Nearly a millennium after Muziris ceased to be the glorious port of international maritime trade, two of the most successful contemporary Indian artists have now plotted Kochi-Kodungalloor on the international art map, making it a prime biennale venue. In the concluding week of the country’s biggest art event in recent times, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation president Bose Krishnamachari and secretary Riyas Komu tell The Hindu what it took to make it possible.
You were both successful outside the State and you brought that success here with you when you came to organise the biennale. Was that one of the reasons for the opposition you faced from other artists?
Riyas: One reason may have been the difference in schools of thought. Both of us studied at Sir J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai. You work – that’s what our upbringing taught us in relation to our art practice. The context is all around you like a big aura.
During the 90s, there was a strong shift in the context of art practice, which affected artists like Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat, any artist who practiced in Mumbai. Everybody’s work became political. Vivan Sundaram did a project on the politics of oil and the war in Iraq. He did another on the Mumbai riots.
Was the opposition caused by fear of your success?
Riyas: We admit our mistake of not giving those who opposed us an opportunity to express their opinion. We decided to start doing the work and let the work speak for itself.
They felt that they were left out of the project. But it’s an international project. We already have two artists in the trust. Then we have Hormis Tharakan, Jose Dominic, K. Subhas Chandran and others. This being an international art project, it made sense to include Hormis Tharakan rather than Kanayi Kunhiraman, because we are considering issues of diplomacy and expertise in organisation. If we had just put together an artists’ committee it would have been a mess.
Did you ever think, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore’?
Riyas: No, never.
Bose: That never happened. We had financial issues and almost everyday there was some kind of crisis. We never gave up. We were very confident that we could pull it off because we had incredible support from national as well as international artists and the art community. Here it was only three or four artists opposing the project. They had one spokesperson, a self-taught artist, who doesn’t know anything about contemporary practices, and was only talking about legal issues.
Riyas: We made an assessment actually. We got Rs.5 crore. We spent Rs.3.5 crore on Durbar Hall. Left over was Rs.1.5 crore. Then we realised no more money was coming. So we had our plan B. The plan B was to only focus on the show. We cut the flab like public art projects. We have still included culture projects; we have two public art projects – the Silappathikaram festival at Kodungalloor and the Annavi statue, which is getting sculpted as part of the Chavittunatakam project at Gothuruth. There were a lot of other plans to go into the local myth and create things.
Bose: All these things were in our mind. To make places cleaner, greener and art-friendly, to put up public sculptures. But we discarded them because of the fund crunch.
Was money your only constraint?
Riyas: Yes, because we had expertise, we had artists' support. We have a network and goodwill in place. Especially when we got this place [Aspinwall House at Fort Kochi], we decided we didn’t need the money. We just needed money to set up the lights and the works.
How much money have you lost?
Riyas: I don’'t think we have lost anything because we hope that money will come.
If it doesn't come?
Riyas: If it doesn't come we lose a lot.
Bose: I think we are in debt of Rs.5.5 crore.
Riyas: We will still survive. We are still sitting very confident that the money will come.
Bose: You see, if the biennale hadn’t happened now, it would never again have happened in India. Many people and artists have tried before. They tried in Delhi in 2005 to start a biennale. They had huge intellectual support. But the government did not support the project and it didn’'t happen. We were fortunate that whosoever started the project had the vision and the financial support. The present government was also trying to help us. But just before we got the cheque, we got into controversies. But we had the government’s support, they are still supporting us.
Riyas: The problem with a project like this is you need to work 24 hours to put all this together. Maybe it’s the first time in history that both curators of a biennale were present throughout.
Bose: That’s true. People come up and say this is the only biennale where we could sit with the curator and have tea and talk about things. Curators don’t sit through to the end at other biennales. They will put up the work and leave. The rest would have to be taken care of by the biennale foundation.
Are you confident that you will be able to continue with the biennale?
Bose: Yeah, yeah. If we could do this one, the next should be ok.
But it will be quite a challenge for the curator.
Riyas: Also, by doing this we’ve created a lot of goodwill. There’s confidence among people, also in the government. Take tourism, they’ve realised the opportunities of something like this.
I was talking to a friend the other day and he gave me this whole narrative about how Kochi changed. He said: First people heard that there is a biennale coming to Kochi. They thought it was a multi-national company. Slowly they realised it had something to do with art.
Then they read one day that we were embezzling money.
Bose: Some of the local labourers asked us, “Didn't you make crores out of this?” Crores! It was fun to hear them say it.
Riyas: The discourse was moving around that. But nearing the opening day, people became emotionally close to the project. That was amazing.
Now, everyone knows the details. Some have even been telling the volunteers that it looks like a tough job running the biennale. “It’s sad that the government isn’t giving them money,” is what they said. Everyone wants the project to be supported. They know the expenditure of running the biennale a day. Because they’ve been counting our losses.
Baby sir [former Education Minister M.A. Baby] made a statement on the opening day. He said “These two people were living very happily in Mumbai. I trapped them.”
What has been the effect of the biennale on the local art scene?
Bose: The biennale had a great ripple effect. The Madhavan Nair Foundation held a show in Kochi recently. Riyas was saying an artist brought a very large work here for that show.
Riyas: He said, “it's not the same Kochi. It's a biennale city now. I have to send good work.” People are expecting visitors of that level here because of the biennale.
Bose: We could erase a little bit of mediocrity. Why are Akademi shows mediocre? Because they don’t have any curators. Anybody can just book a space and exhibit their work. Most of them are hobby painters. I’ve seen it in Akademi shows, not only in Kerala. Few shows are curated properly. Hopefully, they have learnt how to imagine a project in a larger scale from the biennale. Indian artists, I think, are doing such a large project for the first time. It’s almost like a solo project for many artists. We have given them that freedom too. But artists have to understand art practice and theory. Most of the time curators dominate with their theory. Was it a mistake to have spent so much on Durbar Hall? At the end of the day you're not really using the space.
Riyas: I think Durbar Hall is one of the best spaces we created.
Bose: If you want to bring an international artist like Picasso or Van Gogh here, there are maybe only two places in India – one is National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi and the other is here – where you can bring a quality work.
Riyas: When you start preparing for a show, the first question asked is if the spaces are acclimatised.