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India’s Pavilion of Lost Opportunities at the Expo 2020 Dubai – The Wire

As the curtain falls on the event where 192 countries showcased their strengths, the India pavilion comes to mind for its lack of conceptual clarity and dynamic design vocabulary. On display was a bureaucratic mindset seemingly more concerned about pleasing the political masters.
Expo 2020 Dubai: the section on yoga at the India pavilion. Photo: by special arrangement
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Today is the last day of the Expo 2020 Dubai (October 1, 2021 March 31, 2022), which showcased the innovative ways in which the participating countries view their respective journeys in a world of finite resources, with the use of the technological, ecological, social and cultural capital they possess.
R. Nagesh visited the Expo, propelled in particular by a desire to see how the India pavilion had showcased the countrys rich diversity and strengths. A report:
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As I approached the venue of the Expo 2020 Dubai, the intricately woven, carbon-fibre latticed entrance gate, created by the London-based Asif Khan Studio, took my breath away. One of three such mammoth entrance gates, it was 21 metres high and 30 metres wide. Yet its weight was just 18 tonnes. With its combination of contemporary material (carbon fibre) and the traditional Arabic mashrabiya pattern, the gate gave a nod to the past and looked to the future, in tune with the Expo’s overarching theme of ‘connecting minds, creating the future’.
The towering entrance gate, Expo 2020 Dubai. Photo: by special arrangement
Inside, the iconic, dome-shaped, huge Al Wasl Plaza, soaring 67 metres high and spread out 130 metres wide, created the effect of a veritable planet. Both the entry portal and the Al Wasl dome made one wonder about the flight of imagination that awaited the steady stream of visitors in the various country pavilions. It promised to be an eventful morning.
It was as if one had stepped right in the middle of a giant contest between 192 country pavilions. From the big ones such as Japan and Germany, which stood out, to nations like Azerbaijan, Slovenia and Solomon Islands, they had all put their best foot forward, eliciting admiring looks.
The Japan pavilion facade, which made one think joyously of origami art, was an exquisite demonstration of the theme of connecting minds – its distinct three-dimensional lattice work sought to combine traditional Japanese and Arab patterns. The facade’s thin paper-like material sheltered the pavilion from the sun’s direct heat while the pool of water in front not only enabled a beautiful reflection of the facade, giving rise to an expansive continuity of its form; it had a cooling impact as well.
The entrancing façade of the Japan pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai. Photo: by special arrangement
I was eager to visit the India pavilion. As far back as the 1960s India had made a name for itself at the Montreal, Sao Paulo, New York and Osaka world fairs by setting up remarkable pavilions with cutting edge architecture and design. In the 1980s, spectacular exhibitions were organised under the umbrella of the Festival of India – whether of Indian crafts (Aditi and The Golden Eye), of Indian textiles (Vishwakarma), or on the theme of Indian women (Stree). These exhibitions attracted rave reviews and surging crowds in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow and Tokyo. Closer home, the India International trade fairs held in Delhi every year have always been crowd-pullers.
I wondered if the display of the India pavilion would exemplify the theme it sought to communicate – openness, opportunity, growth. Regrettably, it was not to be so.
At first glance, the rectangular frame in which the façade was shaped, reminded one of the government offices that dot Delhi. However, it turned out that the pavilion façade comprised 600 individual blocks of recycled industrial aluminium that could rotate – exemplifying the theme of India on the move – and become a screen at night, projecting moving images of India’s cultural diversity.
The facade of the India pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai. Photo: by special arrangement
Inside, however, the four-floor pavilion, located at the Al Forsan Park, adjacent to the Opportunity district, made use of the latest technology only to toe the conventional line. It displayed an officious narrative on sub-themes such as space; urban and rural development; climate and biodiversity; health and wellness; travel and connectivity; and food, agriculture, livelihoods and water, among others. While doing so, the narrative, in typical sarkari style, seemed more concerned about the pet themes of the ruling dispensation and in particular the image of the “world’s most favour’te (sic) leader and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi,” as a poster in the pavilion stated.

