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Don't miss! The incredible Kochi Biennale

Last updated on: January 28, 2013 14:12 IST

Image: Srinivasa Prasad's installation, Erase, is a thorny 'cocoon' that hangs suspended over a set of steps made with gunny bags. Viewers are encouraged to leave bad or unwanted thoughts, memories and fears inside the hollow of the cocoon.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

It is India's first-ever New Age art extravaganza. No wonder then, art lover Durga Dominic abandoned both her family and her job for a few days to get a glimpse of the Kochi-Muziris Art Biennale.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera

On a regular day, the port town of Fort Kochi, Kerala, would snooze in the sun, luxuriating against the backdrop of its Chinese fishing nets, Jewish synagogue, artefact and spice laden shops, cafe dotted streets and homestays...

Tourists would stroll around, soaking in the ambience; residents would calmly make their way through the day.

These days, Kochi is buzzing with a different, very palpable energy; visitors see and experience art all around them at the Kochi-Muziris Art Biennale, India's very first, which opened on that magical date -- 12.12.12.

Also in the series:
Kochi Biennale: A magnificent visual feast!
Kochi Biennale: Art that challenges!


What is a Biennale?

Image: Visual artist Anant Joshi has replaced the lamps in his replica of a typical Kerala temple with mosquito repellant; that is what gives off the strong smell when you enter the room.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

A Biennale is an international art show held every two years. Unlike an art fair, a Biennale is for exhibition purposes only so it is meant for everyone.

Though India is hosting this new-art extravaganza for the first time, the Biennale has a history dating back to 1895; it was first hosted in the beautiful Italian city of Venice.

Today, it has spawned over 150 editions across the globe.

The fact that the Kochi Biennale is the only Indian destination mentioned in Forbes magazine's list of '13 cultural events to be seen' across the world gives to you an idea of its importance.


A treat for art lovers

Image: The Biennale flag at Aspinwall House.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

As you entered Kochi, a huge hoarding welcomed you to the Biennale city.

Though many locals had heard about the art extravaganza even before it began, they weren't sure what it was about.

The autorickshaw drivers, on the other hand, were enthusiastic and helpful. 'Binnale?' they would ask, if they saw you wandering around.

We visited Aspinwall House, a British-era warehouse, and one of the many Biennale venues spread around Fort Kochi.

The place was buzzing with activity!

The day before the opening, artists battled labour and logistical issues as they frantically tried to get their works up; carpenters and electricians raced against time to get the place ready as per the artist's vision. Many works that were stuck in the customs came in only that evening.


The Biennale's stunning spectacles!

Image: This couple can't resist capturing the street art on their camera
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

Justin Ponmany, one of the participating artists, was worried that many of the installations -- these include paintings, sculptures and new media and performance art installations -- would not be ready before the opening.

But that very act, of viewing an art work in progress, gave you the feeling that you were somehow part of it. It was more exciting than viewing a finished art work with a sense of finality.

The ruinous quality of the venues, many of which are heritage houses and unused spice warehouses, were themselves were like pieces of art. The light, the shadows, the backwaters flowing by all made for beautiful spectacles.

Spaces belonging to yesteryear, barely explored till now, were welcoming visitors, thanks to the Biennale.


Discover art as you walk!

Image: Checking out artist Anita Dube's audio installation
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

We found it quite charming to stumble upon and discover art while wandering through the streets, as we did when we went to Jew Town, located in Old Cochin -- details like signs and maps that could have made it easier for one to navigate around were yet to be put up in the initial days that followed the opening of the Biennale.

What made it even more wonderful was the fact that, since the installations were getting ready, many of the artists were present at the venue and one could easily speak to them about it.

Rohini Devasher, the young Delhi-based artist and budding astronomer, told us that when she saw the room in Aspinwall House, where her work is currently displayed, things began to fall in place.

The charting of the constellation, which is part of her work, was helped by the grid formed by the roof and the rafters.

