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Updated: September 21, 2012 12:00 IST

Kochi to turn into a canvas for world artists

S. Anandan
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The Hindu

Artists troop in from all around the world to be part of the Kochi-Muziris biennale that will begin on 12/12/12

This December, the contemporary art world will move into the city for a three-month sojourn beginning ‘12/12/12’, the day the maiden Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) opens.

India’s first biennale is billed to be a watershed in the port city’s evolution — from being a crucible of ancient cultures into an international hub of contemporary art.

With just about two months to go for the event, Kochi’s hallowed spaces are waking up from their slumber to mix vestiges of a culturally-rich past with stark modern realities.

It will be a déjà vu moment when Fort Kochi’s historical Pepper House and several warehouses of Mattancherry that stocked goods in Kerala’s ancient spice trade open their doors to works of art from around the globe.

The birth

The biennale was mooted by eminent artists Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari in 2010 at the instance of then Minister of Culture M. A. Baby. After a few rounds of talks, the government threw its weight behind the event and contributed Rs. five crore.

At Rs 3.5 crore, the ramshackle Durbar Hall building, the main exhibition space of the debut venture, was transformed into a more upmarket venue with climate control and lighting conforming to international gallery standards.

Initially, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation was hamstrung by a controversy over its use of public fund. The biennale team, however, bounced back to put things in perspective and sent its detractors to ignominy with a strong case for the art show.

Over the last two months scores of international and national artists trooped down to the city to do groundwork for their project at the event. Over 80 artists from 35 countries will take part in the non-commercial event occurring at spaces across the city.

“The biennale is a multi-discipline festival of contemporary art, and it is city-wide, so the artists participating are not restricted to the large enclosed venues,” says Michelangelo Bendandi, KMB communications director.

“For example Ariel Hassan's piece will include projections and distribution of a text via stands at multiple locations. Another artist’s proposal [is to have the show] is on a boat and yet another’s is an interactive piece in a public ground. Murals, street art, sound pieces and projections will be located in public places around the city, not just at biennale venues.”

Government support

Enamoured of the rich dividends of the art carnival, Mayor Tony Chammany is going the whole hog to extend the corporation’s support.

“We would like to offer our halls for the conduct of biennale-related programmes. A decision on this would be taken following discussions at the council and with the people,” he says.

Last month, the corporation supported a contemporary mural camp in the build-up to the biennale by offering its Pallath Raman Hall and the adjacent open-air theatre in Fort Kochi.

“We are in constant touch with the KMB team as Kochi needs such an event to ascertain its rightful place on the world tourism and art map. The corporation is resolute on doing everything within its powers to ensure that its halls and public grounds are made available for the event,” says K.J. Sohan, chairman of the corporation’s town planning standing committee.

Dominic Presentation, MLA, intends to organise a meeting of the biennale team with the Chief Minister and the Minister of Culture so that the event receives all possible support from the government.

“Knowing the kind of people visiting the art show over three months, this is sure to give a fillip to the tourism sector,” says Mr. Presentation.

But the government doesn’t intend to be generous with money anymore. Culture secretary Sajan Peter says while the government wouldn’t loosen its purse any further for the biennale, it will support the event by offering its infrastructure. “They have asked for more venues. Besides Durbar Hall, other venues will also be made available free of cost,” he says.

For the biennale organisers, the event is a game-changer for Kochi. The artists on bloke comprise a judicious mix of Indian and international, but the focus has been on creating a contemporary visual art idiom and initiating Kochi’s dialogue with modern art.

Apart from cementing people-to-people ties and bonding, it will trigger all-round economic growth in tourism and hospitality industries. Local artists stand to benefit from international exposure, they say.

Door to history

Biennale is a reminder of history. It connects modern art to the 600-old heritage of Kochi and further to its mythical past enriched by the ancient port of Muziris that disappeared in the 14th century.

“The history of the old port and the Muziris Heritage Project, basically a conservation project, will add value to KMB,” says conservation architect Benny Kuriakose, the force behind the heritage project. Understandably, Muziris area — Kodungallur and Paravur — will be sites for the display of sculptures during the biennale.

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