Saturday, 18 March 2017

That Inescapable Sea of Pain - Day 3 at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2017

Looking at so much art, seduced by the natural landscape, the Kerala Mundu, Arabian Sea and delicious beyond delicious Malyali cuisine, my senses were satiated - well, close to being saturated. But, there was more to see - a hell of a lot more. How does anyone see it all, I wondered as I made my way back to Aspinwall House for the nth time.
Of the many nationalities, from Egyptian to Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese and Dutch, who came to Kerala in search of spices to trade, an Englishman by the name of John H. Aspinwall, stayed and made Cochin his home. Originally used for the business of Aspinwall & Company Ltd. established in 1867, this historic building today, is home to many significant art works in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
Aspinwall House
The title given for the 2017 Biennale, by curator Sudarshan Shetty, ‘Forming in the Pupil of an Eye', referring to the eye which is concurrently physical and metaphysical, evolved with the art experience, to be an apt one. For the last three days, each artwork seen, led by the sensuous-loving physical eye, I had absorbed sounds, images and words, with the ‘eye’ simultaneously becoming an invisible mirror to reflect and let the particles of the seen and perceived vision sink deep into the abyss of being; finding oneself - in empathy, in curiosity, unresponsiveness and even playful competitiveness.
Mundus and only mundus, lined up, pile upon pile
The evening before, I'd bought myself a white Kerala-style man’s ‘mundu’ (loosely translated as lungi) with a simple black border, promising to wear it to the next day’s Biennale viewing. And I did. The salesmen at the shop on Churchlanding Road in Ernakulam had been amused at my quest to learn how to wear it, and each of the seven or eight men in the shop took turns in showing me how to wear it. Each thinking that they would get me to understand what the other had failed to communicate.  I was keen to wear it pulled up, from the ankles up to the knees, which was a tad complicated and my efforts gauche and awkward to say the least. The experience had been hilarious for all, me included, even if a little embarrassing. Anjalee and Maggie tried to distance themselves from my keenness to learn how to pull it up, like we had seen men on the street do quite effortlessly. Anjalee had gone so far as to quietly inform the salesmen that I was ‘mad’. That afternoon, the day after the mundu madness at Kasava Kadu, when the three of us met outside the ‘Pyramid of Exiled Poets’, at Aspinwall House, I in my pristine white mundu teamed with a sleeveless black T-Shirt, willingly posed for the ‘must-have’ photo and then we proceeded to look for Raul Zurita's much acclaimed installation - The Sea of Pain', which I'd been dying to see but hadn't yet got there.
I'd seen images on Facebook. I'd read reviews and my expectations were therefore loaded. Drawing on the Syrian refugee crisis, this installation by Zurita is dedicated to Galip Kurdi, the brother of 3yr old Aylan whose body had been washed ashore a Turkish beach in September 2015. The much-photographed image of Aylan becoming synonymous with the tragedy of the refugees who weren't granted asylum. Gurdip, his brother and their mother drowned when their dinghy capsized in its attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos, via Turkey. When the sea got rough, the Turkish smuggler, paid to bring them ashore, abandoned the boat, which capsized. Born and living in Chile, using his art as a vehicle to convey a political message, Zurita makes this crisis a moment of awakening for all. His audience, walking through the installation, bare feet, mid-calf steeped in dark waters, is compelled to listen within and to question what they would do in a moment of such a crisis.
Maggie and Gopika immersed in Raul Zurita's, Sea of Pain
As you wade through a long, dimly lit gallery filled with water that looks black, taking one solemn step at a time, for walking through water cannot be a hasty stride; it comes naturally to look around, to turn here and there. And the helplessness of being abandoned tugged at something in me, heightened by piercing questions, that called out silently but accusingly, from high walls that framed the long and narrow room: Don't you listen? Don't you look? Don't you hear me? Don't you see me? Don't you feel me? Are you never coming back - never? Never?
One step at a time, I walked up to the end of the long rectangular space, to be reminded that a human tragedy is never just someone else's it is also our own, especially when Zurita states: "I am not his father but Galip Kurdi is my son"
Walking back to where our sandals were left, Maggie and I were reflective but in our out-ward path a young girl danced in the water, lifting her dress and pirouetting daintily; her playful form silhouetted against the daylight. There were now many more people entering the installation space, but an experience that touches at the level of soul cannot be thus distracted from its message.
Orijit Sen, 'Go Play Ces'
As we left the installation, pausing long enough to dry our legs and feet, the next gallery that beckoned my companions was Orijit Sen's 'Go Play Ces'. I protested that it was too much of a contrast after such a solemn, soul-stirring experience. But, followed them nonetheless and was completely taken by the mixed-media installation games that we were invited to play. Visiting the vibrant Friday, Mapusa market in North Goa, is an experience that I've enjoyed first hand but, the details that Sen has captured come from deeper observations than a cursory holiday visit. It was like a virtual journey through liquor shops, the fish and flower sellers and much, much more. And to ensure that some essence of this experience remains, Sen tempts you to answer five questions to win a printed card of his drawings. So, totally engaged in this playful experience, I expected to forget Zurita's poignant plea, but despite exulting at winning two cards, the impressions of being in the ‘Sea of Pain’ remained.
Orijit Sen, 'Go Play Ces' - The Mapusa Market Game

