An imposing Egyptian-style pyramid greets visitors at the entrance to India’s biggest art festival, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB).
Slovenian artist Ales Stegar is busy taking a team of visitors into the dark interiors of the mammoth structure, titled The Pyramid of Exiled Poets. Covered with cow dung cakes, mud and bamboo mats, the pyramid is meant to represent a tomb for cast-out poets.
“It is a tribute to those who have lost their lives and homes for airing their writings,” he says.
A couple of metres away, Chilean artist Raul Zurita is inviting visitors to walk through his Sea of Pain, an installation of placid, dimly lit, ankle-deep water meant as a reminder of the mounting woes of Syria’s refugees. The artist has dedicated his work to 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed ashore in Turkey last year.
Anamika Haksar, meanwhile, is blending theatre and art in an installation that comments on growing injustice and inequality on the subcontinent.
Titled Composition on Water, she is using Dalit writers’ texts as the foundation for improvisation, encouraging actors to experiment with the audience so that each performance begins, unfolds and ends differently.
“This biennale is aimed at triggering a dialogue between multiple perspectives and possibilities,” says curator Sudarshan Shetty. “Titled Forming in the Pupil of an Eye, more meanings emerge as one keeps the inner eye open.”
An art biennale, incidentally, is a large-scale curated event held once every two years to bring art, artists and art lovers together without an eye on commerce; art cannot be bought at a biennale and artists participate for the prestige of having been invited.
A total of 97 artists from 31 countries have descended on coastal Kerala for its three-month celebration of art, which has left Kochi and its neighbouring Muziris awash in colour as art works pop up on walls, pillars and streetsides.
Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec, for instance, is writing an 88-chapter novel on the walls of Aspinwall, the sprawling seafront heritage property — a one-time trading complex — that is the main venue of the KMB.
The KMB is spread across 12 venues and 500,000 sq feet, with the art on display ranging from lampooning cartoons to mammoth installations, mellifluous music and thought-provoking performing art.
“This is the experience of a lifetime,” says Deepa Shah, 24, an IT professional from Bangalore.
“I liked the pyramid very much. Once inside you really feel these poets singing in front of you.”
There is no commercial angle, adds K Meedu, 23, a professional dancer from Thrissur. “It is truly art for art’s sake and you can see world famous artists in the midst of an enthusiastic audience.”
Among the repeat visitors was Unnikrishnan Nair, 38, a school teacher from Palakkad who has been to every edition of the biennale since it was launched in 2012.
“This time has been the most organised so far, and the selection of works is amazing,” he says.
“My favorite is the giant mural by PK Sadanandan, featuring icons and narratives inspired by mythology. Natural colour is used in the 15-metre-long and 3-metre-wide work.”
Among the 22 volunteers who have put their lives on hold to help plan and organise the mammoth endeavour is recent architecture graduate Pavneet Singh, 24, who has come all the way from Chandigarh, driven by his love for art.
“It is nothing to do with my profession. But art is my first love and I wanted to be a part of the biggest art event going,” he says. “I just finished my course, so this is my break. I’ll be here for a month.”
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
About 2 km from the main venue, at Gallery OED, a collective of 16 artists from Artists in Residence, a 45-year-old US-based women’s art initiative, have 16 of their works on display.
“Our art offers a wealth of inquiry and insight into mutable and shifting senses of identity that might be defined by gender, race, ethnicity or geography,” says curator Kathyryn Myers.
There’s also a special exhibition of the work of rebel artist Brij Mohan Anand (1928-1986), a relatively unknown painter whose highly political art served as a raised voice against neo- imperialism and cultural indoctrination in the last century.
“The works of such undiscovered artists best capture the spirit of their time as seen from the common man’s perspective,” said acclaimed filmmaker Shaji N Karun, inaugurating the exhibition.
Take a dekko at the last edition of KMB here
Another interesting feature of the third edition is the Student Biennale, where works by 470 aspiring artists from 46 art schools across the country — ranging from Imphal Art College in Manipur to Goa College of Art in Panaji — are on display.
“The student biennale platform will channel the energies of the mammoth art event into the Indian art education system. It is expected to mature into a space to explore diversity of styles and creativity,” says artist Bose Krishanmachari, co-founder of KBM.
“People have taken it up in a big way. Kochi is now on top of the art map,” adds fellow co-founder Riyas Komu.
What next? Organisers are upbeat after Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who inaugurated the event, promised it a permanent venue.
Currently, besides Aspinwall, some of the venues spread out across Kochi and Muziris include the Pepper House and Kashi cafés, the Durbar Hall grounds, the Dutch Warehouse godown and the heritage Kottapuram Fort.