India’s one and only contemporary art biennale, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, rolled out its fourth edition in Kochi. The word biennale is the Italian analogue of the English word biennial which refers to every other year. Biennales are large-scale contemporary art festivals or exhibitions. Usually, these contemporary art exhibitions are conducted within a single city and may have one or many venues across the city. The oldest and the most prominent biennale is the La Biennale di Venezia which has been happening since 1895 in the city of Venice. The biennales act as spaces where the common public get access to the contemporary art from all over the world.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale was the brainchild of the former Cultural Minister of Kerala M.A Baby from the Left Democratic Front. In 2010, he invited Bose Krishnamachari and Riyaz Komu, Mumbai based artists of Kerala origin, to develop the artistic potential in the state. They came up with the idea of conducting biennales in Kerala which would showcase both the tradition and modernity in art. Muziris was the name of an ancient port city near Kochi and it was known for its spice trade. Many Greeks, Romans, Arabs, etc. traded here. Unfortunately, the city which was near the River Periyar sank due to flooding sometime during the 14th century. Thus, the organisers decided to name the biennale after it.
The creators of the biennale decided to turn it into a platform where art could be used to discuss liberalism, democracy, freedom of expression and other ideas that are important to humanity and human rights. The biennale was endorsed by the Congress led UDF government in 2012. Initially, the tickets were free of cost but later raised to Rs.50 and then to Rs.100, in order to support the rising operating costs. The Kerala Government reduced the budget allocated to the biennale to three crores. This hit the biennale hard in its second edition, leading to the search for corporate sponsorship. However, the current leftist government decided to allocate a budget of 75 million rupees to cement the biennale’s permanent place in Kerala’s art culture.
The residents of Fort Kochi where the events occur are mostly in praise of the event for adding a cosmopolitan vibrancy in the city. The biennale has attracted both domestic and international tourists. It has also gained the accolades of many art critics with one even touting it as the best in the world. Apart from a few allegations of corruption, the event is largely a success and entered its 4th edition in 2018. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has not only helped the economy in and around the area but also improved the art scenario in India. Earlier such art forms were limited to the big metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, etc., but ever since the inception of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the city transfigured into a prominent art centre in India.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale also celebrates and memorialises the city’s history through various art forms. Sue Williamson’s exhibit, for example, memorialises the history of the people from the city who were taken as slaves to Africa. Her art is made of water bottles and fishnets, archiving the enslaved people sent to Cape Town by the Dutch East India Company. The biennale does not act only as an exhibition, but also as a centre for learning by hosting the students’ biennale, which helps the youth to learn, nurture and even exhibit the art created by them. With its increasing popularity, the biennale has attracted many sponsors and partners from around the world, including the US government, British Council, Alliance Francoise and many more.
The success of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale should be reciprocated in many parts of the country. With a nation like ours that focuses on the sciences and devotes bare minimum attention for the arts stream, events like biennale encourage awareness on art. A social awakening is required to improve the pathetic state of contemporary and traditional art in our country. Thus, it is not only the responsibility of the government, but we ourselves as individuals have the responsibility to foster a progressive view towards art. After all, the main purpose of art is to instruct and delight the mankind.
Picture Courtesy- Hindustan Times