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The Kochi-Muziris Biennale: India'S First Biennale Of Contemporary Art In Kerala

By Swapna Vora  |  Kochi, India, 29 January 2013

"The Kochi-Muziris Biennale could be one of the greatest things to happen to contemporary art in India". - Atul Dodiya - an Indian artist. The city of Kochi is in Kerala, south west India. Situated on the coast, the sight and sound of the sea is never far away. Kerala and the city of Kochi have a long history: nearby Tripunithura has a prehistoric menhir and the Muziris excavation reveals a port dated 1AD.

Kerala in south west India, the home of coconut groves and matriarchy, is also the home of Raja Ravi Verma, once scorned and now adored with equal passion. The general public have always loved his colorful, mythological prints for their homes.

Two internationally established artists, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, have now organised India's first contemporary art biennale: the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) at Kochi, in Kerala. KMB began officially on 12 December 2012 and will continue until 13 January 2013. Bose said his three-month long biennale is possibly “the country's largest exhibition of contemporary art”.  Komu added that while ‘KMB is not exclusive’, they had to choose to whom to allocate sites.

In 2010, KMB received approximately $US1 million from the Marxist government then in power in Kerala. The Congress Party, now in power, apparently with-held funds but fortunately institutions supported the controversy-ridden KMB. Many artists promptly and painstakingly raised money to travel and present their art. Ninety contemporary artists, some renowned, some with local promise, are exhibiting works in a range of mediums including: paintings, sculpture, installations, and video, It is a really a wonderful, slightly whimsical festival of contemporary art displayed in six historical venues.

Josef Semah’s (Baghdad) wood and copper creation, 72 Privileges, describes the support given to Jews and Christians by Kochi’s Hindu Raja in the 8th century. Subodh Gupta’s huge Kerala rice boat lies in one hall. It somehow feels tragic, laden as it is with the flotsam of human lives and seems to evoke reports of flight, of families hastily carrying belongings: events the rest of us would rather forget. Gupta’s work often involves ordinary everyday goods, what we all depend on daily: bowls, spoons, a chair or a fan.

Next to Gupta’s boat, lies Sundaram’s Black Gold.  Here Sundaram evokes Kochi and its twin, Muziris, smothered by mud and myths after a massive flood or earthquake in the 14th century. He was inspired after meeting Dr. P. J. Cherian, who is investigating the excavation. When the historian said ‘millions’ (of tiny pottery shards), Sundaram stopped him: he had found his inspiration, he had discovered one city and could create another. He borrowed the shards and reflected on how the sea might have kneaded sand and shifted a city’s stones into shapes. He stirred in 15 kilos of black gold, (pepper) to create ‘a strange, mysterious landscape like maybe the Moon’. Black gold, the reason Europe sought India.

The Gujarat girls, Zeal Parikh, Harshika Ameen and Pooja, chose Kerala umbrellas (muthukuda), hung coconut shells and drew colorful pictures of sights around Fort Kochi. L Zhang Enli’s watercolours are inspired by the ‘unforgettable songs and dances’ of Bollywood films.

Bengaluru’s famous Sheela Gowda often uses quotidian things like a dangling red rope or human hair in odd, unusual ways, which make you stop still. Concerned about home and gender, she brought 170 pieces of granite kitchenware. These huge and heavy stones are traditionally used for grinding pulses and spices for daily meals. The notes to the work state they were once ‘thought to be unmovable parts of homes and lives’, and so she moved them to Kerala. Why 170 pieces? She does not say.

South African artist Clifford Charles bases his work on objects from the streets and painted an Enfield motorcycle rather cheerfully. The Gujarat girls, Zeal Parikh, Harshika Ameen and Pooja, chose Kerala umbrellas (muthukuda), hung coconut shells and drew colorful pictures of sights around Fort Kochi. L Zhang Enli’s watercolours are inspired by the ‘unforgettable songs and dances’ of Bollywood films. The US-Afghan artist Amanulla Mojadidi said his Sufi ancestors had travelled from Kabul to India and back in the 17th century and so he dreamed and built a home they might have lived in. He wonders, “What was their journey like, did they feel safe, were they nourished by their travel?”

Australian artist Daniel Connell works with charcoal to sketch Achu, the tea vendor and a few fishermen: Benjamin, Anees, Peter, Joseph, Saifu, Verghese and Felix, all now local heroes. A passerby reiterated someone’s words, “He is etching unknown faces from the tropical coast: first in his heart, then on his canvas”. Humanity so often loves the ordinary, the homely and the comforting.

Amar Kanwar’s amazing use of technology shows videos on handmade pages where words describe Odisha’s farmers and the sad, immensely dangerous loss of biodiversity. This situation presents a huge threat as humanity loses grains with traits like great resistance to difficult conditions like drought or certain pests. In one devastating book, each page simply carries the name of a farmer who committed suicide thanks to the terminator seeds. He said if peasants’ land is stolen, their centuries old knowledge of farming will disappear. His work blurs books and film as he debates resistance and ‘clarity, even temporary clarity’. All clarity, he adds, is temporary, all comprehension has contradictory elements.

Mihaela Brebenel’s film, Auditions for a Revolution, addresses the fall of communism in Romania in 1989 when the world witnessed the first televised revolution. The film shows besieged, occupied TV studios in Bucharest followed by a trial and an execution, telling us tales of the preciousness of freedom and survival.

Vasco da Gama landed at Kerala in 1498 and so the Portuguese artist, Rigo 23 examines Kappiri, (African slaves), brought by Portuguese colonisers to Kochi. Hindu kings have historically welcomed every religion and he realized that the Kappiris, like all visitors, were encouraged to build their own temples. He brought 10-metres of bamboo reeds and coconut coir to an old, disused Kochi shipyard and paired his Kochi Tower with Lisbon’s 16th century Belem Tower. He speaks of Kappiri, the black slaves killed by the Portuguese before they left and his Echo Armada, tells ‘untold stories’. Through his cylindrical work, we see a container terminal. A figure represents Talappana Namboodhri, the Hindu priest murdered by Vasco da Gama who cut off his ears and stitched on dog ears. Rigo 23 uses temple lights to honour those who welcomed the Portuguese and were subsequently murdered.

Kochi’s officials declared, “The Kochi-Muziris Biennale could lead to a surge in the number of people wanting to take up art professionally”. The Biennale was hailed as the “real emerging Kerala, a novel aesthetic experience”. Kochi is brimming with creativity and inspires all who visit. — [O]

Swapna Vora has written on Indian art for years. She was VP at Asia TV Network, GM at UTV, and editor at the Taj magazine and the Indian Express, North America. She has lived and worked in Hong Kong, Kenya, Lebanon and Britain and misses them all. She now works in America and India. 

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