I travelled to Venice this year for a single day, on a work-related errand. It was a few days before the 23rd April and the opening of the 59th Biennale. This was also the day designated by UNESCO as World Book Day since it marks the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, who died in 1616, and his contemporary, Miguel de Cervantes, who died that same year, albeit a day earlier.
In 2019, I visited Venice a few days before it was submerged twice in a week by the acqua alta (high tide). At that time, Venice teemed with tourists but they stayed away from Srinagar, the town of my birth, because of a military lockdown that lasted 7 months. However, domestic tourists have flocked back to Kashmir during the last year since many European cities have been off-limits to them due to Covid-related travel restrictions.
I had stayed in a hotel in Mestre, near the airport, during my first visit to Venice and chose to stay there again on this occasion. The Easter holidays had already finished but the airport in London looked very busy. Venice was the last place I travelled to before the pandemic and hence I often escaped to it in my daydreams during the Covid lockdowns in London. ‘The Milk of Dreams’, the thematic title of this year’s Biennale, derives from a Surrealist painting. This seems highly appropriate: I had found it surreal that Londoners were grounded during the first lockdown and weren’t even allowed to venture outside their own neighbourhoods.
When I moved to London, I sometimes heard art critics talk about the Biennale and learnt that Picasso and the renowned Indian painter M.F. Husain had attended the Bienal de Sao Paulo together in 1971. In fact, I mistakenly believed that the Venice Biennale was a twice-yearly event rather than a festival occurring every two years. A few years later, I received an invitation to an event at Nehru House in Mayfair, stated as ‘An Evening with Husain Sahib’. I anticipated an evening of classical music. But when I saw the man in the flesh on the stage, he wasn’t wearing shoes and I realized that this was an audience with M.F. Husain himself. He found it easier to paint barefooted and made a point of not wearing shoes. He was once refused entry to the Calcutta Club for being barefoot – and this club is deemed to be egalitarian. I had spent many hours under the gaze of his huge painting, titled British Raj, that hangs in the foyer of a New Delhi hotel.
Venice looks pretty from above as seen when the aircraft is about to land at the airport on the edge of the lagoon. I would have liked to take a water taxi into town but was hard-pressed for time and took a coach instead. A group of American students couldn’t hide their excitement when they caught sight of the town as the coach drove over the land bridge that connects Venice with the mainland. I decided to travel by Vaporetto – a motorised boat – to get to San Marco, my destination. Its engine was extremely noisy but it still felt relaxing to travel by water. I was reminded of an acquaintance from Lake Dal in Kashmir (he was then living in America) telling me that he
wanted to move somewhere closer to water because he believed it had healing powers.
The Vaporetto service terminated at the Rialto (the name is contracted from Rivoalto), not San Marco. I asked someone for directions but after a few yards, I got lost in the maze that is Venice. When I invoked the Maps app on my phone it guided me, like a genie, through the narrow alleyways to my destination.
Many tourists have now returned to Venice but the town doesn’t appear as lively as it did in 2019. My errand didn’t take long and I thought of strolling along the waterfront near San Marco, rather hoping that I would bump into a street artist named Fabrizio from whom I had bought a small painting in 2019. I walked past a few stalls and when I turned back I saw an artist in a floppy hat mixing colours on a palette. I didn’t recognise him at first but when I asked him his name he remembered that I had bought a painting from him a couple of years ago. It was indeed Fabrizio. I asked him how he had fared during the pandemic. More from his gestures than his sparse English vocabulary, I understood that he was bearing up. He still looked quite stylish in his hat and debonair scarf but the last two years had undoubtedly taken their toll as he looked far less healthy than I remembered him.
I have a soft spot for artists who suffer for the sake of their art. Monet endured rejections from the great salons during his time and Van Gogh was unable to sell his paintings in his lifetime, often writing letters to his brother, Theo, about his plight. I showed Fabrizio a photo on my phone of his painting hanging on a wall in my home and asked him to find a companion for it. He took out a bundle of paintings from under the table and started showing them to me one by one. In fact I was more interested in seeing a smile on his face than a second painting adorning my wall. He asked me to write my name on a piece of paper and then copied it, with the words ‘con simpatia’ under it, with a marker pen on the back of the canvas before signing and dating it like a book signing. I felt that my trip to Venice was now complete and I could return to my hotel in Mestre for the night with a light heart.
At the hotel check-out the next morning, I found the same receptionist who had checked me in the night before. I asked her whether she worked the night shift. She told me that she had gone home at midnight and come back to work in the morning but she didn’t seem to mind because her hotel, like so many hotels around the world, had closed during the Covid lockdowns and she was grateful to be back at work. Since the arrival of the pandemic we cannot take our livelihoods for granted, nor, perhaps, our freedom to travel where we wish.