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Meet the Big Boss of India’s art scene

How many people can claim to persuade artist Anish Kapoor to change his mind? Bose Krishnamachari can, and that’s just one of the reasons why he’s one of India’s most powerful curators

brunch Updated: Mar 25, 2017 18:08 IST
Riddhi Doshi
Curator Krishnamachari Bose says the lack of patronage in art is the sole reason why many artists are not making it big.
Curator Krishnamachari Bose says the lack of patronage in art is the sole reason why many artists are not making it big.(Aalok Soni)

There was a bit of a ruckus in the art world last September, when the Yinchuan Biennale opened in China. The government had withdrawn the work of Ai Weiwei, one of the country’s top artists and an activist, for political reasons. In solidarity, artist and architect Anish Kapoor, who had also been invited to exhibit there, decided to boycott the biennale.

For artist Bose Krishnamachari, the curator of Yinchuan’s first ever biennale, it was a tense situation. Without both Weiwei and Kapoor, the contemporary art extravaganza would be roiled in politics right from the start.

So Krishnamachari did what he had to do. He convinced Kapoor to drop the politics for that moment. Though the artist refused to attend the event, he allowed his artwork to be displayed. The Yinchuan Biennale was saved, and its curator Bose Krishnamachari proved once again exactly how powerful he is in the international art world.

Chinese whispers

In his new 5,000 sqft studio in Mumbai – something of a miracle in a city with matchbox-sized apartments – 53-year-old Krishnamachari is overseeing renovations that had been interrupted five years ago in 2012, when he founded and curated the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

An internationally recognised art event, the 2012 Kochi-Muziris Biennale hosted the works of 89 artists from 23 different countries, and had four lakh visitors.

The second edition in 2014 attracted more than five lakh visitors, as many as the six-month long Venice Biennale does. And the ongoing third edition has had five lakh visitors so far.

It was because of the success and growing reputation of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that Bose was asked in November 2015 to curate Yinchuan’s first biennale. And just a short eight months later, the event opened to huge success on September 12, 2016, with the works of 73 artists, including India’s Sudarshan Shetty, Japan’s Yoko Ono and the UK’s Anish Kapoor.

“I don’t think any other biennale was hosted at such short notice,” says Bose. “When the Chinese government removed Weiwei, I was upset. And when Anish Kapoor pulled out in solidarity with Weiwei, I was shocked. The host, Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art, had spent a lot to get Kapoor’s work, and so close to the opening of the event, I had to convince him to stay. So I urged him to think about the efforts the museum was putting in promoting contemporary art in a region where nobody knew what it was. And I told him that such incidents also happen in India.”

Though Kapoor’s eventual agreement to participate in the biennale generated a controversy that still has the art world simmering, the affair showed exactly how much goodwill Krishnamachari has generated over the years – goodwill that allows him to break all barriers, including the financial setbacks he faced while organising the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and the politics that beset the Yinchuan Biennale.

And believe it or not, the foundations of this goodwill were laid in the canteen of Mumbai’s JJ School of Art where he spent most of his time after arriving from a Kerala village in 1985.

Bose was the highest scorer in 100 years at the JJ School of Art. (Aalok Soni)

Goodwill hunting

Krishnamachari wanted to study art. The admission committee of the JJ School of Art was not certain if he deserved to. Denied admission in his first year in Mumbai, Krishnamachari managed a seat the next year, and proceeded thereafter to spend most of his time in the canteen.

The JJ canteen is in the centre of the huge campus, and it placed Krishamachari right in the centre of Mumbai’s art scene. He had so much time to spend there simply because he was quick at his work. And good. So good that he was the highest scorer in 100 years of the JJ School of Art.

“I learned more in the canteen than I learnt in the classrooms,” says Bose. At the canteen, Bose became friends with architects Kapil Gupta, Nuru Karim, poet and cultural theorist Ranjeet Hoskote, artists Atul Dodiya and Laxman Shreshtha.

Bose would visit their homes and discuss art, heritage and creativity. “You can create a network only when you are interested in knowing about others and yourself,” says Bose. “Knowledge is not just information. You can’t get that only from books. It has to be experienced.”

“ Many artists are reluctant to share their gallerists’ or collectors’ numbers. I’m not. It’s important to share. What else are you making art for?”

He slept just three hours a night, and was the first person in the canteen every day. At noon, after college, he made sketches of customers at Worli’s Mela restaurant till midnight. “I did that to survive in Mumbai,” says Bose. “But it taught me a lot. While interacting with so many arrogant, polite and beautiful people every day, I learnt a lot about human behaviour and to speak in English.”

To experience art first-hand, he also helped Shireen Gandhy of Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road gallery hang paintings for exhibitions. “I didn’t know how to organise an art symposium, but I did it nevertheless with the help of friends. I was hungry for knowledge,” says Bose.

Back then, in the 1980s, when think tanks and creative addas were unheard of, Bose invited artists, poets, actors and philosophers to exchange ideas. And his willingness to share his contacts with others expanded his network.

“Many artists are reluctant to share their gallerists’ or collectors’ numbers. I am not,” he says. Most young artists, he claims, could have accessed his telephone diary. “That’s how I’ve given and gained access. It’s important to share. What else are you making art for?”

In no time, Bose became one of the most sought-after names in the Indian art world. His artworks raked in lakhs of rupees and he also opened his own art gallery, BMB, in 2008. In 2009, he was invited to curate the India pavilion of the prestigious art fair, ARCOmadrid.

Artists for art

Bose then began work on realising his and the Indian art fraternity’s biggest dream – a biennale in India. “In India, you find great art, heritage, architecture and artists anywhere you go,” says Bose. “But we don’t have the infrastructure to show our treasures and talents. I think every state should have museums and art institutes. But we don’t.”

So when Kerala’s former culture minister MA Baby invited ideas to promote culture and tourism in the state, Bose and Riyas Komu suggested an art biennale.

“ Knowledge is not just information. You can’t get that only from books. It has to be experienced.”

Since then Bose has been emotionally and financially consumed by the event. He chose to close his gallery and almost gave up his personal practice to realise the dream. “It’s why my studio isn’t fully ready as yet,” says Bose.

Hosting a biennale in a country where most people don’t understand contemporary art, was riddled with difficulties. But Bose and his team didn’t give up.

The first roadblock was a shortage of funds after the state government that had promised funds for the biennale went out of power. Bose and other artists put in their personal funds to host the first edition.

“There was a time when I paid ₹3 crore in taxes, highest in the neighbourhood where I live,” says Bose. “For an artist that’s a big amount, but now I hardly have anything left.”

That doesn’t bother Bose as much as the allegations (that he and others from the organising team had pocketed ₹5 crore, given as funds by the government). “I was shattered,” says Bose. “We still kept at it and decided to let our work speak for us.”

It did. Despite not being able to arrange funds to complete all the 70 projects for the first edition, they started the second. But this came with losses of ₹6.5 crore. “At this time, the entire art fraternity came forward to help,” says Bose.

Artists Vivan Sundaram and Jitish Kallat, who was also the curator of the second edition in 2014, put their money in the project. A young artist from Kerala sold his wife’s mangalsutra, and many other students, professors and local businessmen contributed as much as possible for the second edition.

Now in its third edition, the biennale seems to have managed well financially. The lack of patronage in art, he says, is the sole reason why many artists are not making it big. “Artists like Subodh Gupta and Sudarshan Shetty are first recognised outside the country and then valued here,” says Bose. “This must change.”

Given that Bose Krishnamachari is working on this issue, we’re sure that change will happen.

From HT Brunch, March 26, 2017

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