All these 90 days Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation secretary Riyas Komu was interviewed by the national and international media. But on the day the art extravaganza was supposed to end, Mr. Komu turns the microphone to a Kochiite in an exclusive interview to find out what the Biennale means to the city. Nidhi Surendranath listens to Mr. Komu’s conversation with former city Mayor and Fort Kochi Veli councillor K.J. Sohan.
Riyas: Whenever you spoke about Kochi, you always went back to one of Gandhi’s statements that Kochi was “the epitome of adventure.”
Sohan: Gandhi, in this statement, has placed the very essence of the creation, sustenance, and the future of Kochi. The latest of Kochi’s adventures is the biennale. It would sound like a crazy idea to anyone, even to an artist. But somehow or the other, with all the confusion, it came through.
The spirit of adventure brought the Chinese, the Arabs and all others to our shores. The spirit still remains. Of all the commodity boards in the country, the pepper exchange started in Mattanchery was the first. We had online trading when the rest of India was scared of the markets getting conquered. A small town like Kochi went online and took on the world. Fifteen to twenty years ago nobody thought we could sustain the pepper exchange.
Riyas: When events get transformed into history, when a new brave model, as Gandhi suggested, gets created, where do you locate a project like the biennale?
Sohan: See, the biennale venue is a blighted place. It’s a slum. Not a migrant slum like you see elsewhere. Here was the most prosperous core of the economy and the livelihood of the region. People envied the Kochiite at a point. But it was all lost when containerisation and modernisation came. The biennale brings focus on that area.
Riyas: The Biennale has used the complex lineage of Kochi or Muziris as a reference point to bring about a sense of healing or create a new discourse. You were once the first citizen of the city. How do you explore the potential of a project to heal people of a place you call blighted? What did you feel about the biennale as a Kochiite?
Sohan: For the local people, it was a great revelation, an unraveling of their own heritage and understanding their relationship with Muziris. How Muziris died and this city was born is a new idea for everyone in Kochi. Very few people knew about it. This is a celebration of the cosmopolitanism that existed. All these eminent people were pulled to the city. That gives a sense of pride to the people. Everybody said ‘this actor, or that official has come, Sam Pitroda has come, T.K.A. Nair has come – the biennale has brought that kind of attention to the region. People have realized that there is a future here. Everybody will be proud to say ‘I belong to Fort Kochi.’ It has given an element of pride to people who have nothing else to be proud of.
Riyas: We were also talking about the possibility of preserving a zone for art and cultural activities. It would also become a space where all your values are celebrated. Do you see people’s interest in such a space?
Sohan: People have already accepted it. At the biennale, you have been very good at identifying these local people. Like the project on the fishermen who died at sea. Even their families had forgotten them. But they have been enshrined at the biennale. And a whole lot of youngsters, like the cycle repairman Venu, Latheef, Nelson – all of them are displayed there. A people who have become slummed relate to these local faces.
The word slum comes from slumber. Slums are sleepy places. Social backwardness is a stage where you do not understand what your needs are. Centuries of domination and killing of your mind make you backward. For those people, when something like the biennale happens, it comes as change. Biennale is a change agent. It has tried to help the people and the city to identify that heritage, culture and cosmopolitanism are the strengths on which Fort Kochi can be built further.
Riyas: How do you think biennale is going to provoke the administration?
Sohan: That is something that remains to be seen. A lot of the installations speak a different language. You will see a perspective different from what we see daily.
The Malayali, in spite of everything, is a very conservative person. One of the characteristics of our society is that we are nurtured on slogans. Slogans are basically emotions. Despite all the slogans, we don’t love change.
The biennale threw up a lot of avenues of change, particularly in the way we look at things. Many of the works are going to provoke people. Even after the biennale is gone, small biennales will go on.
Riyas: What this project also does is to look at a region that was globalised over 3,000 years ago. Do you think the biennale tries to understand globalisation?
Sohan: Certainly. The globalised context of Muziris and the continuing line to Kochi has become visible to people. All those who have come here have made the land their home. Joseph Semah’s installation talks about the 72 privileges given by a Hindu king to the Jewish community. That was so many centuries ago and the spirit still continues here.
Every community is powerful in its own way. The Christian community does the fishing, the Muslim community sells the fish. On Ramzan the Christians don’t go out fishing because the Muslims will be celebrating. On Christmas the Muslims will not sell fish because the Christians have a holiday. These are all inter-connected without anybody talking about it. So it was not just the Maharajas who were receptive to secular ideas. Even the common people had tolerance.
I take pride in saying that Islam came here during the time of Nabi itself. Christianity came here in the first century. Even in Rome, it was accepted only in the third century.
Riyas: Has the biennale popularised contemporary art?
Sohan: Anything you do has no relevance unless the people understand it. You may say you are the biggest artist in the world, but if you go back home and nobody understands your work, what is the point?
Even when you thanked all those involved in the project you thanked the auto drivers and the labourers. That was wonderful. Nobody ever thinks of these people, but they’re very important.
Riyas: What were your favourite artworks in the biennale?
Sohan: One was Amar Kanwar’s work. It brings out some silent, hushed up voices. Displacement is relevant in Kochi’s context too. We built a road to Vallarpadam and we displaced 400-odd families six or seven years ago. Even today only few families have been given a house. These people are bitter, very bitter. But they don’t protest because they know that some minister or leader will take up their cause. This acts as a shock absorber.
Riyas: What were the other works you liked?
Sohan: I liked both the installations done by Vivan Sundaram. The one on Muziris gives its background – how a city was destroyed, about migration and all that.
Even the flag mast of the biennale shows the different levels of support required to run the event.
Riyas: You’ve been part of some of the seminars at the biennale, on urbanism, heritage, and the maritime museum. We had an international seminar on arts writing. These were all going on parallel to the biennale. Do you think these studies have to be taken up by the State?
Sohan: It has to be taken up at all levels. If you walk around the interior streets of Mattancherry, you will find many other spaces like Aspinwall. Ninety per cent of the old godowns are vacant. Instead of building new structures for IT parks you can remodel these buildings and use them. They have to be preserved and revitalized. Otherwise, they will all be demolished.
Riyas: Do you think that cosmopolitanism is also scary in some ways? That it may revive memories of colonialism?
Sohan: India is growing powerful. We have to shed all these complexes. Look at the future. The average age of an Indian is 25 years. Tomorrow is ours if we focus on the right areas.
We have economic power, but not equity. With the cost of one fighter plane, you could install toilets in a lot of houses.
Riyas: Would you recommend that as a concept the next biennale address the complex life of the people or try to revive the lifestyle of a certain region?
Sohan: That is a challenge. All the students from foreign universities did projects here. But they did not look at the core issues of this blighted area. It is a treasure house. But people don’t realize that. Heritage is our main strength. We don’t have to do it for the tourists, do it for the local people. People have to realise that we have a glorious past. These are the ways our fathers have lived. We have to look back to look forward.