Driving through the palm and deciduous tree-lined roads at sunset in the sultry laid-back Fort Kochi, one cannot imagine the hectic activity that goes on behind the walls of its old stately buildings and abandoned sites. Small A3-size posters made by locals are scattered around the fort area: rickshaw drivers, students and fishermen have been photographed holding banners and placards of the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB), which is scheduled to open on 12\12\12 (12 December) and will go on for three months. It is, however, the huge billboard of privately owned Kashi Art Café—about the Biennale— that catches the eye as one crosses the bridge from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi.
“We had planned to have public art projects dotting Kochi right from the airport to Fort Kochi,” says key organiser Bose Krishnamachari, looking visibly harried and gaunt as he nervously plays with his BlackBerry. “We had to abandon that plan and many other things ever since this controversy regarding funding was raked up by a few disgruntled artists and organisers who were feeling left out of the project,” says Bose, obliquely referring to an ongoing campaign that was first launched in 2011 after funding was granted.
Currently led by sculptor Kanayi Kunhiraman and art teacher CL Porinchukutty, curator Johny ML, artists Achuthan Kudallur and Yusuf Arakkal, the ‘disgruntled’ group alleges misappropriation of the Rs 5 crore sanctioned by the state government.
In May 2010, the art duo Bose and Riyas Komu, the brains behind the Biennale, had proposed a budget of Rs 73 crore for setting up the entire Biennale office, infrastructure and projects. “We had planned it so that the government would put in 30 per cent, we would put in 30 per cent and the rest would come from private funders,” says Bose. It was approved by a committee that comprised Prime Minster Manmohan Singh, who was heading the Union Culture Ministry; KV Thomas, Union minister; MA Baby, culture minister of Kerala; and [then] cultural secretary Jawhar Sircar.
However a souring of the relationship between the Kerala government and the organisers has led to ‘a shortage of funds’. The Kerala government froze any further flow of money after a vigilance inquiry was initiated against the Kochi Muziris Biennale on the basis of recommendations of Kerala’s Financial Inspection Wing, which has unearthed several financial ‘irregularities’ in the disbursal of funds.
“While we uphold our decision to go ahead with the inquiry, this is a big event attracting international participation. Therefore, the government would lend it all support except financial support,” said KC Joseph, minister for rural development, planning and culture, in the absence of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy—who has, incidentally, agreed to inaugurate the Biennale. The grand opening night will include performances by traditional drummers and the hiphop artiste M.I.A.—who is also showing her paintings at the Biennale. “As per an earlier decision, the government would provide the facilities at the Durbar Hall in Kochi free of rent for the Biennale for a period of four months,” Joseph adds, though the government has withdrawn its nominated representatives and ‘forbidden’ the KMB from using the emblems of either the government or Kerala Lalithakala Akademi.
This withdrawal of financial support puts a major dampener on things. It not only constrains the Biennale because it won’t have an advertising and PR budget, it also constrains the artists. Working against the odds, many of the artists are now funding their own projects, downsizing works and managing in the face of several adversities—from perennial power cuts to a lack of basic infrastructure—even if their stay and travel has been covered by the KMB committee.
Emphasising the scale of the project, Michelangelo Bendandi, official spokesperson for the KMB, says, “There are 11 venues and 83 artists and hundreds of locals taking part in the Biennale. We are expecting a crowd of at least a thousand people flying in for the opening night. So we have tapped funding from myriad sources: embassies, private sponsors like the Feroze Gujral Foundation artists, local landlords, institutions like the Goethe Institute, and various organisations around the world. There is no way that we will allow this controversy to affect the success of the Biennale.”
At the once derelict Aspinwall House (summer palace of Maharaja of Travancore), workmen grunt as beams, pillars and floorboards are put into place. Artists scramble around to put finishing touches or complete pending works. Subodh Gupta and his team face the task of squeezing a 60-ft boat through the narrow arches of a hall at this key Biennale site. Though this is now one of the most active sites at the Biennale, it’s hard to comprehend how artists combat power cuts. Filmmakers like Amar Kanwar are driven to paint in the dark with torches, and wonder aloud, “How am I going to install my film projection room in pitch darkness?”
