There are a few rare people in this world whose lives become intertwined with those who walk alongside and with them, and it is precisely because of this quality that they play a role in the collective making of local histories. Because of this quality too, their contributions will be remembered forever and their memories passed on. Anoop Antony Skaria's role in making Kochi an international venue for contemporary art is impressive. From his first steps, and throughout his journey, which brought him recognition as a pioneering organiser, he had received the support of many.
Anoop is known in the art world as a Kochi-based gallerist, and among his peers, as an energetic organiser, actor, tree lover, traveler, tour guide, movie maker, and great companion. I first met him through his elder brother Felix Anand Skaria, who was an active member of the Communist party-led student movement Student Federation of India (SFI) and the then famous union chairman of Ernakulam’s Maharajas College, Kochi. I was also an active member of SFI, but Anoop was a sympathiser of the Congress-led Kerala Student Union (KSU). This contrast in ideological standings led to interesting conversations and arguments, but it didn’t cause any tensions between the brothers and our friendship. Rather, our friendship only grew stronger, especially after I dropped out of college and began pursuing photography.
Anoop was quite interested in my photographic practice and became my first model. Over the years, I have taken a number of his pictures. I actually remember taking some special photographs that he wanted to send to his lover. When I wanted to take nude photographs and was searching for a subject, he agreed to model for me on one condition — that I would not publish the photographs when he was alive.
He was a true companion, ever supportive about my pursuit of photography. I became the creative designer for his first collective venture called Safari, a tour company — a role I continued to perform as part of almost all his endeavours, including the Kashi Art Café, for which I designed the logo and furniture, among other aspects. Anoop is one of those persons who recognised my skills and passion, even before I became popular. He was keen to continue our collaboration, and he asked me to design the building, interiors, menu etc of Bojana Sala, his next venture after Kashi, inaugurated by noted historian KN Panicker. It was closed within a year, but the idea of serving all the aspects of the community’s cuisine in one place was received very well.
Anoop’s mother was a good gardener and had a beautiful garden, which used to be one of our meeting places. She was also an ardent music lover. I think Anoop got his love for trees, music and literature from his mother.
Before starting Kashi, Anoop was involved in many innovative projects such as the Dimension, the lending library that had a huge collection of classic English literature and world music. We also had worked together in quite a few collective initiatives. The ones I like the most were the Tree Festival, the Beach Festival 1984-85 and Encounter 2001, a fortnight-long contemporary art festival. All these events were also important from the perspective of culture, paving the way for larger events in this sleepy west Kochi island.
Anoop had many dreams, and one of them was to become an actor and director. Soon after the passing of John Abraham in 1987, he wanted to make a short documentary on him and wrote a script. But we didn’t have the resources to shoot it at that time. In the late 80s, Anoop went to Austria with his girlfriend Liza Haberkon, who was a cinema activist. By the time he returned, he had some financial resources and decided to invest them in the making of Paradigm II, a music video produced by Studio Zen, a collective led by me. I remember the making of this VHS video – this was in the 80s and music videos were not an established format at the time. All the crew members were locals and it was an empowering experience. Nirmal John Augustine and I performed the opening roles as designers.
Our friendship continued even after I moved to Delhi in the 90s, and Anoop would often visit me during his travels. Every time he would come up with an idea driven by passion — a script, or plans about his next travels, or something like that. He was very curious, generous, and eager in his pursuit to learn new things. He was at the centre of organising many events, such as the Tree Festival and Gaja Raksaka (Save Elephants). This was a time when there were no mobiles or telephones. We used to write post cards or wait to talk until we'd meet – and some of the post cards are still in my possession.
Anoop and I had different interests, philosophies and politics, but we were united in bringing together people, promoting the region, and working on local initiatives. We could not meet very often for some time, as I was quite busy with my job and studies in Europe. When I met him next in the late 90s, he had already married Dorry and had a baby boy. With his usual enthusiasm, he told me about his plans to start an art café. It was his European exposure that had inspired him to start this gallery. Dorry was helping him to achieve this vision. I liked this idea very much, and when I returned to Kochi a year after the opening of Kashi, I became seriously involved in its working. This was Kashi’s beginnings, and Anoop was very receptive and open to new ideas. We worked together to select the artists, to curate the works, and he was never dismissive about my ideas. In fact, it was like Kashi was ours – all our friends helped to make it a success.
We felt that having collective, non-commercial initiatives and various spaces was important to enhance the local art scene, and so, I initiated the formation of Mayalokam Art Collective. I already had a studio in Mattancherry between the Bazaar Road and the Harbour front and we decided to expand it as a collective with Anand Scaria, Gayathri Gamuz, Emma Burke-Gnaffey and I as its founding members. The collective comprised of Mayalokam Studio, Lila Gallery, Masala company design store and Badal, an alternate shop. Public art exhibitions and free music (interactive music concerts between locals and professional musicians) took place on a regular basis. We also collaborated with Kashi for a few initiatives over the next ten years to make Mattancherry and Fort Kochi a hub for artists. The nascent art scene in Kochi began taking shape, and many other artists from the locality started getting involved. Our initiatives became more focused and Anoop organised several innovative shows in Kashi. I did two solo shows there too. Kochi became an open platform for many noted as well as unknown national and international artists and curators.
Just as we had dreamed it would be, Kochi became a hub for artists and grabbed the attention of the national art scene. Buyers started visiting and many artists like Mohandas, Zakir Hussain, and Sosa settled down here. It was during this time that a bridge between the Mumbai and Kochi art worlds started to develop. The Indian art market boom in the 2000s made Kashi Art Café a commercial success, and this enabled us to promote marginalised artists from the region and to organise these public and non-commercial art events in Kochi. That was the peak of the early artist-led initiatives in Kochi, and slowly everything started collapsing. In 2005, Mayalokam Art Collective was officially dissolved; Kashi Art gallery moved to Mattancherry and became very successful. In a sense, the Mumbai artists hijacked our initiatives – and it did bring more popularity and success to Kashi. Kochi became a high-end market place for art buyers. Tourism boomed. But contrary to our initial ideology, the collective art movements lost their momentum and it became more difficult for regional artists to find space in this new community. It was disappointing to be honest, and I started disconnecting from Anoop and Kashi. Owing to a variety of reasons, Mayalokam Studio was closed in the year 2010. The free music festival that was organised here for almost ten years died with it. It was around the same time that the ground work for the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) was being done, with the support of the Kerala government. In 2012, the first KMB opened its doors, and just before the first edition of KMB, Anoop sold Kashi Art Café to hotelier Edgar Pinto.
That was the end of our dream. I couldn’t meet him after this. Anoop had completely withdrawn 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 the phone. Our calls were filled with emotion. The memories of our long association, care and companionship flashed before my eyes. I never wanted to see him sick and bedridden. I still remember him as the enthusiastic, energetic, positively aggressive organiser who had built the foundation upon which Kochi’s art scene was built. Our life has taken us unto different directions, but I will always remember our Kochi days.
Goodbye, my friend.
Updated Date: Oct 28, 2018 14:10 PM