More than half-way through this year’s debut art event, where is the Kochi-Muziris Biennale headed and what has it achieved so far, asks Rajni George.

A large amount of the funds allotted to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) was invested in Durbar Hall, an impressively refurbished public building which now houses a climate-controlled museum, in central Kochi. When I visited, there was no sign of the climate control — the doors were open, to save on the air-conditioning I conjectured when a guard could not tell me why the rooms were not sealed — but the project is a symbol of the kind of change the biennale aims for, at its more visible locations around Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi. “Now you can even show Van Gogh here,” says Riyas Komu, artist and KMB director of programmes. “The biennale is a gift from Kochi to the world, it’s wonderfully mixed. You don’t see this kind of a crowd walking in to see art, even abroad.”

With one month to go, the highly publicised but beleaguered Kochi-Muziris Biennale may finally get the much-needed funding that the Ministry for Cultural Affairs withdrew, prior to its opening. Just a month ago, it was rumoured that they might have to close early. Now they are planning a grand finale, with two final weeks featuring a full cultural programme: symposiums in heritage, Asian arts, medicine, daily music and theatre performances. Why the green light now? A combination of critical approval and popular demand, it would seem.

“The Tate Modern told me this was the best biennale they’d seen,” states artist and KMB artistic director Bose Krishnamachari, listing a host of other important visitors who have lauded the biennale’s efforts. Halfway through its run, KMB (on till March 13) is establishing itself as a major art event, as some foresaw and some perhaps doubted. Democratic and accretive in ethos, it continues to attract visitors from around the world: the biennale accrued 1.5 lakh visitors in its first month and 2.5 lakh visitors in its second, averaging a thousand visitors a day (as high as 5,000 daily and 10,000 on weekends, early January).

In a visit to the biennale on January 28, Minister of Cultural Affairs K.C. Joseph told the foundation that the next meeting of the State Cabinet would decide funding. “It is under the consideration of the Council of Ministers,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry recently, refusing to comment further. “We are expecting further funding from the government,” said a spokesperson for the KMB team, implying that the situation had grown more hopeful. How has the public, in and out of Cochin, reacted to the biennale and how will they continue to interact with it?

Unlike the India Art Fair or other premier art events with VIP enclosures and look-but-don’t touch vibes, KMB invites every kind of visitor and asks them to play. Like the sound installation of Australian artist Dylan Martorell, which has to be activated by each viewer. It was being partially de-installed mid-January when I met Martorell, who has been working for 10 years in this field and spent five weeks in Kochi recording the range of noises afforded by his new environs. Even the de-installation is part of the process; people gathered around to watch him take some of his equipment back home for another show. “This biennale is more about cultural regeneration,” he says. “About getting in touch with the public.”

Part of the show is watching some of the artists in studio. Malayali artist Valson Koorma Kolleri, for example, is painting his subject and calling an audience around him, when I visit.

As the biennale runs, work is still being constructed: one artist, Jyoti Basu, part of an unofficial Ahmedabad school of Malayali artists, visits daily and chooses to sometimes add to his painting. “I am finishing all the time,” he says, smiling beatifically. “The vibrations here are different.”

Until December 23, entry was free; at that point ticketed entry at Rs.50 began to help pay for daily running costs, says the foundation. As well as to place value in art, which Kerala’s public takes seriously. Lawyers, labourers, students and housewives, some of them on their second or third visit, were in evidence and seriously engaging with the work on show, it would seem, when I spoke with them.

“What we don’t understand, we ask someone about,” said Remya M.R., a young office worker who has just climbed up a steep ladder to a space under the roof of Pepper House, which shows Anita Dube’s work. “But most things we can enjoy.”

Local people are now stepping up, on an individual level, realising what the biennale has done for them, socio-economically and culturally, and in terms of putting Kochi on the international culture map, something that does not go unappreciated in this State. “Malayalis are artsy people, generally speaking: art, cinema, drama all find a natural audience here. An event like the biennale, at an international standard, can get people to invest in warehouses; right now, people buying them do not always preserve them,” says Latha Pottenkulam, owner of Sthayi, a boutique in Kochi. “People must invest in art. It is important also to help sustain what the biennale is doing; the stairs of Pepper House were so rickety for example, people complain that it is hard to see everything, as a result.”

“The city should take responsibility, should feel ownership,” says Krishnamachari. “People should learn from Brazil; we too should have two percent tax put aside for this. Crowd-funding is part of the long-term plan, for 2014.” Support has come in many forms, according to Krishnamachari. Shalini and Sanjay Kasi recently held a 25,000-per-head dinner in the capital to raise funds, raising five and a half lakhs. Google met with the foundation and has offered help with the website, which received 7.5 million hits in the first month. The Jindals of Jindal Steel and Power Limited, the late Kerala Congress leader T.M. Jacob, R.K. Krishna Kumar of Tata group, Jayanta Matthews of Malayala Manorama and the businessman Shibu Mathai have all donated recently.

“McKinsey and companies like to do studies on biennales. We should study the economic effect of the biennale,” says Krishnamachari. “The manager of Hotel Seagull says 80 per cent of business has gone up in Kochi.”

That Fort Kochi is the site of an international event, we would not have conceived of even a decade ago, is remarkable. It’s still that tourist-friendly fusion of East and West we are celebrating, only the agenda has expanded to include the idea of more ancient India in the form of the one-time prosperous financial centre that is the seaport of Muziris, located 30 km from Kochi and currently under the aegis of the Muziris Heritage Project.

The connection? “I liked the ironic juxtapositions: conceptual art and Muziris,” says biennale visitor Dilip Menon, Mellon Chair in Indian Studies and Professor of History at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, who especially liked an installation by Vivan Sundaram made with broken potsherds excavated in the course of the archaeological digs at Muziris. “The premises of Aspinwall, now abandoned, redolent with memories of ancient wealth invoke the particular history of port cities in an age of maritime commerce past. There is something about Fort Kochi with the remains of European colonialism and the bustle of present-day commerce with the pungent smells of pepper and spices that is disorienting. The idea of locating the biennale in the former Aspinwall House was a masterstroke: crumbling facades, stagnant pools of water, the reek of damp and the installations that riffed on these.”

Many artists exploited this to great advantage. “This lab is like an artist’s studio,” says renowned artist Atul Dodiya, of the laboratory space that exhibits his work, a collection of photographs from over 20 years within the “big Indian family” that is the Indian artistic community. “I told them to retain it, not to retouch it.”

A special blue house whose first floor, spare and factory-like, displays videos by dissident Chinese artist Ai Wei-wei; a display of grains and parallel films around farmer suicides by the masterful Amar Kanwar; a beautiful carpeted room filled with long cylinders of light at Pepper House — there is much on offer at KMB. Some say all the artists haven’t sent their best work; or question whether some of this is art. But they return, and promise to return in 2014.

“It is difficult to set up a project like this the minute you touch public funds,” says Komu. “But this project was putting a seed in a fertile land.”