In 1938, Mahatma Gandhi commissioned an art project for the Indian National Congress’ annual session in Haripura, Gujarat. Thousands of people from all over the nation were gathering at the event, and he not only wanted to decorate the pandal, but also to forge a new way of looking at India and Indians through art.

Sixteen of those so-called Haripura Panels are currently on show at the India Pavilion in the world’s oldest biennale at Venice. A collection of tempera paintings depicting India’s rural lives, they have crossed the seas, at a time when some at home are debating whether the Mahatma’s killer was really a terrorist.

This is the second time India is participating at the Venice Biennale, and as a central idea, its pavilion is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Kiran Nadar, head of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, which worked with the Indian ministry of culture and the Confederation of Indian Industry to put together the pavilion, said the choice of artists and artworks was guided by one clear metric: they had to be connected with Gandhi’s ideology.

The links are visible in all exhibits at Our Time For a Future Caring. Even when the works by GR Iranna, Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat, MF Husain, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Ashim Purkayastha and Rummana Hussain differ in theme and treatment, there is undeniably an intrinsic connect with the Mahatma.

Dodiya’s Broken Branches, for instance, comprises wooden cabinets inspired by colonial-style showcases – the kind seen during Gandhi’s time. The cabinets are filled with knick-knacks and personal belongings – some of them going back to the 1930s – that serve as a kind of insurance against forgetfulness and indifference to Gandhi’s ideas.

Kallat’s installation Covering Letter revisits a letter from Gandhi to Adolf Hitler in 1939 projected on to a traversable curtain of dry fog. Iranna’s wall-mounted wooden slippers remind one of Gandhi’s long marches for freedom. Purkayastha’s untitled work – made with acrylic and vermillion on postage stamps – are a comment on village economy and life that were central to Gandhi’s vision of a new India. Kulkarni’s photographs show her wearing elaborate “corsets” made with bamboo and sustainable materials – also in line with Gandhi’s views on promoting local materials and crafts.

Perhaps the oldest works at the exhibition are the Haripura Panels. For the Haripura session, Gandhi invited artist Nandalal Bose, then principal of Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, to create something that would speak to the Indian public. Bose, who would go on to illustrate the Constitution of India, had already been perfecting a new vocabulary for Indian art – distinct from the European traditions of anatomical drawings, but also distinguishable from classical Indian art. After travelling extensively through Vithalnagar in Haripura, Bose hand-painted around 100 panels depicting village life (his associates copied these to make over 400 panels or wall insets for the Congress session). Among the portraits were representations of cobblers, papermakers, ear cleaners and land tillers.

“During these years [the 1930s]…modern Indian art entered a new zone of political prominence and participation centering around a close interaction between Nandalal and Mahatma Gandhi during the Civil Disobedience movement,” wrote historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta in the essay Lineages of the Modern Indian Art. “In his famous Haripura Congress Panels of 1938 – a playful panorama of Indian popular life and culture – we see a rich blending of a ‘classical’, ‘folk’ and ‘modern’ vocabulary in producing an art that could signify the nation.”

MF Husain, ‘Zameen’, 1955/1956 (Acc. No. 1135), Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 548.5 cm (Without frame), Collection: National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi.
MF Husain, ‘Zameen’, 1955/1956 (Acc. No. 1135), Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 548.5 cm (Without frame), Collection: National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi.

The Haripura Panels – being exhibited in Europe for the first time – sit like contemporaries rather than a period piece among the surrounding exhibits. The juxtaposition is interesting for another reason: it seems to set up a dialogue between the works across time and space.

In an email interview, Kallat said, “The Haripura panels were painted by Nandalal in 1938, a year before Gandhiji framed that radical letter [reproduced in Covering Letter] to Hitler asking him to rethink his ways. At one level, Covering Letter comes from a different motivation, but I think this juxtaposition could be interesting due to the convergence of historical moments.”

For Dodiya, who has often confessed being influenced by Gandhi and Gandhian ideology, Broken Branches is an ode to the Mahatma. “Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence still matters,” Dodiya said on the phone. “It is absolutely appropriate that we are paying homage to him at the Venice Biennale.”

The 58th Venice Biennale features pavilions by 88 countries, including India. There is also a separate central exhibition around the theme May You Live in Interesting Times. (The main show includes works by three Indian artists: Gauri Gill, Soham Gupta and Shilpa Gupta.) Though the India Pavilion exhibition, Our Time For a Future Caring, was not designed as a response to the main exhibition, it feels like it might have been. If the main show draws attention to the flux in our contemporary world, the India Pavilion seems to offer the salve of Gandhi’s ideologies, which even today might help us counter injustices and violence.