Where Kerala meets India and India meets the world
Although married to a graphic designer whose mother was a painter, my knowledge of art is rudimentary. To be sure, I have visited museums while on the road, and retain vivid memories of works of art I have seen: a Goya painting of a nobleman in hunting dress at the Prado in Madrid, a magnificent Aztec sculpted head in the Xalapa Museum in Mexico, a chapel designed by Mark Rothko in Houston, a series of sketches in engine oil and charcoal on paper that Vivan Sundaram did in Delhi after the first Gulf War. But, on the whole, literature and music have provided me far more pleasure (and consolation) than paintings or sculptures. For every work of art I remember, there are at least 50 books that I can easily and lovingly recall.
It is never too late to learn, however, and recently, at the advanced age of 58, I had my most immersive art experience yet, when I spent two days at the Third Kochi Biennale. Here, amidst the narrow winding streets and ancient architecture of Fort Kochi, are displayed an astonishing variety of works of art, in many media, and from across the world.
In its conception, the Kochi Biennale is entirely swadeshi. Its founders, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, were both born and raised in Kerala. Both later studied and worked in what (the Thackerays notwithstanding) remains India’s most cosmopolitan and artistically vibrant city, Mumbai. Yet they never lost touch with their home state. Successive Biennales have been admirably supported by other cultural organisations within Kerala, and especially by the state government, which, regardless of which party is in power, has made available usable spaces while underwriting a large chunk of the costs.
With their own deep roots in Kerala, Krishnamachari and Komu have the confidence to look outwards and incorporate the rest of India and the world. While the duo curated the first Biennale, for later editions they have asked other curators to take up the responsibility, these in turn advised by a group of eminent artists, collectors, and critics.
The chief curator for the present edition is Sudarshan Shetty. He has assembled a wide array of artists whose works, often designed and erected in-situ, feature in the Biennale. Indian artists are well represented, while the foreign artists are from (among other places) Eastern Europe and Latin America, making this refreshingly different from our literary festivals that are so overwhelmingly Anglophone. I was particularly struck by the display, side by side, of works of artists from China and Taiwan; something one is unlikely to see in China, or in Taiwan, but here seamlessly part of the fabric.
Vision and location come together perfectly in the Kochi Biennale. For Kerala is more diverse in religious terms than any other part of India, yet united by a common language, Malayalam, to which all regardless of caste and faith are devoted. Fort Kochi represents this diversity in concentrated form; and it has a variegated European imprint too, for at different times the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British all had trading bases here.
Fort Kochi has the cosmopolitanism characteristic of all old trading centres. The influence of Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims are all visibly present. Our own guide, appropriately, did not belong to any of these denominations. He was a young Sikh from Chandigarh, an architecture graduate now working as one of the Biennale’s interpreters, who guided us with enthusiasm through old warehouses on the waterfront, where rooms showcasing works of art were interspersed with those still stocking spices.
I am (as already indicated) decidedly an amateur in artistic terms. But I should mention some of the works that impressed me. These included a large, ever expanding and richly peopled canvas, exploring mythological themes on the model of a temple mural, being painted as we watched by a team of painters under the direction of the artist (P. K. Sadanandan) who conceived it. There was an arresting installation, mostly of wood, by a Romanian artist of an abandoned textile factory. A video that was at once gripping and chilling featured a ballet dancer performing on top of a piano, a sharp knife attached to each of her shoes.
For someone of my disposition, the experience was as much sociological as artistic. For the Kochi Biennale is a fine contemporary illustration of the kind of rooted cosmopolitanism that Indians such as Tagore and Gandhi once practised. In so spendidly blending locality, region, nation, and the world, the Kochi Biennale serves as a standing rebuke to all forms of chauvinism and parochialism. It is meant for Indians of all ages and temperaments, and for citizens of other countries too. I urge readers who have not yet done so, to go and experience the Biennale before it closes at the end of March.
Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include India After Gandhi, A Corner of a Foreign Field, Environmentalism: A Global History, and Gandhi Before India. He tweets as @Ram_Guha