Roobina Karode
Roobina Karode|click by : Neha Karode
Arts Speak

Resurrecting Gandhi at the 58th Venice Biennale - Interview with Ms. Roobina Karode, Director and Chief Curator of KNMA

Divya Menon

At one time, the word museum was deemed to simply be a repository for art, an archival existence of sorts. Today, with art having exploded at its seams literally into an entity with countless layers and dimensions, with purpose beyond visual engagement, as a vehicle of public thought, these warehouses of one time have grown to encompass a lot more activity further stretching the boundaries of art and imagination as well.

Sometime in 2010 the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in New Delhi, a private collection belonging to the renowned philanthropist Kiran Nadar of the Shiv Nadar Foundation, threw open its doors to the public, bringing world art so much closer to the common man; The KNMA, India’s first private, modern and contemporary museum of art is also undoubtedly one of the finest spaces of art where a lot of collaboration, dialogue and interaction takes place, where concepts are born and contemporary art is displayed through well curated exhibitions. As the Director and Chief Curator of the KNMA, Roobina Karode, a brilliant art professional and writer, has been instrumental in this transformation through a subtle process of evolution. She is completing 10 years at the KNMA this month and looking back says, “it has been truly an intense and extremely exhilarating journey, evolving the vision for the Museum, working closely with Kiran Nadar, the Founder and Chairperson of KNMA”.

Her foray into the swirling world of contemporary art was certainly no act of serendipity. As an art student she remembers being told that while there is good and bad art, there is certainly no right or wrong in art! With post-graduate degrees in Fine Arts and Education; specializations in Art History, Educational Administration and Curriculum Development, she commenced her career teaching Art History and Art Education for more than fifteen years at various institutions including the Jamia Millia University, College of Art and School of Art and Aesthetics at JNU in Delhi. Teaching and writing extensively on modern and contemporary art, she was invited to curate exhibitions as an independent curator. She adds, “I got really interested in curatorial conceptualization and exhibition making, embracing it as a mediating tool, relevant and effective in connecting art with the art viewing audience”. Her deep interest to form perhaps something akin to a conduit between teaching, writing and curating found realization in 2009 when she joined on board the KNMA and since then directing and steering the curatorial and educational programs at the Museum, “building an extremely efficient team,” in her own words.

After a hiatus of 8 long years, at the 58th Venice Biennale which is ongoing, the Indian Pavilion has once again come alive with a remarkable body of art that has travelled all the way from India to the water-logged city of Venice, to make their mark at the greatest gathering of art and art connoisseurs from across the world.

These current times stained by violence and conflict, legitimize a greater need to resurrect Gandhi, the architect of India’s freedom struggle through non-violent methods. A little space to ponder upon these ideals and an opportunity to soak in them, are perhaps what the Indian Pavilion gifts as an experience to viewers at the 58th Venice Biennale. Jitish Kallat’s Covering Letter, Atul Dodiya’s Broken Branches and Shakuntala Kulkarni’s cane armours magnify this experience that finds world-wide resonance.

As the curator, Roobina Karode shares a few thoughts behind the amazing representation of India at the Biennale.

Could you please talk about the Indian pavilion and the different artists in it, and also share the experience as its curator.

Roobina Karode with Atul Dodiya
Roobina Karode with Atul Dodiya
Click by : KNMA

Yes, the venue of India Pavilion in Arsenale is being used for the first time in Biennale’s recent history. It offers its own unique spatial possibilities and some constraints as well. With India Pavilion happened only once before, we deliberated a substantial representation of eight Indian artists in a 530 sqm area. We opted for the space to be fluid, evoking resonances through the works displayed, keeping the temperament of the pavilion meditative to pause and reflect.

What is your view of 'May you live in interesting times'?

Ralph Rugoff’s exhibition for the Venice Biennale ‘May We Live in Interesting Times’ engages with the complexity of the world we live in today. The India Pavilion also in many ways addresses the social, political, environmental, technological and moral conundrums we are enveloped in. I had read Ralph Rugoff’s statement that he wanted to have no theme at all for his exhibition, and the title in a way serves the purpose of keeping it open and interesting, multivalent and not push the exhibition into a single narrative. The exhibition allows for multiple interpretations with its shifting and sometimes indeterminate contours.

Can you talk about the theme of the Indian Pavilion?

