Move over Bollywood, the great Kochi art festival is here

Good stories out of India are rare, which is why it’s wonderful to celebrate a resounding cultural success – the second edition of the international contemporary art festival, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, in Fort Kochi, in Kerala in the south of the country.  

Launched in 2012, this festival is unusual in many respects: its breathtaking setting and its ambition – 94 artists from 33 countries and virtually every conceivable art form on display. But perhaps most important, it is funded by the government of the state of Kerala.

Now state funding of culture may be a routine affair in other countries but it is uncommon in India. As a result, culture languishes from neglect, both by the state and by the culturally indifferent Indian middle class.

It’s all very well for India to be known for software engineers, rocket launches and rising stock market indices, but a country’s prestige also hinges on its cultural achievements and it is here that the festival scores spectacularly.

By giving 90 million rupees (Dh 5.3 m) to the biennale, which opened last month and runs till the end of March, the Kerala government has raised India’s profile in the international art world.

One measure of this success is the presence not only of new Indian and foreign artists but of big names. Take Vivan Sunderam who, at the first biennale, placed pottery shards that he found on the site of 14th century city of Muziris inside a shallow pit to create a fantasy lost city. He then threw peppercorns onto the installation to symbolise the city’s links with the spice trade.

Or New Delhi-based artist Subodh Gupta, who hung a traditional Kerala boat from the ceiling, packed with the detritus of daily living in a statement on the “stuff” that swamp our lives. This year, London-based sculptor Anish Kapoor’s water installation, a swirling vortex of water pumped directly into the sea that is as much an engineering as an artistic marvel, drew the crowds.   

The festival’s main venue, the ramshackle and sprawling Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi, once belonged to a British company that traded in spices, tea, coffee and rubber. The estate is overgrown, but the art looks all the more interesting in the wild setting. Behind trees and shrubs in the garden or in the rooms and nooks and crannies of Aspinwall House, you stumble upon creations that make you catch your breath.

And you catch your breath again at the vista around Aspinwall House – the wharf and the waters of the Arabian Sea shimmering in the sun. It is an inspired combination – great art placed in a lush setting.

I hope that the biennale survives. Contemporary Indian culture is not the most vibrant. Festivals struggle to get corporate funding. Even the most established, such as the Jaipur Literary Festival, lurch from one donation to another. Corporate sponsors know that culture doesn’t get the numbers that would make it good investment. Performances of Indian classical dance and music fail to attract audiences. For a large chunk of the middle class, culture begins and ends with Bollywood.  

This lack of interest is why some classical dancers and musicians are abandoning their art. The legendary shehnai player Bismillah Khan spent his last years in poverty. A book that sells more than 10,000 copies is hailed as a best-seller. Literature has few takers. It is self-help books that the middle class buys, to improve their job and income prospects. The people you see in auditoriums and at book festivals are the upper middle class and the elite. The middle class prefers shopping malls. If perchance they send their daughters to learn classical dance, it is to improve their marriage prospects.

The fact that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is non-commercial is a refreshing departure too because, in the absence of any institutional support, art in India is dominated by commercial art galleries that generally do not dedicate themselves to cutting edge international art.  

And the fact that the festival is in sleepy Kochi rather than in Mumbai, Bangalore or Delhi, is also good.

It’s time art was taken out of the usual places and put somewhere new and unexpected.

For too long have Indians relied on past achievements to claim they are a cultured people. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a new achievement for India and a world class one at that. Bollywood, take a back seat. There’s a new show in town and it’s making you look ever so predictable.   

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in India

Published: January 10, 2015 04:00 AM

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