The Venice Biennale, perhaps the biggest bi-annual event on the international art calendar, saw 5 lakh visitors in the six months of its 56th edition last year.
Another biennale closer home can boast a better turnout. The homegrown Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which held only its second edition in 2014, in Kerala, saw roughly the same number of people in its three-month run.
As the art festival prepares for its next edition from December 12, 2016 to March 29, 2017, artist Riyas Komu, the event’s co-founder and director of programmes, expects the number to go higher still. About 10 lakh are likely to catch new shows, rare exhibits, talks, films, residencies and other projects.
This means India’s fledgling biennale – a non-profit, artist-driven and determinedly individualistic enterprise – will have an audience equal to that of the world’s top 20 art fairs put together, says a report by the Skate’s Art Market Research.
And yet, seeking funds has been a struggle, almost from the start. “We closed the first edition of the biennale in 2012 with a loss of Rs 6.5 crore,” says Komu. They were promised Rs 5 crore by the Kerala government, but could only secure Rs 4 crore a year later despite a legal battle. It left them in Rs 2.5 crore debt. In addition, the biennale ran into controversies over allegations of not employing enough labour from Kerala.
The biennale went on with a second edition, nonetheless, with support pouring in from unexpected quarters. “A young artist from Kerala offered us his wife’s mangalsutra,” says Bose Krishnamachari, co-foumder and director of the event. “All our vendors, including auto rickshaw and taxi drivers, waited for a year to get their money. Another member of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, TK Hormis Tharakan, donated Rs 10 lakh that he had saved to build a house. One professor from Kerala, who’d attended the children’s exhibits, gave Komu Rs 2,500 as his way of “protesting those who opposed the event,” Komu says.
Komu and Bose went almost bankrupt, staking their properties and digging into their savings. Many artists and gallerists, including Jitish Kallat, Vivan Sundaram, Sudhir Patwardhan and Shireen Gandhi, contributed.” But a huge, undisclosed amount came from the art world itself. Kiran Nadar, an art collector, founder of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and wife of HCL Technologies’ Shiv Nadar, gave the biennale’s finances a shot in the arm.
“Across the world, biennales are important platforms that have the potential to positively impact our relationship with art,” says Nadar. “The Kochi Muziris Biennale’s efforts are in the same direction, to create a space for arts in the everyday life of people of India. I’m inspired with the way the event is impacting not just the local art scene in Kochi and in Kerala, but also the sub-continent. It has become one of the most important venues for international museum curators and artists.”
Over just two editions, public contribution has eclipsed government aid. The government input in 2012 amounted to 63%. In 2014, it was the individuals, art and cultural institutes and corporate houses that accounted for 67% of the contribution.
Bose still finds it unbelievable. “When we began, many of our friends critiqued the idea of a biennale in India,” he says. “Some said we’d never be able to get people who haven’t engaged with contemporary art to visit it. I think people now know what an installation is and no longer dismiss contemporary art. It has educated people about art. That is one of its great achievements.”
This edition’s theme merges traditional and contemporary art forms in ‘Forming in the pupil of an eye’, for which 89 fine artists, dancers, philosophers, poets and writers from 30 different countries will collaborate. Works will be created during the biennale and after, says Sudarshan Shetty, curator of the biennale and an acclaimed artist.
Scottish artist Hanna Tuulikki, whose work focuses on her country’s folklore and bird sounds, will collaborate with Kutiyattam dancer Kapila Venu on a project. On the agenda are ballets, dramas and poetry recitals all through the biennale. “A lot of these will emerge as the event unfolds and the way artists experience it,” says Shetty.
So no day will be like another, urging audiences to return for a new experience.