Under the broader theme of Gandhi, the exhibition at the India Pavilion was titled ‘Our Time for a Future Caring’. Through the subtlest evocation of Gandhi in terms of the conceptual abstraction of his propositions and persistent provocations to re-think our complex world, his high expectations of art as truth and transformative experience, made for a compelling visual statement in this day and age. The works chosen of eight artists across generations - Nandalal Bose, MF Husain, Atul Dodiya, Rummana Hussain, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Jitish Kallat, GR Iranna and Ashim Purkayastha emphasize the austerity of materials and the diversity of forms, envisioned in simplicity and silence. The exhibition takes the viewer through eight artistic projects, conceptually mediating and translating the Pavilion as a sarai, a place of rest, inviting one to pause and ponder with each instance, separate yet linked, intersecting at various levels. They directly or obliquely investigate Gandhian values for the nation state. Stressing on acts of resistance and recuperation, Our Time for a Future Caring’ is both, a call for attentiveness and an invocation to shared futures.

The Indian pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019 is all about Gandhian thoughts. How do you see the relevancy of this in these current times?

MF Hussain’s seminal painting Zameen and Shakuntala Kulkarni’s Cane Armour
MF Hussain’s seminal painting Zameen and Shakuntala Kulkarni’s Cane Armour
Click by : Mihir Unadkat

The Venice Biennale is a contemporary art platform and people are intrigued as to why the theme of Gandhi. I saw in it an opportunity to explore the potential and transformative force the theme may offer, and also in the context of Venice Biennale as a biennale with national pavilions, to revisit Gandhi amidst the current debates on de-colonization, and reflect on so much artistic production that has happened in India around the figure of Gandhi. Atul Dodiya did his first exhibition on Gandhi in 1998, calling him ‘the artist of non-violence’. However, I need to add here, that the pavilion expands into many more trajectories, and this process has been both stimulating and rewarding. Before this, I had never thought of Jitish Kallat’s Covering Letter and Atul Dodiya’s Broken Branches together, or Broken Branches and Shakuntala Kulkarni’s cane armours, but these juxtapositions came about while mulling over the theme.

How does the curatorial theme of the Indian pavilion synchronize with the theme of the biennale?

The structure of Venice Biennale is unique in that the curatorial premise set by the curator of the main international exhibition is not the pervasive theme guiding the national pavilions. Each pavilion is independent yet aligned, bound spatially, in proximity to each other reflecting on contemporary art and thinking about the world. In setting the curatorial narrative of this edition of India Pavilion we have been mindful of this expanded viewing and reception of the biennale.

Gandhi was a pre-given theme by the Government of India that was already celebrating 150 years of his birth anniversary. Curatorially, the exhibition eluded a literal representation of Gandhi and his resurrection from archives and through documentaries on him. The India Pavilion was premised on the belief that Gandhi’s image/presence is not fixed in time and space. He keeps returning to public conscience in periods of crisis or despair. He is not a subject that rests only in sentiment or nostalgia, but a subject of contemporary reflection. I was more inclined to look at aspects of his practice of satyagraha, non-violence, peace, equality and unity and equally, his emphasis on the idea of craft, dignity of labour and self-reliance.

India appears at the Venice Biennale after 8 years. Can you explain what are the changes that have happened to the contemporary art world in India during this time and how easy or difficult it has been to make heard the sounds made by the Indian world of art?

While India has returned to the Venice Biennale after 8 years, Indian artists and curators have been going from strength to strength. They have been invited to participate at the Documenta, offered significant solo exhibitions/retrospectives at the most renowned museums and invited to be part of or curate important biennales in different parts of the world. The visibility of modern and contemporary Indian art has grown substantially in recent years, and has made a commanding presence. As for the national pavilion in Venice, this is the first time that three institutions/ organizations have come together to see that the India Pavilion at Venice Biennale sees the light of the day. KNMA did initiate several processes pertaining to curation, including selecting of artworks/projects and bringing them to the readiness required for their travel and installation. This was done in consultation with Ministry of Culture, and though things take time, the good part has been that the Government of India, NGMA and CII have been very cooperative and considerate to the curatorial vision.

At one time art was all about you think art is more about installations now? Can you explain why this shift.

The beauty of art is in its divergence, which is indeed its essence. The nature of art is to constantly evolve and not stagnate. The artist is free to choose his medium, method and form of expression and communication. For artists these are different tools and formats at his or her disposal. So I don't think one can replace the other. Installation may be a predominant mode of art making globally in the contemporary world today, but that may or may not be true in the times to come. In fact, one saw a lot of paintings included in Ralph Rugoff’s main exhibition in Venice this year, considering painting is supposed to be dead in the West.