Community art: Behind the scenes at the Kochi biennale

  • Riddhi Doshi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 07, 2014 13:07 IST

As an artist, it is important to challenge the system. That struggle is what guarantees that you will be able to make the kind of art you want to make," says Riyas Komu, explaining why he, Bose Krishnamachari and Jitish Kallat have put their lives on hold to concentrate on the upcoming Kochi-Muziris biennale.

Named after the current capital of Kerala and the ancient port city of Muziris, India's first-ever biennale is now in its second edition. The 2012 event drew 400,000 visitors to a sprawling display of 89 works by artists from across 83 countries.

This time, it's bigger, with a separate section for works by art students, a number of panel discussions, workshops, film screenings and cultural events, and even a separate section for art and workshops for children. In all, the biennale will host 94 contemporary artists from 30 countries including the UK, China, Brazil, Iran, Pakistan, and Australia, at eight sites in Kochi, from December 12 to March 29.

The biennale was the brainchild of Komu and Krishnamachari, who also co-curated the first edition. This time, Kallat is serving as curator and creative director.

"It was just pure instinct that made me take up the project. I wasn't even thinking. I just said 'Oh really? Oh ya, thanks'. I felt committed to the idea."

For the trio, this has meant hitting pause on all their own art projects. Kallat has also rescheduled or cancelled many of his international shows.
The biennale was created as an alternative, experimental art platform. "We believe that it will create a better ecosystem for contemporary art in India, one that will involve people from all walks of life," says Komu. "We always knew that it wouldn't be easy, but we're glad to see that it is slowly evolving."

Work on the second edition of the art event began almost as soon as the first edition was done. In fact, all three artists have been camped at Kochi for the most part since June 2013, working to raise the required infrastructure, get the venues ready, and coordinate with artists. "Infrastructure is limited here, and funds are scarce, so we are working round the clock," says Krishnamachari, president of the non-profit Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF).

"Putting together this biennale is about shaking up the system, because it shifts the conversation on contemporary art in this subcontinent from the main cities to a far more evocative context - the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. This is important because it offers fresh perspective and reaches out to a completely new audience. The sheer volume and involvement of the audiences makes this biennale really, really interesting," says Kallat. "But organising it is a challenge - though that challenge is what keeps us going," adds Komu.

The logistical hurdles alone are varied and complex - especially on a tight budget.

This time, the Kerala government has given the foundation only Rs 1 crore so far, against Rs 9 crore in 2012. When the funds failed to arrive at the last minute, the foundation set up a crowdfunding initiative in mid-November that has, online and offline, raised lakhs already, with artists and art connoisseurs pitching in tens of lakhs each.

Artist Vivan Sundaram, for instance, donated Rs 40 lakh and Sudhir Patwardhan Rs 10 lakh, and they have decided to bear the cost of creating and installing their own works at the site.

"Many other artists and even some galleries have come forward to bear the cost of creating and installing art works," says Bose. "Art lovers such as gallerists Shireen Gandhy and Abhay Maskara and collector Poonam Shroff have also been acting as ambassadors for the biennale, calling on friends to donate funds. Overall, the response has been very heartfelt, and very heartening."

The organisers are still working on minimal resources, however.

"Funding is a huge issue. If we could have brought in eight contractors and finished off work in one stroke, it would be a different story. We have had to stagger processes a little bit," says Kallat.

The foundation is short on manpower too. In all, there are just 40 people on the core team, and 300 volunteers, most of them art and architecture students or art enthusiasts from Kochi.

"It's a huge task for such a small team and it's quite fantastic how these very young enthusiasts are so optimistic," says Kallat.

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