IN 2013, at the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale, the artist Dayanita Singh stood between the German and French national pavilions, flanked by the two countries’ culture ministers, with a sinking feeling. Regarding the sea of people before her as she received plaudits for her work, Singh noted that “through the blur of hats and jackets, the few Indian faces I could see were friends I’d invited myself”—the artist Subodh Gupta, the writer Aveek Sen and the art historian Kajri Jain. “There were no Indian officials,” Singh told me in a recent interview. “It showed where we place our contemporary art.”
Singh, one of India’s leading photographic artists, doesn’t endorse a nationalist agenda. In fact, like many others in the art world today, she believes the idea of national pavilions at Venice—the world’s oldest and largest biennale, and one of the most prestigious events in the contemporary art world—is outdated. Nevertheless, the lack of an India pavilion at what is pegged as the “Olympics of the art world” made her feel “a little bit ashamed.”
When the current, 56th edition of the Biennale opened on 9 May, India was missing once again. In 2013, that absence was perhaps more pronounced because, in 2011, the Indian ministry of culture had managed to put together a national pavilion for the first time in the Biennale’s now 120-year-old history. The poet and art critic Ranjit Hoskote, who curated it, eschewed marquee names for radical choices, such as the Guwahati-based duo the Desire Machine Collective. But when the time came to follow up on this grand debut two years later, the pavilion did not materialise.