Despite being pressed for time, Gupta has a reflective moment, as a more size-friendly boat is being sourced, and iron and steel fittings being crafted to support the boat. “The Kochi Biennale may not change the way Indians look at art, but it will definitely create an alternative to the shopping mart of art fairs. I am very positive about the Biennale,” says Gupta, who is working through the night to install his gigantic work. Gupta is known for mammoth projects like Very Hungry God, a giant skull made of steel utensils, that was installed in a church in Venice and then bought by François Pinault for an undisclosed amount. A similar feat was performed when he installed his 36 x 36 ft Line of Control, a mushroom-cloud shaped cascade of utensils at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi.
Meanwhile, artist Sheela Gowda has a sea-facing location and is not vexed by power cuts or small doorways, and is sitting pretty as she has already arranged and transported over 60 large grinding stones from Bangalore. “These are objects collected from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, used to grind spices and idli batter. I have connected them to the spice trade in Kerala and especially the forgotten port of Muziris,” says Gowda, who is collaborating with Christoph Storz on this project. There are a few more, like Atul Dodiya and LN Tallur, who have finished their works well in advance and now have time to mull over how to enhance and mount them.
International artists appear to have an even more experimental approach to their projects, like Rigo 23 (born Ricardo Gouveia in Portugal), who is mounting long hollow bamboos— used for catching fish—above the Kochi boat jetty with the hope that they will trap echoes of the past and send them back to the Spanish Armada!
Afghan-born Amanullah Mojadidi has another site, near Aspinwall, where he is conducting a faux architectural dig in the hope that he will find a connection to his ancestors who once lived in Kochi. “I want to create confusion between fiction and history,” says Mojadidi, who has planted objects like lapis lazuli beads and a fragment of the Bamiyan Buddha, as well as a fake archaeologist’s log.
“We feel a great sense of momentum towards this project,” say Italian artist couple Louis and Maya, who have painted three murals in their signature style across the city. South African Clifford Charles is collaborating with local artists from Kochi, throwing pails of paint on plastic sheets and peeling them off as ‘skin’ afterward. “I plan to collaborate with the local transgender community to produce a performance that celebrates this colourful and kitschy carnival in the face of detritus and waste,” says Charles. Pepper House, one of the oldest godowns for spices in Kochi, has also been completely renovated by private entrepreneurs: from a crumbling building to a café, performance space and residency.
While on one hand it is remarkable how locals have been involved in setting up the Biennale, there are also works that are conceptually dense and speak directly to an art literate audience, such as Mumbai-based Shreyas Karle’s empty room—with just the sound of an overflowing tap.
Amid all this optimism one wonders: where did things go wrong?
Lack of transparency is cited as the primary reason for the standoff between the government and the KMB. “Apart from the renovation of the Durbar Hall in Kochi that cost Rs 3 crore, they don’t have anything substantial to show or claim before the public,” says curator Johny ML.
The Ecoled (LED) lights, disability ramp and climate control room at the Durbar Hall don’t immediately give viewers the impression that Rs 3 crore has been spent here. However, Bose insists, “Everyone from MA Baby (the then culture minster) to KC Joseph (the current minister for culture) approved the budget—this is not politically motivated. Quite frankly, artist- driven initiatives need a certain amount of autonomy.”
Riyas is a bit more diplomatic in his approach and prefers to put in writing what Bose says candidly. He states, ‘We welcome the vigilance inquiry ordered by the Government of Kerala. We consider this inquiry an opportunity to show the public the open and transparent manner in which the Foundation has handled all activities related to the Biennale.’ The scrutiny process will have to run its due course, and in the meantime one can only wait and watch.
“Now I don’t want to talk anymore about the controversy, let’s just enjoy the Biennale. We will never touch government money again,” says Bose resolutely. As a hardcore art enthusiast, one cannot help but get excited by a project of this scale and magnitude. Now, if only the checks and balances required to pull off an event of this stature would fall into place, everyone could have a happy ending.