Kerala

From spice to art, biennale anchors Kochi

The morning of December 12, 2012 was thick, almost uncertain, as a weary troop of artists got into a huddle in the courtyard of Aspinwall House, a rundown 19th century sea-facing building complex that lay supine by virtue of having remained shut for years on end in the otherwise vibrant urban topology of Fort Kochi.

Its spectral vistas had looked dazed, as if suddenly resuscitated back to life, even as the artists winched up a multicoloured flag marking the opening of a newly-founded art carnival, Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB).

The odds were heavily stacked against the event – as litigations, cash crunch, hostility from a section of local artists, scepticism over the unfamiliar, and lampooning by the art orthodoxy made it a tall order.

The opening scene, no less than chaotic with work still in progress, fuelled further doubts about its sustainability. A fatigued Bose Krishnamachari, who along with fellow artist Riyas Komu, captained the project and also curated the opening edition, walked up to this correspondent and said: “Even if it were to close tomorrow, we can be proud that we managed to fight the odds to open India’s first biennale.”

Much water has flowed under the Calvathy bridge since. With days now for the closure of its third edition curated by Sudarshan Shetty, its main venue is being spoken of with awe around the world.

“It’s the Arsenale of Kochi, the mother space in every sense. It’s to KMB what Arsenale is to the Venice Biennale,” affirms Mr. Komu, secretary of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) and KMB director of programmes.

Globally, it has become the face of the KMB. So much so, that the Government of Kerala has now promised to obtain it from its private owners to make the ancient spice trade hub, and the adjoining Cabral Yard, into a permanent cultural centre, which will anchor the biennale and host art events and cultural exchanges during the non-biennale period.

Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran recently announced that Aspinwall House is best-suited as a permanent locale for the KMB, a ‘perfect model of cultural tourism’ whose ongoing edition has already logged a footfall of over five lakh visitors comprising local people, domestic tourists and art enthusiasts, and foreigners, including the who’s who of the contemporary art world.

The Tourism Department has also branded it as a ‘must-visit-site’ in Kerala, with the idea of further linking it up with participatory tourism initiatives in the region such as the Muziris Heritage Project (MHP) and the Spice Route Project.

That the Kottappuram Fort part of the MHP was made one of the venues of the present edition of the biennale was a step towards this, which brought more visitors along the Muziris circuit this biennale season.

Bilbao effect

The sobriquet, ‘People’s Biennale’ wherein it has turned into an instrument of democracy has sat snugly on the KMB, thanks to the Bilbao effect, the cultural economy that it has positively impacted tourism and business in the region.

A study carried out by international consulting firm KPMG in the wake of the maiden KMB had maintained that the biennale broke the tradition of learning by the book by providing the emerging talent a lived experience at one of the world’s most popular events, as mentioned in the recently published book, The Biennale Effect: A Politics of Contemporary Art. The firm is back at West Kochi again, conducting another survey and research on the cultural economy catalysed by the KMB.

Key global player

The biennale has doubtless plotted the city on the world map as a key participant in the ongoing contemporary art and cultural discourse, which is evident from the continual high-profile visits of international curators and art patrons to the show.

“It’s really amazing, ambitious and exceeds my expectations. Fabulous to see the ancientness of the space against the newness of the works,” says Kitty Scott, Carol and Morton Rapp Curator (Modern and Contemporary Art) at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada, who will be co-curating the 2018 edition of the Liverpool Biennial.

On her first visit to India, she thinks that people’s biennale is going to be mutually beneficial for the artists as well as the neighbourhood population.

Ongoing art education

On the educational front, the Students Biennale (SB) launched by the KBF has made giant strides with the current edition witnessing participation of 465 art students from across India.

Sarojini Lewis, who scouted arts colleges across Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur and curated collaborative works of 55 student artists from the north-eastern region, explains how she worked assiduously since 2013 holding curatorial workshops involving intensive discussions to create a fluid, visual language in an assemblage of works.

She got the students sensitively use traditional material and practices to put together a contemporary installation.

The Art By Children (ABC) initiative involving students from 100 schools presented another win-win and is set to leapfrog. Besides, as noted international curator Adriano Pedrosa puts it, the biennale being a ‘temporary museum’ has cultivated an art culture, engaging the public, cultivating a generation of budding artists and the results of which will be evident a few years from now.

Ongoing art discourses such as the ‘Let’s Talk’ series of cultural dialogues, curated artists’ cinema, workshops on novae practices such as ‘art performance’ carry on the biennale wave even after the main show gets over.

Strong narrative

Thematically, too, the KMB has been recognised for its rich tapestry of well-defined content and unique visual idiom. While the core metaphor hinging on plurality pervades each edition, the first had its thrust on the colonial past, the rich history of the region seen with the advantage of hindsight.

The second, titled ‘Whorled Explorations’ curated by Jitish Kallat in 2014, used Kochi, central to transformative astronomy and mathematics historically, as an eyepiece to view the universe and its expansive space along which the earth moves fast.

As curtains come down on the third edition, the focus is on seeing a point in time, culture, history both vertically and horizontally. A good number of works in the current edition deal with water, flow – both realistically and imaginatively – to address questions of existence, identity, movement, and contemporary socio-political issues.

‘In the Sea of Pain’ by Raul Zurita became an instant hit from day one because of the narrative’s emotional pull and strong political overtone. “Poetry, videos, literary texts, and fiction strewn across the city are particularly noticeable features of the present edition that’s at once cerebral and spontaneous. It helps laypeople connect with the narrative. It’s educative,” remarks noted artist Atul Dodiya.

Winding down

On Thursday, as you walk about, the crowd gets thicker, with people thronging Aspinwall House to watch an open rehearsal of Anamika Haksar’s ‘Composition on Water’, a theatre-based installation that has drawn heavily from Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal’s poem on the different dimensions of water – as life, flow, nitric acid, as markers of caste identity, power and deprivation and the like.

Outside, you bump into Munira Al Sayegh, who is curating Bayn, the 2017 edition of the UAE Unlimited Exhibition in Abu Dhabi.

She thinks that there’s a sense of heroism, as if making an effort to save something which marks the biennale narrative in this edition. There’s the question of identity, the disappearance of it and an attempt to claim or disclaim it, she says.

“If identity needs to be found, it can be found through the narrative of nostalgia or it is okay for it to be lost. The point of identity is also the idea of transformation. There’s an interesting dialogue that takes place here.” On her second visit to the KMB, she thinks it is an ‘essential’ biennale.


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