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Kochi Biennale: Art al fresco

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a reminder of the centuries-old traditions of multiculturalism and secularism of Kerala and India

Rahul Jacob 

Anish Kapoor's Descension

The famous Chinese fishing nets of Fort Kochi with their cantilevers and bamboo poles look like a giant insect from the era of dinosaurs — a spider perhaps with its web attached. Increasingly, as the fishermen’s daily catch becomes smaller and smaller, the dozen or so contraptions could just as easily be viewed as enormous abstract sculptures. Believed to have been brought to India by traders from China during Kublai Khan’s rule in the 13th century or later by the great Chinese explorer Zheng He, the nets are a reminder that Kochi has been part of the drama of globalisation for centuries.

It seemed fitting then that there is so much at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that is connected to China — indeed, because the biennale’s ambition is enormous, to history, to trade and to science as well. The first thing I viewed at the biennale was a film about a performance artist whose satirical documentary about land grabs by developers in China becomes ensnared in a real-life drama of brutal eviction and suppression in the name of development. I was glad that the unpretentious cinema viewing area was partly al fresco with rainbow ribboned curtains because the film was grim to the point of being claustrophobic. The following day, I saw part of a video by Albanian-born artist Adrian Paci that followed a team of Chinese stone carvers building a classical Greek column while a large ship transports the workers to Europe where the order is to be delivered. This may be the cleverest take on just in time inventory and delivery; as Paci says, the work ethic of the workers is both “fabulous and sick.” In one image, a worker’s legs protrude from a stairwell in the ship where he is somehow sleeping; he appears to have collapsed with exhaustion. The symphony of their hammers was weirdly echoed by some repair work being carried out on the other side of the wall of the enclosure where the film was being shown. Watching this strange parable of globalisation with rapt attention were two young boys brought to the biennale by their grandfather.

In the lawn outside was a spine only a dinosaur could have asked for as a transplant; it was 71 feet long and made of cement and luminous cinder. The work was by Bengaluru artist Shantamani Muddaiah and intended to evoke a fossil. Somehow prehistoric and ultra-modern, it was one of the most beautiful works at the biennale.

This timeless quality to the exhibits, the ability to trace an arc of history in a surprisingly comprehensible vernacular of contemporary art is one of the great strengths of the biennale. In his introductory note, Jitish Kallat, who curated the biennale, points to Kochi’s connection to the Age of Discovery from the 15th century onwards — “a tale of grit and greed and human ingenuity” involving navigators, soldiers and cartographers — and the 14th to 16th centuries when Kerala astronomers-mathematicians were pushing the boundaries of trignometry and calculus. This is a biennale that celebrates that legacy but also makes important arguments that trade and the early forces of globalisation led also to the multiculturalism for which the state has always been known. Fort Kochi is a place, after all, where Vasco da Gama was once buried and a synagogue is one of the must-see sites on any tourist’s itinerary. “This was one place where Jews were never persecuted,” one of the brains behind the biennale and the secretary of its board of trustees, Riyas Komu, told me. Kerala has always been the adda for a “conversation with the other,” he says. This reminder of Kerala and India’s centuries-old traditions of multiculturalism and secularism is perhaps more necessary today when forces supporting the government in New Delhi loudly dispute it. “We need to do that acupuncture here,” said Komu, who arrived in Mumbai in 1992 and whose vision as an artist was influenced by the riots that year.

Shanthamani Muddaiah's 'Backbone'
It is now five years since the biennale was conceived in 2010 by MA Baby, a culture minister in the then Left Democratic Front government, and brought to its myriad-coloured life in 2012 by artists such as and Komu and people from the world of advertising such as Wieden+Kennedy’s and even shipping tycoons from West Asia. It has weathered a change in the state government in 2012, survived court cases, remains mired in debt and yet it succeeds spectacularly. It is also democratic in ways that art and culture rarely is in India. exults in the fact that the biennale attracted well-known directors of museums in New York and London “and you also have auto drivers and busloads from all over Kerala.” This is complicated, mind-altering art in a beautiful setting — the dilapidation of Fort Kochi’s warehouses and the biennales setting by the sea provide a sparse and immensely moving backdrop for the show.

