Updated: December 12, 2012 03:03 IST

Kochi Biennale — India’s first — begins today

S. Anandan
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Alex Mathew (right), artist based in Hyderabad, is issuing instructions to workers fixing his installation for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in the courtyard of Pepper House in Fort Kochi. Photo :K.K. Mustafah
Alex Mathew (right), artist based in Hyderabad, is issuing instructions to workers fixing his installation for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in the courtyard of Pepper House in Fort Kochi. Photo :K.K. Mustafah

Will feature inter alia big names such as Ariel Hassan (Argentina), Ernesto Neto (Brazil)

Biennale, like a portmanteau film, sports several disparate narratives in chaotic harmony. It is the antithesis of gallery art and seeks to conjure up a ‘carnival’ world, in Mikhail Bhaktin’s lingo, where the sublime, the ordinary, the kitschy and the profane jostle for space. While India boasts a robust history of hosting triennales beginning 1968 when the legendary Mulk Raj Anand leveraged his clout to bring the who’s who of global art to India, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that opens at the culturally-rich Fort Kochi on Wednesday (12/12/12) is the first of its kind for more than one reason, placing equal thrust on contemporary art and traditional folk and classical arts from various parts of India.

The epoch-making art carnival has over 80 artists from 24 countries, half of them Indian, presenting their installations (site-specific, multimedia and so on), paintings, sculptures, films and performing arts over the next three months at 14 venues spread across Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and Ernakulam. Though dogged by controversies, the Kochi Biennale Foundation has been able to ‘fight the odds’ and ‘overcome the hurdles’ and get off to a steady start in a bid to catalyse a “cultural shift through social and political engagement,” as Riyas Komu, secretary of the Kochi Biennale Foundation and co- curator of the event, put it.

As a pilgrimage

The effort is to shape an alternative cultural discourse on a platform for artists, political thinkers, art lovers, collectors, students and researchers from the around the world. “We are putting our best foot forward hoping this will become a bi-annual pilgrimage for artists around the globe to gather and exchange ideas,” he said.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, after the ancient port city of Muziris which is believed to have existed in the region as its gateway of trade, features some big names in the global art circuit such as Ariel Hassan (Argentina), Ernesto Neto (Brazil), Joseph Semah (Israeli based in Amsterdam), Rigo 23 (Portugal), Amanullah Mojadidi (American-Afghanistan) and Jonas Staal (The Netherlands), some of them fashioning site-specific installations. A host of eminent Indian artists such as Subodh Gupta, Vivan Sundaram, Sheela Gowda, Sudarshan Shetty, Amar Kanwar and K.P. Reji adds a different dimension to the grand narrative.

Unique to the maiden Indian biennale is the revamp of the Raj-era warehouses and rundown godowns that predate them to house works of art.

Informal start

In fact, the biennale has already begun informally. Work is apace on public installations — the most notable among them being a creative sculpture of Chinnathampi Annavi, the founder of Biblical dance-theatre with Portuguese elements ‘Chavittunatakam,’ unique to the erstwhile Muziris region — and site-specific evolutionary works in and around Fort Kochi.

Awareness classes have been held in 23 schools in the region over the last three months as part of the biennale’s outreach measure. Artists, researchers and students from around the globe have descended on the city to bask in the electric ambience of the place.

Music for the ears

Another unique feature of the biennale is its prodigious segment on indigenous performing and folk arts, which got under way almost a month ago. Unfolding as part of it are gems from the ancient Sanskrit theatre Nangiarkoothu, Chavittunatakam, regional Islamic music and martial arts, all curated by Keli Ramachandran.

Also on the cards are contemporary Malayalam theatre performances, Ghazals, Sanskrit theatre Koodiyattom, Kathakali besides Kerala’s folk, percussion and ritualistic art. Meanwhile, noted art administrator K. Subhas Chandran is curating a performing Indian arts segment with Hindustani music, a Rudraveena recital, Manipuri dance, the Sattriya dance of Assam, chamber orchestra and a choral group with 40 singers.

A symposium on the issues of cosmopolitanism, modernity and cultural identities and the screening of films curated by auteur Adoor Gopalakrishnan will add to the biennale’s plurality.

Biennale city

The Kochi Corporation has already declared Kochi a ‘biennale city’ and the stamp is manifest on the streets of Fort Kochi that dots freshly-made street art and graffiti.

“I have been to biennales in Venice [the oldest], Havana, Johannesburg and so on and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is no less complex in scale, magnitude and dimension. It is amazing that there is a theatre festival going with it, and there’s a stark political discourse set off by a team from Holland, just to cite its range. The choice of location is half the game won. The build-up was exciting and I’m sure it is going to be phenomenal,” remarked Vivan Sundaram.

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