How the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, now in its third edition, created an ecosystem for art in India

Twelve venues. 108 days. 97 artists. 31 countries. And more than half a million visitors expected. That’s the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016 for you. Bose Krishnamachari, president of Kochi Biennale Foundation and one of the founders of this global event, is beaming as he says, “From the first and second edition, we gathered that it is important the city needs to be engaged with the project. We need to educate the people about what a biennale is, what is involved, what are the art processes, and what can be their involvement.”

 How the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, now in its third edition, created an ecosystem for art in India

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale's third edition is its hugest, most ambitious yet

The first biennale was an emotional one — a carefully-nurtured baby. The second one, establishing your ground. So how does the third one feel? Bose says, “Now it has transformed into an institution. People believe in this biennale. We have created an ecosystem for art in India. Art can exist, survive and sustain. In the last eight years, the Foundation and its team have worked to ensure better technical expertise, more training for various teams, and opportunities for the foundation and those associated with us.”

The third edition is huge, it’s ambitious. Sudarshan Shetty, the curator, who was unanimously selected by a ten-member council, has produced large projects at multiple venues. The curatorial difference can be found in the fact that the curator has consciously left open and empty spaces on the property. It is meant for site-specific performances. “We want people to visit us more than once, and be part of such performances. There are dances, theatre pieces, traditional music, mime, and much more,” adds Bose. A major shift is that with this biennale is the curator wants the public to excavate, to find, to engage in the process. “If you give them a signposting, they won’t be curious. Let them find their own stories. It should be unique,” he says.

Bose Krishnamachari. Photo: Govind Kamath

Bose Krishnamachari. Photo: Govind Kamath

The main pavilion has been moved to another location, this time. “Sudarshan was very particular that he didn’t want people located at only one venue. Even the one at Kottapuram has many activities and performances daily, so there will be a lot of human movement among the 12 venues,” adds Bose. The overall look of the biennale has also changed — it was designed by one of the KBF trustees, V Sunil. “The third biennale has an improved look and feel. We have upgraded the technology used, the practices being followed. The Tata-supported Video Lab is an example,” affirms Riyas Komu, secretary of Kochi Biennale Foundation and one of the founder members of the event. Even the food stalls, seating areas and restrooms are designed very aesthetically and is more hygienic. There has been conscious effort that has gone into it.

So what has the initial response been like? “We have first-time visitors and repeat ones, people who have seen and experienced the last two editions. People have shared their positive comments, and it is very endearing,” says Bose. I see what he means: in the midst of my interview with him, a visitor walks up to Bose, asking to take a selfie with him, which he readily agrees to. That was his way of appreciating the biennale and the team behind it.

A visitor poses for a selfie with Bose Krishnamachari. Photo: Govind Kamath

A visitor poses for a selfie with Bose Krishnamachari. Photo: Govind Kamath

The foundation’s job isn’t just to create a biennale. it believes that education in art and aesthetics has to be taught and not just learnt. “In the in-between period of two years, we have been preparing a large national outreach programme, the Students’ Biennale that features 465 art students from 55 institutions across India. It gives the students the confidence they need to go forward in their careers, and also sends a message to their parents, common men and the general public about the relevance of art and art education,” says Riyas.

Another expansive project is the ABC — Art By Children, supported by Merck group — involving 5,000 children from 100 schools in Kerala. It gives them space to engage with art and exhibit their artworks. Conducted as three-day painting and creativity workshops in the schools using various art and theatre techniques, the venture was a grand success, earning a permanent exhibition space at the Aspinwall venue. “For us, painting isn’t just a visual activity. In our workshops, we have used kinesthetic and auditory activities, children engaging in theatre, storytelling and craft interspersed with painting,” says Manu Jose, theatre person and programme head, ABC.

Chinese scholar Li Tuo details the work that the late artist Li Bo'an put into 'Walking Out of Bayan Har', the scroll painting exhibited at Kottapuram Fort

Chinese scholar Li Tuo details the work that the late artist Li Bo'an put into 'Walking Out of Bayan Har', the scroll painting exhibited at Kottapuram Fort

Slovenian artist Aleš Šteger at his installation 'The Pyramid of Exiled Poets' in Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi

Slovenian artist Aleš Šteger at his installation 'The Pyramid of Exiled Poets' in Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi

Riyas explains how the biennale has involved and included the common people of Kerala. “There is a very exciting, multiple layering of diverse projects, a biennale which is an ongoing cultural acupuncture in Kochi. The biennale is a rejuvenator. The curator has succeeded in spurring discourse from the city and around,” he says. “We have managed to break the perception of what art is or even what a biennale should be like. There are lots of performances, film screenings, artist talks, mural works, designing, and more for this year’s visitors.”

An interesting feature of this time’s biennale is the ongoing painting and drawing artworks: every day, a few artists such as C Bhagyanath, Sadanandan and Daniele Galliano will paint and draw over the previous day’s work, adding layers, one day at a time. So each day, the painting or sketch would look different.

Riyas Komu. Photo: AJ Joji

Riyas Komu. Photo: AJ Joji

Seen at the opening ceremony of the biennale, last Monday, there was a sense of ownership, by the local people, by the government and by city officials. The biennale is here to stay. “All of us — especially the KBF team — have cultivated good relations with people in and around the venues. Even when I go out for a cup of tea at the local chai shop, people come to me and are interested to know more about the biennale and what goes on.” He adds that there are systems in place for health, transport and logistics, working with local unions and authorities, to ensure smooth operations.

This year, the Kochi Muziris Biennale has even got its own brand of paint: the Biennale White, provided by Asian Paints. “The company invited us to their factory and we suggested a gallery kind of white. This white is a special white, created just for us,” Bose says. Everything about this year’s biennale is new and different. Visit it!

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Updated Date: Dec 18, 2016 08:51:40 IST