To pick just a couple of examples: there is an enormous 16-foot-high bell by New Delhi artist Gigi Scaria placed by the sea. It has leaks all over its surface, looking like an overturned fountain. But for the ubiquitous Haldiram wrappers in the foreground — plastic bags and other detritus have found their way to Kerala as well — this was one of the show-stoppers. It was lifted on to the site by a group of Mappila Khalasis, dockyard workers, using load-bearing techniques that their ancestors perfected centuries ago launching Arab vessels in Beypore, 180 kilometres away. There is a depiction of St Thomas, the disciple of Christ who is believed to have brought Christianity to Kerala soon after Christ’s crucifixion, that looks like the cadaver of a victim of third degree burns. Next door is Bharti Kher’s installation that seems like a geometry exam for giants — a classroom full of giant wooden triangles and rope with views of the sea that is a commemoration of the astronomy of Al-Biruni, the Penrose triangle and the triangulation survey of India conducted by the British in the 19th century that sought to map and measure India’s rivers, mountains and plains.

I went straight from there to the exhibition on cartography set in the midst of an Aladdin’s warehouse of extraordinary antiques. One would need to write a book to do justice to everything one sees at the biennale. There is not even space here to describe some of the maps; some were anthropomorphic in the sense that one could see life playing out on the streets, other more conventional maps extended from the ceiling to the floor.

A word of caution: some of my family history is entwined in Kerala and that makes me prone to sentimentality about the place. On my second morning in Kochi, a car had arrived to take me to the home of a favourite aunt in Kottayam. Decades ago, I solemnly asked her not to marry till I was old enough to marry her (I was four). I was late already but I darted out of my hotel anyway to a bungalow nearby owned by the Church of South India. In the overgrown courtyard standing beneath an ancient tree that had carpet-bombed the area with yellow flowers was the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s evocation of the motifs of Gothic churches. It looked like a belligerent turkey with copper-coloured armour that had been decapitated in a ferocious mythological battle. Everyone around me just stared and murmured words of appreciation.

In Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, the narrator’s Jewish grandmother, who is a custodian of the synagogue in Fort Kochi, starts to go a little crazy. She imagines that the blue ceramic tiles, brought from Canton in this otherwise modest place of worship, are depicting scenes from her life. The art on display at the biennale more than occasionally has some of that force of a hallucination. Everywhere you turn, you see aspects to science and history — and to Fort Kochi itself — that seem new.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale wraps up on March 29 so if you plan to go, book now. Hotel rooms are hard to come by but that might get easier as the weather gets hotter. I tried to book at the Old Harbour Hotel weeks ago, but could not get in. On the day I left, I did a five minute tour of the property, which includes a surprisingly large pool and bold, Gauginesque styled rooms. The staff seemed young and savvy, I stayed instead at the Fort Heritage Hotel which was long on heritage and, even for someone of my spartan tastes, short on comfort. The floorboards howled in protest when a French tour group descended on the place at 4.30 am early on Sunday morning. Kerala breakfasts of appams and more were deemed out of the question by the hotel cook.

Friends and I ate lavishly at the unassuming restaurant called Oceanos which did Kerala family fare extremely well at a bargain price. I was underwhelmed by the lunch I ate at the Malabar House Hotel restaurant nearby; my friends even more so as they spent much of the meal reminiscing about the dinner they had eaten at Brunton Boatyard while bemoaning its eye-watering room prices. Last Friday, the Seagull bar and restaurant seemed to be buzzing with artists and employees of the Biennale. The Cochin Club, which threw a party to celebrate turning 100 last Saturday, is worth a visit if you can get in. Usha Uthup, reminiscing nostalgically about her time at the club, was the celebrity singer of the night. It's that sort of place.

Kochi Biennale: Art al fresco

First Published: Sat, February 21 2015. 00:23 IST