The story of the first Kochi Muziris Biennale could quite well have been a Bollywood film plot, so melodramatic was its December 2012 inauguration (12/12/12). It battled fund crunching fires, technical spills, and bad press before emerging as a hero, hailed as a new format of biennale making. The biennale was established by two artists, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, who, in the decades contemporary art came into its own in India, went where no one had been before. Like the quintessential heroes of Bollywood, they did it against all odds, day to day, putting up work as money trickled in. Indeed, Against All Odds, as the biennale was appropriately called, taught lessons. But lessons learnt in India in 2012 about a barely understood—and often misunderstood—contemporary art world didn’t mean that there were “readymade” converts the second time around.
Kochi Biennale Director Bose Krishnamachari, Artistic Director and Curtor Jitish Kallat, and Director of Programmes Riyas Komu
Which is why funding art that is not popular in India is a seemingly insurmountable challenge. This year the Mumbai Film Festival, which brings the best of world cinema to the city and showcases regional and alternative Hindi cinema to an eager audience each October, failed to garner a big sponsor till a month before the festival’s start—and this, in the 16th edition of the festival. Desperate fans started crowdfunding, energizing the movie industry and others, and managed to collect the bare minimum needed to hold the festival in a reduced format. And still the crowds came: ordinary citizens, passionate film buffs for whom travel to Cannes or Berlin or Toronto or Venice or Sundance is but a dream. With the Mumbai Film Festival the best of these festivals was brought to a cinema near them.
Why is it so difficult to fund such democratic ventures that are, in fact, inclusive rather than alienating (as is often the case with the exclusivity of a white cube or a private screening)? Personally, I think it’s a lack of understanding by those not engaged with contemporary art or non-Bollywood cinema. This kind of art or cinema is readily termed elitist. Yet of the thousands who came to the biennale there were, yes, art aficionados and foreign visitors, but they were outnumbered by ordinary Keralites and others from around the country: students and locals—from teachers to rickshaw drivers—who engaged with art forms they had never seen before, instinctively, emotionally, and intelligently. Whether it was Amar Kanwar’s videos of endangered forests and tribal lands or Angelica Meseti’s video about immigrants in Australia, seeing was believing: thousands of visitors saw what contemporary art had to offer. It wasn’t elitist or trifling; it was thought provoking—and not only in subject matter. It was inspiring to see young artists, exposed to art from around the world, moved by the shock of the new.
The same applies to cinema. The film festival is a platform for reflecting current stories of the world around us. Whether it’s Nishtha Jain’s documentary Gulabi Gang about women’s rights in Bundelkhand or Keralite Sajin Babu’s confident debut feature Unto the Dusk, an experimental delve into changing social mores, it’s the young who are shaping our worlds. And these youth live around the country, in cities and in villages; it’s reversely elitist to think that exposing them to contemporary art or cinema is beyond their understanding or desire.
Artists working on site at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Even among India’s educated the biennale—what’s that?—is misunderstood for an art fair or a festival. It is not seen as being about education. About placing our art in context with what’s happening around the world, a peer review, so to speak, much needed in a country where critical thinking has suffered as education standards have eroded over the years. About the outreach programs it conducts throughout the year, the revival of traditional arts it engages with, the jobs it brings back to a state where most of the male population is in absentia, earning their living elsewhere, where alcoholism and dowry deaths are a social problem. And most do not understand that nothing is for sale. Three months of art just being exhibited is an alien concept.
As we approach the second edition of the Kochi Biennale, which opens tomorrow, December 12, it’s crisis time again. Of the 63 percent of the total cost promised by the government (of a total estimate of Rs 26 crores [$4 million USD]) only two crores have been released as opposed to the four agreed upon. The organizers are left with their backs up against the wall—again. Fundraisers invited collectors and patrons for preview screenings and appeals for support. Artists Vivan Sundaram and Sudhir Patwardhan have not only donated Rs 40 lakhs ($64,000 USD) and Rs 10 lakhs ($16,000 USD) respectively, but like other artists, they are bearing the installation costs of their projects. Such is the deep understanding that the artist community here has: that the biennale must continue in this iteration and onward into the future. As artworks arrive at the port in Kochi, it’s with bated breaths that the fundraising continues, with crowdsourcing and private donations supplementing the garnering of big sponsors.
In a country beleaguered with huge numbers still living below the poverty line, the government has other priorities, of course. Budget allocation for art is negligible, yet it is imperative that a biennale be a private/public partnership. After all, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is for everyone: it's held in public spaces (in Kochi, the most incredible venues will be open to the public for the first time, and preparation included the restoration of the state’s Lalit Kala Akademi allowing for year-round use of its international quality gallery space), boosts the state’s economy in terms of employment and tourism, and is a most efficient education tool; the numbers it reaches out to, so cost effectively, should be heeded.
While the government dithers, and private donations start building up the coffers slowly, the new company law (Companies Act 2014) should allow for corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds. A certain percentage of a company’s profits must be compulsorily used in non-profit ventures. In the arts and culture section, restoration, heritage, and crafts are specifically mentioned (perhaps the contemporary needs to be lobbied for as well?). We need an enlightened corporate entity to realize that contemporary arts will define our future heritage and cannot be ignored; the scale of outreach a biennale or a film festival could have needs to be understood. The Venice Biennale has been funded for decades by BMW—it’s grown to be the biennales of biennales, a platform of cultures that an entity like UNESCO alone cannot achieve.
This is where the future lies—in both machines working together—the nonprofit and the bound-by-law-profits (whether it is education or health or the arts) melding for the good of society. Art is not measurable wealth, but a nation without an understanding of the arts is a nation with a floundering sense of self or awareness of humanity. If all the emphasis is on material or quantifiable gain, at the cost of that which is without measure, it will only make a country of no measure.
Valsan Koorma Kolleri at Cabral Yard
One Kochi Biennale established will not change things overnight, but a successfully recurring biennale—one that reengages public spaces with new, stimulating histories—would be the fastest and most critically sound transformative experience able to reach out to the neophyte and the already converted alike. This awareness can then be ignited once integrated into art “education” through the outreach programs planned by the Biennale. Some exciting ideas this year include a Student’s Biennale that spans the entire country bringing in work of students from existing art colleges into the contemporary presence of the biennale; the artist film project Artists' Cinema that cross-pollinates ideas between video art and experimental cinema; History Now, a series of talks and seminars involving leading artists and thinkers that will be available to all on the website; and a Children’s Biennale with workshops, guided tours, and other initiatives to engage the young.
All this does not even include the Biennale’s main draw: the artists’ projects that at its center. This year curator and artist Jitish Kallat’s Whorled Explorations invites the interpretations of 94 artists (from 30 countries) to draw attention to two 14–17th century outreaches in Kerala’s history: its mathematical journeys and its shores that have been the site of so many outside conquests. Artists will seek to re-interpret what’s left in the hybrid culture of Fort Kochi, reaching out to the cosmos, in the currency and agency of the present.
(Image at top: Aspinwall House venue; All images courtesy of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale)