Inspired by reformer Ayyappan, artist brings community feasting into Biennale exhibit

Vipin Dhanudharan is inspired by the late social reformer Sahodaran Ayyappan who had famously put together a community feast to bring people of all castes together in 1917.
Inspired by reformer Ayyappan, artist brings community feasting into Biennale exhibit
Inspired by reformer Ayyappan, artist brings community feasting into Biennale exhibit
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Young Ashraf is hissing, as he passes around a plate of cut vegetables sprayed with salt and pepper. “Did you add too much of chilly?” Vipin Dhanurdharan asks, helping himself to a carrot. “That’s nice, you made the salad yourself and now you are burning from it,” Vipin laughs, as Ashraf walks away, passing his little contribution to others who have come by, people he has never met before.

It is at a small shed in a corner of the Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi that all the cutting of vegetables and making of coffee is happening. Community dining, Vipin’s idea. At a room nearby, Vipin has hung pictures of people – portraits of those who had welcomed him to their homes and shared their meals with him. This little project is Vipin’s exhibit at the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

“The idea comes from reading about Sahodaran Ayyappan’s initiative called Mishra Bojanam (Community Dining) during the renaissance period in Kerala,” Vipin says. Sahodaran Ayyappan, a social reformer, had famously organised the community feast at a time untouchability was widely prevalent in Kerala, when people from lower castes were made to stay several metres away from the upper castes. Ayyappan, in his community feast of 1917 in Cherai, brought together people from all castes, including the Pulaya community which was considered to be untouchable. The idea was to fight the evils of casteism. That’s how he earned the name of Sahodaran – meaning, brother.

Vipin in 21st century Kochi tried a variant of Ayyappan’s feasting by meeting random people on the road and talking to them about the idea of having meals together. Some would immediately call him to their home, some would not be interested in the idea of having a stranger over. “It would be random people I meet on the road. I would talk to them about Sahodaran Ayyappan and his mishra bhojanam. And when I visit their homes to share a meal, I would paint their portraits,” Vipin says. It is these portraits of people of all ages that hang at the Biennale now. He has titled every one of them with the prefix Sahodaran or Sahodari (sister). He has also documented his visits to the houses.

Vipin's visit to a house, documented, as part of the art project

Vipin has been working with the Biennale since the very first edition, in 2012. As a volunteer first, in the production team next, and when there is no Biennale, he works in the library at Pepper House, another venue of the grand art fest. He is also one of the founders of Kalakakshi, an artists’ collective, that engages with social issues, calls for democratic strikes and so on. ‘Sahodharar’ is Vipin’s first exhibit at the Biennale.

“To address the residues of caste discrimination that still linger in contemporary society, throughout the duration of the biennale, once a week, Dhanurdharan will organise a community dining experience in the grounds of the main exhibition venue, Aspinwall,” the description outside his exhibition says. Anyone visiting the venue can cook and serve and eat together. We see at Vipin’s make-shift kitchen two foreigners shaking salt and pepper tins, and kids, including Ashraf, joining them by beating on pots to make some music while they cook. Clearly, Vipin’s idea of communal harmony is working without effort. 

The community dining experience Vipin set up at Biennale

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