); South Africa (Exhibition: ‘Desire: Ideal Narratives in Contemporary South African Art’).

The 54th International Art Exhibition that runs parallel to the official pavilion displays begins on June 4 and will continue until November 27, 2011. Directed by Bice Curiger, the scintillating showcase of art will be on display at the Giardini & Arsenale venues and elsewhere around the vibrant Venice. Titled ‘ILLUMInazioni–ILLUMInations’, it forms a single itinerary, featuring more than 80 artists from across the world, including 32 women artists. Works by Dayanita Singh, born in New Delhi in 1961 will form part of this dazzling display.