There was not much of an attempt to weave themes organically or reflect on cutting-edge technologies as pathways shaping the future. The aim was straightforward – to show India’s “cultural diversity, ancient treasures, achievements, and leading opportunities with cutting edge technologies” as the walkthrough video, ‘India pavilion in the making’ intoned.
One entered a dark section on the ground floor, where the effect of a starry night sky with celestial bodies had been created in a tableau mode. This section illustrated ancient India’s tryst with astronomy, physics, and mathematics as well as contemporary India’s space explorations.
What could have been an interesting engagement with the ancient past was marred by the dull commentary running on digital kiosks. Sample one statement: “Arya Bhatt declared that the earth was a globe and not flat.” The commentary, which conflated astronomy and the Vedas, played on a loop. Unfortunately, at places the text appearing on the screen suffered from grammatical errors.
In one corner of the space devoted to contemporary India’s space odyssey, a spacesuit was on display, strapped on to a mannequin with limp arms. In another globe-like structure, images of ISRO’s missions played out on a loop on multiple LED screens.
A lunar landscape tableau at the India pavilion. Photo: by special arrangement
Nearby, a lunar landscape in the shape of a hollowed-out moon had been created, dotted with models of satellites. Suddenly, one was confronted with an image of prime minister Modi consoling former chairperson of the Indian Space Research Organisation, K. Sivan, after a failed moon mission in 2020.
After the space section it was time for yoga with Modi’s 3D avatar in a lush green setting. Those not content with seeing his visage could also listen to the prime minister’s elaboration on how yoga helped fight coronavirus and much more. Although his monologue was accessible in 30 languages, there was only one headphone there at that time.
Yoga with the Indian prime minister’s 3D avatar. Photo: by special arrangement
In terms of a ‘live’ show, a young man dressed in white long-johns performed asanas seated between two sculptures in yogic poses – one in Natarajasana and the other in dhanurasana.
Against the wall, a montage of songs sung by popular artists, including Bollywood’s playback singers like Shankar Mahadevan, played in a loop, quite disconnected from the space and yoga mission.
The final section on the ground floor was devoted to Ayurveda – India as the land of healing herbs and the wheel of life called yogic chakras, with a display of different kinds of herbal plants used for medicinal purposes. A visitor wanting to know the properties of, say, eucalyptus could listen to a commentary on its anti-fungal and anti-septic properties.
As I took the escalator to the first floor, I was enveloped by a wall-to wall LED panel display of a montage in a loop, showcasing India’s vibrant and diverse landscape, culture, arts, and wildlife. But there was a major drawback – there was no narrative to match the string of stunning visuals. In the middle of the hall were models of historical monuments such as the Taj Mahal and the Somnath temple, with descriptive text.
Wall to wall LED panel display of India’s rich landscape at the India pavilion: marred by the lack of a narrative. Photo: by special arrangement
The second floor was dedicated to the Indian prime minister. Visitors entering the space were treated to the “transformation of modern India after its independence” to Modi’s India that is “transforming the country every day.” A screen displayed statistics put forth by the Department of Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade.
It was perhaps the only section that had a clear narrative, with the Indian prime minister as the leitmotif; his image adorned every other panel – as the epitome of “strong leadership”; getting a Covid jab with a smile, counselling students to be exam warriors, to name just a few.
Moreover, there was the much-publicised Make in India symbol – a lion fashioned out of cogs – which was facing a huge wall covered with images of the Indian prime minister’s foreign visits and his tete-a-tetes with heads of states and the cream of global corporate bosses. Elsewhere, as mentioned earlier, visitors had an opportunity to be clicked with the prime minister. All one had to do was “Hold your pose and say Namaste India…!”  I wonder if any other pavilion of a democratic country has projected its elected leader so profusely.
Images galore of the Indian prime minister on display at the India pavilion. Photo: by special arrangement
The third floor was devoted to the achievements of business houses and brands associated with the countrys growth story. 
The pavilion also had a section devoted to specific industry sectors – the pharma industry being one of them – and a state pavilion where every featured state got a fixed period to showcase its strengths.
For visitors on their way down there were some more sights such as a huge visual of Varanasi, which happens to be Modi’s parliamentary constituency, a model of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya and the BAPS Hindu Mandir being built in Abu Dhabi, all of which feed into the ruling regime’s triumphalist narrative of the country being transformed in more ways than one.
I could not help comparing this viewing experience with the pleasurable memories of so many visits to the India International Trade Fair at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan every November. The state pavilions used to be a visual delight. Some, such as the Rajasthan and Nagaland pavilions, are still etched in my mind. For Indians, the exhibition exemplified an opportunity to fall under the spell of their country’s rich diversity and catch a glimpse of the innovations proudly showcased in various pavilions.
At the Expo 2020, in contrast, visitors familiar with India’s vast natural and cultural history, its abundant streams of art, music, cinema, architecture and design, among other things, must have felt short changed at the absence of conceptual engagement in the display. All the more so as the scenes unfolding in other country pavilions were so different, be it Japan, Germany, UK, Netherlands and many others.
A short walk away from the Indian pavilion was the Pakistan pavilion. With its facade, made of colourful glass triangles, resembling a ship’s funnel, there was an unmistakable lure, a compelling selfie moment.
The Pakistan pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai. Photo: by special arrangement
Unlike the Indian pavilion, this one had an overarching theme that was borne out by its display. The interior was designed as a labyrinth, with visitors experiencing different aspects of the land through art installations, hand-crafted artefacts and an IMAX-like multimedia experience.
It was a complete sensory experience – the flow of civilisational history, starting with Mehrgarh, Mohenjo Daro and Taxila, painted on a panoramic canvas; a walk through a corridor adorned with sheesha kari (mirror work); art installations on ancient cultures of indigenous communities; stunning landscape and wildlife visuals; and, the billion tree project in the Land of Opportunity section – a forest of bamboo poles and laser beams dropping from above as visitors walked through the space, immersed in the sounds of the forest and water. The last section was dedicated to artisans.
What a different story from the Indian pavilion which, to one’s disappointment, lacked heart and imagination. Instead, on display, with all the cutting-edge technology at hand, was a bureaucratic mindset, characterised by a lack of depth and reflection, inadequate attention to detail and what came across as a strong desire to please the political masters. There can be nothing more tragic for a proud Indian.

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