According to the fair's curators, painters Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to 'invoke the historic cosmopolitan legacy of Kochi and its predecessor, the ancient port of Muziris.'


You don't need to be an art lover

Image: A visitor admires visual artist Anup Mathew Thomas's exhibit.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

Though the Biennale is a celebration of contemporary art from around the world, Kochi's history and surroundings have inspired most of the site specific works done by artists.

And you didn't even need to be an art lover to enjoy the experience! Sharif, our autorickshaw driver for the day, accompanied us to see the works on display at the venues he took us to -- Moidu's Heritage and Durbar Hall.

He went around taking in all of the works, occasionally giving his opinion, his interpretation of the work, even taking pictures of an artist's work that he really liked.

This Biennale is an initiation into contemporary art to an audience that is still used to conventional forms of art like painting and sculpture. To me, it is a truly laudable effort that introduces the world to India and India to the world.


1 Biennale, 24 countries, 88 participants

Image: British singer, musician and visual artist Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam aka M.I.A opened the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 with a concert .This was her first gig in India.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has 88 participating artists from 24 countries -- 22 of whom trace their roots to Kerala, an equal number from other parts of India and the rest from across the globe.

The overseas artists include Ariel Hassan from Argentina; Amanullah Mojadidi from Afghanistan; Rigo 23 from Portugal; Joseph Semah, an Israeli based in Amsterdam; Ernesto Neto from Brazil; Jonas Staal from the Netherlands; Dubai-based UBIK; Hossein Valamanesh originally from Iran now based in Australia and M.I.A., the British singer and visual artist of Sri Lankan origin.

The Indian artists include Sudarshan Shetty, Subodh Gupta, L N Tallur, Sheela Gowda, Vivan Sundaram, Paris Viswanathan, Valsan Kolleri, Anita Dube, K P Reji and Anant Joshi.


Another first... indigenous performances!

Image: In Muslim homes in Kerala, special songs (accompanied by the clapping of hands) are sung at home before a wedding. Very few know this art today, as is evident from the age of the women performing the of Kaikottu Paatu.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

This is also the first Biennale anywhere in the world to showcase indigenous performance arts.

From Nangiar Koothu (the ancient Sanskrit women's theatre) to Chavittu Natakam (the classical Biblical dance-drama) to traditional Islamic music and martial forms, the sidelines of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale brim with shows of heritage value cutting across religion and gender.

Cultural programmes are held every day. These include, according to the organisers, contemporary Malayalam plays, ghazals, Carnatic and Hindustani classical music and traditional Kerala percussion ensembles like Chenda Melam, Thayambaka and Panchavadyam.

You can also enjoy 10 world-class films specially selected by renowned director Adoor Gopalakrishnan.


A tinge of controversy!

Image: Titled Chronicles of a Pickle, these postcards are part of the higher education programme of the Biennale. The postcards project has been undertaken by the students of the Srishti School of Art and Design, Bengaluru.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

For all the positives, the Biennale isn't without its share of controversy. While we were there, anti-Biennale posters had sprouted around town, put up by detractors who claimed misuse of government funds.

A couple of art works by Australian artist Daniel Connell and South African artist Clifford Charles were vandalised.

Which is such a shame, really. Protesting and disagreeing is one thing; vandalism is quite another!

The initial problems have reduced now that people have realised the potential of the Biennale as a tourist attraction.

I am looking forward to the 2014 edition which I hope will have less hiccups and be even grander.


This is MY Biennale

Image: You will see these posters all over Kochi -- its aim is to get across the message that the Biennale is for everyone.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

Like M.I.A., who performed on the Biennale's opening day -- the video of her famous single Sunshowers was filmed in South India and the kids who were part of that video, 10 years later are all grown up and part of her street team -- very poignantly said at the end of her concert, 'Even though we leave, we come back.'

This is MY Biennale.

Take a bow, Riyas and Bose. And for the rest of you, the celebration is on till March 13, 2013. Go! And share your experience on the message board below.