The Kochi-Muziris Biennale team talks about the significance of Kochi to the project, explains how the biennale is changing perceptions about art, underlines the ‘sense of protest, resistance’ at the event, warns against museums becoming dead spaces, and says the contemporary art scene in India is exciting
AMRITH LAL: How did the idea of a biennale in Kochi-Muziris come about?
BOSE KRISHNAMACHARI: In 2010, I received a call from MA Baby, the then culture minister of Kerala. On May 30 that year he visited my house in Borivali (Mumbai). Riyas (Komu, Director of Programmes at the biennale) also lived close by. We had a get-together with several artistes living near our place and discussed the art and cultural scene in Kerala.
Earlier, we had the Triennale in India, which was started in 1968. Unfortunately, it was discontinued after 2005. It was the only place we could see international art. Then in 2005 many people tried to start a biennale in Delhi but the government did not support that project. So at the Borivali gathering, Riyas suggested that it will be great to start a biennale in Kerala. The idea was discussed and we came out with the first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale on December 12, 2012.
AMRITH LAL: The earlier editions of the biennale saw a lot of controversy. Many artistes from Kerala participated but the state itself had never experienced an event like this. How did you go about it — finding funds, selecting venues etc.
KRISHNAMACHARI: When we began talking about a biennale in Kerala we didn’t have any infrastructure. We had discussions with curators and museum directors from around the world. We got an initial funding of R5 crore from the state government. We used to have three spaces in Kerala — Durbar Hall, Kashi Art Cafe, and David Hall, but there was no real exhibition area. We got one of the finest architects, Vikas Dilawari, on board, and told him that we want an exhibition area that is a controlled space. The exhibition space that we have is unlike any other such space in India, it is climate-controlled.
When we began travelling to see museums and biennales abroad, we realised that the most important thing is to educate the local public. On the opening day of the biennale in Sharjah we saw children playing cricket in front of a museum. When we asked them about what was going on inside, they didn’t have a clue. So, we realised it is important to educate people. We put together a brochure explaining what a biennale was and why we are doing it. We published it in Malayalam and English and gave it to homestays, hotels etc. We also gave presentations about art projects in 35 schools. Unfortunately a few of our friends had issues with the fact that two men from Mumbai were doing things in Kerala. Anyway, a week before the first edition of the biennale, we showed the event site to 30 bloggers and gave them a guided tour. That is when we all realised that a biennale is not about painting or sculpture, it is much more than that and it offers many possibilities.
AMRITH LAL: Public participation is a very interesting feature of the biennale in Kochi-Muziris. The previous editions have reportedly had over a million visitors. What is it that has got so many people interested in the event?
RIYAS KOMU: For people who were not really exposed to contemporary art practices, the biennale has given them an opportunity to see and understand these projects. From the first edition itself there was curiosity around the project, and it has continued since. People need art. They now want to see projects of a certain scale. Contemporary art practice is not part of the public discourse today because we don’t have the infrastructure. The biennale in Kerala is almost like a season and in that time it assumes the character of a museum, where we also have deep conversations about socially and politically relevant subjects. This draws in people who are looking for a better understanding of things. The biennale has brought everything together — there is curiosity, there is infrastructure, there are possibilities and then there are the international art practices that people never got an opportunity to see earlier. The best thing that the biennale is doing is that it is changing perceptions.
AMRITH LAL: Do you think the success of the biennale is specific to Kerala? Can it be replicated elsewhere in India?
KOMU: Many historians and art critics have pointed out that one of the most interesting aspects of the biennale is the site. Muziris is an ancient port, it evokes history, brings in multiculturalism. At a time when everything seems to be in a state of conflict, Kochi actually presents an alternative space to have these conversations. Thirty communities live together in Kochi and over 16 languages are spoken. It is a microcosm of India. So, only if we manage to find a site of similar relevance elsewhere in the country, will a biennale be possible.
Kerala has a consistent history of accepting such cultural projects. Kochi represents a certain kind of politics which is so relevant today. Goa is another venue, if you look at it in a similar context.
AMRITH LAL: How is this edition of the biennale different from previous projects?
SUDARSHAN SHETTY: I was part of the first edition as an artiste. One can say that the first edition was lacking in many things but then, I think, it turned into an advantage. For instance, 50-60% of the work was not up when we opened, but then that provided a space for people to actively participate in the process. So the first edition became a biennale in progress. That is also when I began viewing the biennale as something of a process that unfolds through the period of the project, and maybe into the future as well with conversations. When I was asked to come onboard as a curator for the third edition I looked at my role as a facilitator of this process.
AMRITH LAL: The art showcased at the biennale is known to make strong political statements. At a time when any attempt to criticise and question things is being opposed, how free is an artiste today to express his vision?
SHETTY: We are living in strange times. The kind of censorship that we are witnessing is unprecedented but an artiste has to find ways of expressing himself even in this situation. The biennale flows in many directions, bringing together diverse ways of looking at the world.
KOMU: If you look at the work produced in the past years in Kochi, it is all very political and relevant, and that itself is a very strong political act. I don’t think in post-Independent India we have had this amount of work produced at one site in such a short period. Unlike many other projects, the biennale is very temporal, it has got a sense of protest for a particular period of time. It also adopts certain values of resistance.
