As we were perusing the Angola pavilion and picking up our share of printed photographs from the award-winning installation at the Venice Biennale, my American friend stopped and asked with a surprised look: "Where is the Indian pavilion? Why is India so glaringly absent here?" Over the four days I spent at the Venice Biennale, I heard this sentiment expressed by many of my art literati friends from different parts of the world. There are 88 national pavilions in the historical Giardini and scattered throughout the city. Close to a thousand artists from all parts of the world are represented in exhibitions, national pavilions and collateral events. Some 35,000 art leaders and enthusiasts have gone through the Biennale in the first three days of the preview alone, and 5,00,000 people are expected to visit this extravaganza by the time it closes in November. Most countries realise the enormous opportunity to project their cultural strength at this oldest, largest and most prestigious global art event. So, the question is a fair one: if Angola and Estonia can present themselves to the global art world, why can't India?
As I was asked this question, it was interesting to hear the plausible responses from some of my colleagues. "Is it because the Indian government does not want to spend this kind of money when there are such pressing issues of poverty at home?" asked a well meaning academic colleague. "It is embarrassing that our government can't even get its act together to pay enough attention to the country's most important soft power tool, its vibrant contemporary art scene, to present it to the world," remarked a well known collector of contemporary Indian art, lamenting the fact that the effort expended for the previous Biennale was not followed up this time. She repeated the commonly heard refrain that in India, all big things happen these days in spite of the government, rather than with the support of the government.
The absence of an Indian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, I believe, is reflective of a broader issue of India's global aspirations and strategy for their implementation. In the foreign policy circles in the West, one often hears that compared to China, it is unclear how India wants to project its nascent global power status or use it effectively in the dramatically changing world order. When I asked that very question to a senior retired diplomat, he was clear that India didn't have to create such a strategy. As he saw it, the world would eventually realise India's position and give it the kind of respect it deserves. One could sense that barely hiding behind that smugness was defensiveness about India's role in the world. India should not have to prove its global power but, instead, the world should recognise it.
Ironically, this has meant that one of India's greatest assets, its arts and culture, from Bollywood movies and ever-present Yoga studios to its vibrant contemporary art scene, are not effectively utilised as powerful tools in the global strategy of the country. Indian artists are thriving at home and are beginning to make a name for themselves abroad. The prestigious Hauser and Wirth gallery selected Subodh Gupta as their artist of choice for the Venice presentation, and the highly accomplished Dayanita Singh was selected as one of the four artists representing Germany (in the French pavilion). A fine young artist, Prabhavathi Meppayil showed up in the main curated show, The Encyclopaedic Palace. Clearly, the artists will continue to find support all over the world on the basis of the strength of their work. But, arguably, the real loser is the country that does not see the potential of art as a powerful vehicle for projecting its vibrant society on the global stage.
One of the people that posed the question was a professor from London who has initiated a project of examining the social value of the arts in the global arena. As he asked the question, he narrated a recent encounter he had in China. He asked some of his academic friends about China's position as a global power in relation to India. Much to his surprise, they indicated that economically, there was no contest. There was no way that India would catch up with China. But, they were most concerned about India's potential global strength in the cultural arena. "India has vibrant cultural practices and can use it effectively to capture the hearts and minds of the global citizenry." Will India actually realise this incredible potential to create a unique role in the global arena? The glaring absence of the country at the Venice Biennale does not give one hope.