Anoop Skaria passes away: Fraternity remembers the man who established Kochi as a hub for contemporary art

White walls with artworks, wooden benches polished to a high shine, a quiet courtyard with sculptures and stone seats, an open seating space under a tiled roof, delicious treats, and above all, a sense of community. At Kochi's well-known Kashi Art Gallery and Cafe, a visitor might experience this all. They would also be in the very place that, in a way, laid the foundations for Kochi to become a hub of contemporary art in India.

The founder of the Kashi Art Gallery and Cafe — Anoop Skaria — however, is no more.

Skaria, who set up the gallery-cafe with his wife Dorrie Younger a little over two decades ago, passed away on Saturday, 20 October.

Kashi, which Skaria once described as a place to "support young talents, provide them space to interact with other artists", also hosted residency programmes for artists. (In 2012, the ownership of the Kashi Art Gallery and Cafe passed into the hands of Edward Pinto.)

Members of the art fraternity reminisced over Skaria's contributions to the world they inhabited.

 Anoop Skaria passes away: Fraternity remembers the man who established Kochi as a hub for contemporary art

Anoop Skaria. Image courtesy: Facebook/Abul Kalam Azad Pattanam

Udaipur-based artist Waswo X Waswo remembered a "long-haired poet and art lover" who was a "continual presence" at the Kashi Art Gallery and Cafe. "A person couldn't help but be captivated by Skaria. He was one of those people who seamlessly combined strength and power with gentleness and sensitivity; it was all there, together, as one unit in his soul," says Waswo, pointing out that it was because of Skaria that he had his first exhibition in India.

Waswo shared his personal memories of Skaria and Younger's days helming the gallery-cafe: "I remember how Anoop would always be at Kashi early in the morning, sitting with his family in the common area, eating his special Indian breakfast that was just the same food his staff ate. At night, Kashi Art Cafe turned into a coffee shop, and all kinds of people came to discuss art. Anoop would get quite passionate arguing about the meaning of art and the whos and hows of the then-fledgling contemporary scene. Anoop and Dorrie sold a lot of art because their enthusiasm was contagious. Their love and excitement radiated (outwards). Their passion got Kashi Art Cafe on the map as the place new talents were being discovered. The crowd in Delhi and Mumbai would call up to see what they were going to show next. Sometimes entire shows sold out just minutes after they opened. It was amazing. They both worked so hard and still found time to tell stories and share their love with family and strangers. Those were amazing times. I'll never forget them."

"I doubt the Kochi art scene would have evolved so wonderfully without him. He was a prime mover; he and his wife Dorrie created exhibitions that not only put artists on the road to recognition, and even fame, they established Fort Kochi, and Kerala, as an art destination," Waswo added.

Abul Kalam Azad Pattanam, the founder chairman and director, Project 365 at Ekalokam Trust for Photography, shared the news of Skaria's passing on Facebook with a throwback post. He recounted:

"It was our dream to make Kochi a hub for art, and worked tirelessly to make that a reality. We initiated many pioneering art and cultural initiatives in Mattancherry. During his younger days, he (Anoop) was passionate about acting and directing, and wanted to make a movie on John Abraham. If I remember correctly, he even wrote a script. But, at that time, we didn't have the financial resources and his efforts to raise money for the same didn't materialise. After Kashi Art Cafe, there was money, but somehow he couldn't pursue his dream. He did make a couple of short movies, however... I haven't met him since I left Kochi in 2010. A few years later, he also sold Kashi Art Cafe and slowly withdrew from the local art scene. Because of many reasons, he was aloof during his last days. I knew that he was unwell and spoke with him a few times over phone, but couldn't meet. Life took us in different directions, but the Kochi days will always be remembered."

Acclaimed artist-curator and director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Bose Krishnamachari said Skaria's role in establishing Kerala's art scene could not be overstated.

"Kochi didn't have a contemporary art space, until Dorrie and Anoop started Kashi Art Cafe,” Bose said.

Bose had a show at the Kerala Lalithakala Academy's Durbar Hall in 2003 and recollects how a "handsome man, dressed in a long kurta" came up to him and asked for a catalogue. The catalogue was priced at Rs 1,500, so Bose remembers being struck by this stranger's interest in art. Then, they met again — this time after a memorial show for Bhupen Khakhar where Krishnamachari had given a talk.

"Anoop and his wife took me to their residence for dinner, along with some other artists. He asked me if I was familiar with young contemporary artists in Mumbai, and I said yes. 'Why don't you curate a show in Kochi?' he asked. 'If I do, I want my artists to be present here in Kochi,' I replied," Krishnamachari remembers, adding that Anoop agreed immediately to this request, promising to host the artists for a week in Kochi. "I wanted the artists to stay in Kochi, to have conversations with the local artists here."

"This was in 2004... We roped in 17 artists from Mumbai for the project, which was called Bombay x 17. It was 'conceptualised' by me (not 'curated') and it was a big success. We also organised the first symposium on visual arts in Kochi, examining why they were being sidelined in Kerala," says Krishnamachari. "(He) made me a curator in that sense. When you say 'I'm a curator', it's a more responsible job."

Krishnamachari and Skaria would also collaborate at ARCOmadrid in 2009; Bose was the guest curator and he had invited 16 Indian gallerists, including Skaria, to be part of it.

Krishnamachari said he received a call from Younger just a couple of weeks ago before Skaria's sad demise. They wanted to donate a large painting to KMB, (proceeds from the sale of) which would go towards the Kerala flood relief.

"I live fairly close to them (in Kerala), but I kept putting it off as I didn’t want to see his suffering. He had had an accident and he didn't like to see too many people in the last few years of his life. When I reached Mumbai on Sunday, I got a call saying he had passed away. I would never meet my friend again. Maybe that's destiny..." Bose said.

"He was so passionate about art, but was also disappointed by the art world," Krishnamachari added. "His contributions to the Kochi art stage in Kerala are incomparable."

Updated Date: Oct 26, 2018 10:23:45 IST