KRISHNAMACHARI: In the first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale we created a political space for dissent. The first edition was about Kochi and the second one was from Kochi. So in those two years, the biennale created that confidence to have larger discourses with the contemporary art world.
What Kochi produces is in effect new forms of thinking. So I think there is freedom, but how do you actually accommodate that into the process of making anything new? I don’t think anybody can control that.
KOMU: The biennale is no longer about showcasing and experiencing art. It is also about creating the space to produce art which can dissent, criticise and question.
VANDANA KALRA: Pakistani artistes have not been able to visit the biennale, although a lot of them have showcased their work. Has the project been affected by censorship? And in terms of the works, are you conscious of what is put out?
KOMU: In all the three editions we have had artistes from everywhere. We have always had participation from successful Pakistani artistes. See, it is the work that is important. The artistes didn’t mind the fact that they were not able to personally come here. So far there has not been any State involvement in censoring projects.
DEVYANI ONIAL: You mentioned how the biennale becomes a museum for the duration that it is on. What do you have to say about the state of museums in India?
KRISHNAMACHARI: I think it is important to have contemporary art museums now. Who runs the museum is also important. We have many institutions but we need to focus on how to run them.
SHETTY: We need to look after the museums and the objects in the museum. We need to rethink what the museum means to us and where does the idea of museums comes from. These conversations are important. Without having to make comparisons between the East and the West, I am saying that there are a lot of practices that need to be museum-ised in different ways, and how we do that is also important.
KOMU: The biennale is a temporary museum. It is the celebration of the history of a particular community. The process helps in generating pride in the local. Historically, that is what museums have been trying to do. In India museums just become spaces to keep objects. We need to have contemporary museums which archive what we are engaged in today’s times. We need to get into that kind of processes and bring better systems in place. We need to experiment much more in the museum space because many of them are becoming dead spaces. Engaging with the community has to be the first step.
PALLAVI PUNDIR: Among other things, the biennale also stands for expanding the definition of arts by including works by poets, writers and theatre artistes. Do you see this as a challenge?
SHETTY: I don’t see any of this as being outside of the art practices; art is everywhere. Whether it is dance, poetry or cinema. A lot of our learning comes from these other arts. For me, it was cinema and poetry. There was also a lot of music and storytelling at home. So it wasn’t really a challenge, it was quite the opposite.
SUANSHU KHURANA: Unlike other such events, the Kochi Biennale has never distinguished folk art from the rest.
SHETTY: How do you distinguish? I see a lot of contemporary art also as folk art. One of main ideas was not to differentiate and to see how these ideas come together, without being labelled as folk art, music or poetry. Is there a possibility of dialogue between all those multiple positions? That was one of the first thoughts that I began with.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: What are your thoughts on the contemporary art scene and the younger generation of artistes?
SHETTY: I think it is very exciting. The work of a lot of the younger artistes that I know is of international standards. There is so much energy out there and I am very positive about how it is all going to unfold. It is going to be very different from what we have seen or how we have made art. It will bring in a very different way of looking at the world.
AMRITH LAL: This fascination for the biennale and art in Kerala, how much of it do you think is purely consumptive? Is there a bigger engagement with art and what is being showcased?
KRISHNAMACHARI: I think we have to look at it in terms of knowledge generation. What the biennale does is that it generates massive knowledge out of a site, which is available for consumption even beyond the duration of the event.
This biennale was started by artistes, is run by artistes and is also curated by artistes. Seventy per cent of the work is produced on site. We send invitations to artistes around the world. They come and see and experience the site and create artworks from that; this is rare.
AMRITH LAL: Can you elaborate on your engagement with schools.
KRISHNAMACHARI: The engagement (with schools) first started in 2014. We had 35 colleges, and it was curated by 15 young, aspiring curators. One hundred and twenty students presented their work. This year we have 45 colleges and 465 students, who have come from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and it is being curated by 15 young curators. So this gives us a chance to nurture curatorial talent and also exposes students to the main biennale. They get a chance to listen to conversations between artistes, curators and collectors. There are interesting people coming from all over the world and it is a great opportunity for the younger generation to learn and create art. They also get a chance to showcase their talent before international collectors.
DIPANITA NATH: Where do you think Kochi stands in the international biennale circuit?
KOMU: Currently, it is one of the most talked about biennales around the world. If you look at the website of the Biennale Foundation, a little over 35 events are mentioned but there are 150-plus biennales around the world. Of that there are 10-12 biennales which are really good. Some, such as the Johannesburg Biennale in South Africa, faded away or failed.
When we started the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, we were like is it going to happen. Then in the second edition, people were like is it going to come back. Now internationally, and locally, people take a certain pride in the project and they want to come back. All we need is patronage and infrastructure and places to show.
SHETTY: Unlike other biennales, Kochi is supported at many levels by different people. It is hugely supported by the government of Kerala, which believes in the content and history of the project. The Tourism Department took up the project as well. They have had campaigns in national papers which emphasise the fact that the biennale celebrates a certain culture, and you must come and see it. Cultural organisations, corporates, artistes and patrons are giving their love and care to this unique project. We hope that the ecosystem that has been built by the biennale helps in engaging with the larger community.