After months of excitement and controversy, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale will open tomorrow in Kochi, Kerala. Named after an ancient seaport and a renamed city (previously called Cochin), India's first biennale will begin with a performance by the English recording artist MIA (Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam). The event will bring together 88 artists from 24 countries, 1,300 performers, as well as art historians and curators, according to the organisers.
Several acclaimed artists have created site-specific work, including India's Sudarshan Shetty, Subodh Gupta, LN Tallur and Sheela Gowda, as well as international artists such as the Dubai-based Ubik, Hossein Valamanesh (Iran/Australia), Ariel Hassan (Argentina), Amanullah Mojadidi (Afghanistan) and Ernesto Neto (Brazil).
"Kochi's historical roots have inspired many of the artists who are showing here," says Riyas Komu, the biennale's co-founder. "So we have international artists who are doing reflections of Kochi. For example, Ubik is a Dubai-based Malayali artist and he is doing a site-specific reflection of Kochi."
The lecture series includes the conservation architect Benny Kuriakose, as well as Chris Dercon, the director of the Tate Modern, who is speaking on December 24. Films by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kerala's most famous director, will also be screened.
There will also be a two-day symposium titled Emerging Platforms for Contemporary Art in India on December 15 and 16. Eminent art and cultural historians such as Geeta Kapur, Ranjit Hoskote, Nancy Adajania, Gayatri Sinha and Pooja Sood will participate.
Support from the Indian art fraternity has been strong. The artist-couple Jitish Kallat and Reena Saini plan to attend the symposium, both to support the effort and "to feel energised from it," says Kallat. The gallerist Sunitha Kumar Emmart has been phoning friends and associates and urging them to attend the biennale. "It's a not-for-profit and it is rare that you get to view contemporary art that is untainted by commerce in India," says Emmart.
More than anything, the biennale will increase the footfall into the state, something that the tourism department badly needs.
The artist Sudharshan Shetty is one of many visitors expected in Kerala. Although he hails from the neighbouring state of Karnataka and lives in Mumbai, he says that he never visited Kerala until a few months ago when he went to look at the site of his proposed architectural installation. "Kochi is one of the most cosmopolitan places that existed in the old world, with [people from all over] coming together in this fertile land," he says. "It reflects the character of this country as one welcoming to different kinds of immigrants."
Although the scale and variety of works that are going up is impressive, the biennale has been marred by controversy. The state government wants to initiate a probe into allegations of financial impropriety. "The previous Kerala government that had supported the biennale, gave funds of 50 million rupees [Dh3.4m] to the founding team and also exempted them from the financial code restrictions that apply to government funds," says P K Hornis Tharakan, one of the biennale's trustees. That seems to have rubbed some people the wrong way, especially the older, local Kerala artists, who have protested against government support for what is now viewed as an extravagant project. Tharakan says that instead of resorting to mudslinging in the days before the opening, "there must be a comprehensive audit done after the biennale to find out if the government's allegations are indeed true".
Komu, the biennale's co-founder, says he welcomes the government investigation. "People don't understand the magnitude of this project," he says. "Setting the biennale in this region is going to benefit everyone - the art lovers who will see world-class art, the artists who will be nourished by exposure to practices that are different from theirs and local businesses who will get the additional tourist revenues."
The people of Kochi, too, have undergone a transformation. After weeks of ignoring the effort, they have now embraced it and not just because of the additional revenue it brings to the state. Some have started leasing or giving their homes to the biennale committee as guest houses, others have donated money and time. A few have tried to influence the government. "The government doesn't have a policy to understand or preserve art galleries or museum structures. We welcome the probe into the biennale, because it will finally shed some light into what is viewed as an arcane process," says Komu.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale starts tomorrow and runs until March 13. For more details, visit www.kochimuzirisbiennale.org