Art industry insiders speak about the impact India’s first Biennale had on the city’s art scene. Is it too early to take a call?

Art became an experience for three months - from December 2012 to March this year. The Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) changed how art was seen. The event was looked at with scepticism because its scale was incomprehensible. There were controversies; it drew a line down the centre dividing the art fraternity. Criticism was lavished on the event as was praise. Art came up for discussion - wonder, awe, outright ridicule, vitriol, confusion - the Biennale inspired all these and more.

Six months have passed; preparations are underway for the next Biennale, scheduled for 2014. It is too short a period to assess the after-effects of the show, but it is time to take note of the tiny ripples that are felt.

People travelled to Kochi to experience art at the KMB. It was not the ‘art elite’ – the gallery owners, collectors and artists – who came. Of course, they did too. But the ‘people’, that man, woman and child on the street, packed themselves into vehicles from different parts of the State and came for ‘experience’. Mostly they didn’t ‘get it’, much like the rest of us, it was nevertheless an experience.

Absurd as it may sound we began to see art in a broken down JCB and other unlikely places. And that has been the biggest change that the Biennale has been able to bring about – the changed perception of art. Art has moved out of the box, away from the canvas and the frame aver artists irrespective of which side of the Biennale fence they are/were on. Some seniors in the art fraternity, however, continue to keep their distance from the KMB and refuse to “have anything to do with the circus.”

New mode of expression

T. Kaladharan, the driving force behind many of Kochi’s art-related culture events through his Orthic Creative Centre, says, “There may be the jokes about anything and everything being an ‘installation’ but it introduced people to several new media of expression. People got to see installations and the works of several contemporary international artists. It would have struck a chord in somebody that there are many means of expressing one’s creativity.”

Artist Rathi Devi, who was not part of the event, agrees with Kaladharan’s observation. She says that earlier, pre-Biennale, the understanding of art was a picture painted on a canvas or a wall. “It has become more contemporary. People have become more accepting and are marginally more aware.”

Jalaja, an artist who was part of the Biennale, says art students benefited tremendously, “it is something that will stay with them. There were seminars; opportunity to interact and work with senior artists, studio visits by artists…it was invaluable. It is incorrect to say that it (Biennale) benefited only those who participated. There was a spill-over, gallery owners and curators visited the fine arts colleges and saw works of other artists.” She adds that those who were not in the last Biennale might be part of the next.

Several generations of artists have left Kerala in search of greener pastures and art-conducive environs. With this Biennale, Upendranath T. R., whose works were exhibited at the KMB, says, home-grown artists found a space within Kerala. He calls it a “larger scope.” “We got global attention and suitable space to exhibit our works. With the Biennale a bridge or a road was built, time will show whether that distance has been traversed.”

New artistic or cultural spaces have opened up, besides the renovated Durbar Hall Art Centre. “The Springr Studio and Café Papaya are two examples of new spaces opening up. A. Ramachandran’s retrospective took place at the Durbar Hall Art Centre. He told me that because there was a space like that he put up his show here. Some of the biggest art galleries in the country have come to Kochi,” says Bose Krishnamachari, artistic director of the first edition of the KMB.

Besides, the Biennale also put the steeped-in-history Fort Kochi on the international art map. It gave people another reason to visit Fort Kochi.

New galleries came up and existing ones relocated closer to the Biennale venues. Gallery OED is one such.

Dilip Narayanan, of Gallery OED in Mattancherry, says there has been a perceptible difference contrary to what others might consider. “Definitely. There is curiosity about art in Kerala and art from Kerala. Visits to art galleries have become the tourists’ itinerary, we have more tourist walk-ins. There have been enquiries. Even young artists have become more professional in their approach,” he says.

Kaladharan disagrees. “I wouldn’t say that people are rushing in for shows. No. Neither has the Biennale translated into a major sale.” He has been regularly organising art shows at his Nanappa Art Gallery. He cautions against already measuring the Biennale’s impact, “it is like looking at a newborn and predicting its future. Let’s see a few more Kochi Biennales to judge its worth.”

Traditionally there is a lull in the art exhibition circuit during the monsoons. The rains have stopped and it is back to business in most galleries. Rathi Devi says, “These shows were always taking place even before the Biennale. There hasn’t been an increase because of it neither is more art being sold because of the Biennale. The big galleries and buyers might have come and probably the participants have benefitted. The expectations which were too high might not have been met. But it is too soon to say anything.”

Those on both sides of the fence agree with Upendranath that, “it is premature to study or assess the implications of the Biennale. We have to place it within a historical context and history takes more time than six months.”