Public art in the city chronicles history and debates with the present. Are we really taking care of it, asks Esther Elias

Just past the Chinese fishing nets on Fort Kochi’s beach is a wall with a painting of buildings being hit by waves. Beside this expands another picture of luxury ships anchored to Kochi port. “God is an artist, not an engineer,” reads one. These are the works of Jalil, a graffiti artist who has, for over a decade now, sketched his thoughts on contemporary social and political issues on this wall, first in chalk and now in paint.

Public art in Kochi has ranged from the massive sculptures and grand paintings of renowned artists to smaller contributions by artists like Jalil. What do these pieces speak of, and how well are we listening? At the least, they’ve begun a long-standing conversation with the public on our varied histories, debated present and shared future.

One of Kochi’s oldest public sculptures - Kanayi Kunhiraman’s ‘Mookula Perumal’ at the GCDA office lawns - speaks of exactly this: three towering figures of the past, present and future discussing time. “Public art forms a city’s landmarks,” observes artist T. Kaladharan of Orthic Creative Centre, who remembers vividly the 70s and 80s when Literature and Art for the people as knowledge was encouraged. “It was in 1969 that Kanayi’s ‘Yakshi’ opened in Palakkad and people condemned it as vulgar. Today, it is probably the most photographed-with piece there and revered as a milestone in contemporary art. Kochi’s ‘Mookula’ carries this tradition forward,” he says.

Public art has also been a chronicler of history. In 1991, the Kochi Corporation along with Kerala Kalapeedom conducted an International Symposium of Sculptors with seven international and seven Indian artists at Subhash Park, and in 2001, Changampuzha Park, Edappally, hosted Vishwa Kala Sangamam, a 23-day camp for 39 artists. “Both were iconic events in our art history,” says Kaladharan.

Preserving art

What remains today of these public pieces is a sorry tale. At Subhash Park, Raghav Kaneria’s ‘The ox’ made of scrap metal has rusted through but still stands because of the metal’s thickness, ‘The Lady’ by Shabari Choudhury is dressed in moss and the people of ‘Noah’s Ark’ by K.P. Soman are missing limbs. “The few pieces that remain are protected by the concrete rim around them. These works are extremely valuable; but we don’t value our history,” Kaladharan rues.

At Changampuzha Park, the situation is brighter. M.S. Raghunathan, who was present during the Edappally camp, says efforts were made to preserve the artists’ work but weather conditions haven’t helped. “Japanese artist Reiko Nireki’s bamboo and paper pulp sculpture completely withered away, as did Sudarshan Shetty’s wooden vallom. But South Korean artist Ku Bon Joo’s two large heads, sculpted in wood in 10 days without assistants, representing the older generation talking to the younger, was preserved by a shed above it.”

Edappally also houses paintings by artists such as C.N. Karunakaran, Namboodiri and M.V. Devan which are framed in plastic, the edges fraying. “The stone and cement sculptures have been polished often and we hope to build a gallery to restore the paintings,” says Mohan Bose, Secretary of the Changampuzha Samskarika Kendram.

Graffiti tales

History aside, public art in Kochi has also dealt with the contemporary. Enter Mattancherry from Fort Kochi boat jetty and a massive wall is covered by graffiti featuring the women of Mattancherry, a ghazal singer, the goats around and birds. Titled ‘Debtor’s Prison’ and created by a group of artists named Backyard Civilisation, the piece narrates the present stories of Mattancherry, says member artist Shanto Antony. The group now plans a project called ‘Bazaar Road’ that will span out on six buildings in Bazaar Road talking about the buildings’ history, myths from the area and its present-day state.

“Graffiti art evolves from the people,” says Shanto. “It interacts with the public like no other art form does. It is like a form of theatre, for me. The audience, while we were painting, were sometimes boatmen, other times people returning from mosques. All of them have entered the art.”

And sometimes, the public talks back to art too. During the 2012 Kochi Biennale, artist Daniel Connell’s charcoal wall-portrait of tea seller Achu was defaced, but he re-created it later.

“Public art is really a democratisation of art,” says Bonny Thomas, Biennale Foundation’s Trustee. “A study we did revealed that in Kochi alone, there are 50 trained sculptors who are now otherwise occupied for lack of work.” The Foundation’s public sculpture of Chinnathambi Annan, Chavittunatakam’s first guru, was created by one such artist named Anto George. “The sculpture was created based on the myths and legends around Chinnathambi, which is another function that public art can harness.”

The survival of public art in today’s age really depends on how we maintain what we have, says Kaladharan. “If the existing works are restored, and they can be if done correctly, public art can transform into a tourist attraction in itself. It is also hugely educational for young artists today.”

Adds Bonny, “It’s one of the few ways by which the aesthetics of our contemporary times will live on in the future.”