The Biennale has immersed new generations in art, and turned Kerala's abandoned gateway of trade into a gateway of art.

How the Kochi-Muziris Biennale brought art to the backwaters and put the city on the world mapInstagram/Kochi-Muziris Biennale
news Art Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 17:22

By Vidhya CK

For many years, time stood still in the warehouses of Fort Kochi. The aroma of spices that permeated the whole of the little estuary – once a bustling trade centre – giving way to the mustiness in the dimly-lit, dank halls. The wooden stairs had long ceased to creak.

Outside, Chinese nets – most of them past their prime – dotted the coastal line, even as vessels sailing in and out added to the slow pace of the region. Beyond the vessels, on the opposite bank, high-rises denoted the hustle and bustle of the mainland. 

In the evenings, cafes that mostly catered to tourists, turned on their loudspeakers, and the voice of Bob Marley wafted into the warehouses through windows that someone had forgotten to shut. Redemption, however, looked impossible for the once symbols of richness.

Yet, it came unexpectedly, in the form of art. It changed the narrative of the warehouses, relegated and left to rot in history. It changed the perspective of the average Malayali, for whom art was confined to canvas, on which the painter created landscapes, beautiful people and gods.

And it found Fort Kochi a permanent place in the global art scene.

For the third time since its launch at 12 noon on December 12, 2012, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) opened on December 12, 2016, in the breathtaking backwaters of Kochi.

 Spread across a dozen venues in Kochi, Muziris and the surrounding islands, which include old warehouses and heritage buildings, and spanning 108 days until March 29, this Biennale is host to 97 artists from around 31 countries.

Mumbai-based Sudarshan Shetty, one of India’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, is the artistic director and curator of “Forming in the Pupil of an Eye”, the 2016–17 edition of the Biennale.

The title fits the multiplicity of experiences the curator wants to provide through the diverse mix of manifestations of art, culture, literature, music and dance. Among those showcasing their visual and performance art are 36 Indian artists, including graphic artists Orijit Sen and Avinash Veeraraghavan, political cartoonist EP Unny, mural artist PK Sadanandan, theatre artiste Anamika Haksar, artist Bhaskaran Bara, and author Sharmistha Mohanty. It is from the poetry of Sharmistha that the latest edition of the cultural extravaganza borrows its title.

On the choice of the title Shetty explains, “The poem indirectly borrows the idea from the Vedic idea that when a sage opens his eyes to the world, he assimilates all the multiplicities of the world into that single vision, as one, and also reflects back into the world… eyes are the only reflective surface in the body… It is about assimilating all the diversity of images into that single moment of vision and reflecting back upon the world.”

In its third edition, the Biennale is seemingly more accepted by the local people, and more imbricated with the fabric of life in Kochi. It wasn’t so when artist-curators Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the co-founders of the KMB chose Kochi as the launch venue in 2012.

Many Kerala artists had expressed doubts over the funding of the Biennale and questioned the patronage given by the Kerala government when local art, artists, monuments and heritage were all bereft of any state support or encouragement.

Despite a strong art culture, Kerala artists have always lacked patronage, which has led artists from the time of Raja Ravi Varma or KCS Panicker to even Biennale co-founders Bose and Komu to seek glory and thrive outside the state.

The radical movement that started in the 1980s as a reaction to the Emergency saw artists from Kerala bring art to the masses by organising camps in markets and other public spaces. But these artists had to move out of Kerala for higher education or for work.

Over the past four years, however, local people have made KMB their own and embraced the socio-economic and cultural rewards that have come with being home to world art and artists biannually for a quarter of a year.

Kerala, with its lack of capitalistic culture, makes way for mass participation in an event like the biennale. “Such public orientation also brings in a strong political context. This aspect is strongly felt in the Biennale,” says senior journalist Amrith Lal.

Art curator Jiss Victor feels “thanks to the Biennale, trade has improved in and around Kochi.”

Victor is particularly pleased with the excellent collections of the current edition, and points out that the Biennale has successfully highlighted the rich history of Muziris and elevated it on the world map. “That’s a huge achievement,” he says.

Art lovers, art enthusiasts and even those who barely understand art have all immersed themselves in this celebration of art, slowly turning the gateway of trade into the gateway of art, and taking Kochi to a new level of cultural sensibility.

“Kochi Biennale has transformed itself into a platform for exchange of new ideas,” says M Ramachandran of Lalit Kala Academy. “It’s a huge space that opens up interaction. Watching a Kathakali performance requires acquaintance with local folklore and culture. But, the Biennale offers a different space.”

It’s the kind of space that transcends barriers and takes art out into the open from the inside the gallery and lets it flow. A kind of space that, Jiss believes, is “boundary-less.”

 For example, Chilean artist and poet Raul Zurita’s poetic installation Sea of Pain, which is on exhibit in the latest edition, is an ode to the Syrian refugee crisis and the lasting image of Aylan Kurdi, the child who drowned. The work provokes the viewers to question themselves on how they act in a brutal world.

Amrith Lal calls Zurita’s work, “experiencing the poem linking it with the landscape” as the viewers read the poem with their feet immersed in muddy seawater.

For Kochi-based artist Ranjini Nirmal, besides being a reason for pride, the Biennale is also platform that exposes the people of the state to new media of art. A regular visitor, Ranjini likens the Biennale to an “art school”.

PK Sadanandan is still working on his mural based on the folklore piece, “Parayi Petta Panthirukulam”, which translates to “12 kulams (families) born to a Paraiyar woman”.

“This exposes the audience to a first-hand view of the artist and his working method,” says Lal. “It exposes the audience to the artist’s method of thinking.”

Art is not always for the masses, but it should be accessible. “The Biennale is doing just that—intellectually engaging. The Biennale is definitely access to good art,” Lal says.

The Student’s Biennale, which runs parallel to the KMB, offers a platform for students from government-run art colleges to showcase their talent.

Just as importantly, in the era of post-truth, when society is consciously turning conservative, KMB has become a space that allows for multilayered interaction.

“The impact of this interaction may not be imminently visible. Its impact will be felt 10 years later or so,” says Delhi-based artist Sumedh Rajendran, who exhibited his work in the first edition.

For these and other reasons, as the artists keep adding newer layers to their ongoing creations and old and new visitors throng the waterfront, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale continues to make a splash across the expanse of the islands.

Courtesy for images: Facebook/Kochi-Muziris Biennale

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