Savouring deliciously sweet, fleshy, golden jackfruit for breakfast the next morning. I found the questions returning: "Don't you listen? Don't you look? Don't you hear me? Don't you see me? Don't you feel me? Are you never coming back - never? Never?" Abandonment is something we have all experienced at some juncture of our lives. Abandoned by family, friends or lovers in moments when we've possibly felt a need for human succour the most; in a gesture of defensiveness and self-protection, we may have internalised this angst.  Therefore, reliving it through art can be cathartic and healing. Even though Zurita had a specific basis for his questions, they are common to the human condition, each with our own personal experiences to remember as we walk through this universal sea of pain.
Desmond Lazaro, Family Portraits, Aspinwall House

When sorrow is celebrated - and expressing it through art and poetry is about celebration rather than suppression, is where I am reassured that the exalted premium that contemporary society has accorded on happiness, hasn't eroded our capacity to experience its lamenting brother.
‘Dance of Death’ by Yardena Kurulkar at Aspinwall House writes her date of birth with light bulbs that keep going off, to have all the lights go out at the end of the Biennale
Each day in Kochi has been an enriching and enlightening one and I want to gush with enthusiasm like a teenager, but restrain myself. Walking through the extensive galleries at Aspinwall, I walked into the ‘Dance of Death’ by Yardena Kurulkar, passed the ‘Family portraits’ by Desmond Lazaro and entered a large hall which had a painted mural in progress.
Desmond Lazaro, Family Portraits, Aspinwall House

Sitting on raised platforms, two artists, assistants of the painter P.K. Sadanandan, were engaged in completing a mural which depicts a story called 'Paraya Petta Panthiru'. A young gallery guide told us, this is the story of inter-caste marriage and how each child, of the twelve progeny born of this marriage, was abandoned by their father at birth - trusting in the force that created its life to care for it.

artists at work, P.K. Sadanadan, ''Paraya Petta Panthiru', Aspinwall House

This translated into each child being brought up and/or adopted by families of varied castes - from Brahmins to carpenters and wandering minstrels. It's a powerful legend to educate people on the universality of being - free from caste and religious dictates. The father of the abandoned children was Vararuci, a Brahamana scholar in the court of Vikramaaduthyan in 57BCE. Featuring narratives from mythology, masterfully painted in the Kerala mural style augmented with inspiration from the cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora, although Sadanandan's art, is known well known for his presentation of teachings and practices from across India, it was my first encounter with this painter’s oeuvre.
Anjalee viewing the large scale mural by P.K. Sadanandan
The intermingling of abstract experiences with vibrant traditional forms in art along with sensory experiences of tastes and smell that have been a simultaneous 'degustation' of the Biennale experience, echoed the philosophical thought in Bose Krishnamachari's essay, in the Biennale Guide. "The river is everywhere" says Bose, quoting Hesse from 'Siddhartha', in a 'A River called Biennale’ as he expounded the likeness of a river to that of the human experience. "We are born of a river's origins and like a river flow toward an end. A river is the root of our existence. All great civilisations were born on the banks of a river". The river is where all things merge. Situated in Kochi, on the banks of backwaters that lead to and come inland from the Arabian Sea, especially at Aspinwall House which is a sea-facing property, it was easy to make this connection of a river's origin flowing into the sea and on its journey carrying the silt of experience, merging into the oceanic current, into the being of non-being - that vast ocean of one-ness.

On the ferry to Ernakulam
As we'd walked around asking for directions to Zurita's 'Sea of Pain', we'd observed someone blindfolded and being guided in a most aesthetic way. I had been quite taken with what I had seen of this audience-interactive performance. The participant could not see, but I'd watched Jijo guide her to stop or move forward, relinquishing his touch through enchanting, dance-like gestures. Steered by sound (headphones) and touch alone, where goggles shut out the visual, I had watched her being led in and out of spaces at Aspinwall House. Intrigued and attracted by the lyrical gestures of Jijo, her guide, I signed up for the experience and hurried back from lunch at a nearby water-front restaurant, with a quick look at Praneet Soi and an interesting marble sculpture by Jonathan Owen at Pepper House, to participate in this performance.
 I hadn't given much thought to what I had set myself up for, but as I waited for the performance to start, I reminded myself how much I rely on the visual to experience life. I'm exceedingly sensitive to sound, but it's the visual that's been my metier. Would that bother me? Soon enough, a hand reached out from behind me and put large white goggles covering my eyes, obscuring everything but a sensation of light. I was now completely at the mercy of my touch-guide and the recorded soundtrack played through the wireless headphones. In anticipation of being taken through 'The Sea of Pain' as part of being masked and walked through familiar spaces, I requested Jijo to turn up my mundu. Thankfully Maggie and Anjalee weren't there to tell me how ridiculous I may have looked and I surrendered to the ‘Symphony of a Missing Room', choreographed by Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl, enacted by Jijo and myself.
Blindfolded, I was led by suggestive hand gestures, aided by the recorded soundtrack, which alerted me to take slow measured steps or to stop. Pause a bit, then move forward, take a step up or down or touch a wall - telling me I had reached a dead end. The soft, predominantly female voice, played through the wireless headphones, occasionally urged me to see the light within, to imagine the art works I had seen before this, but each time I tried doing so, I could only visualize tall, bending trunks of lofty coconut palm trees, their pinnate leaves moving with and creating a gentle breeze. From the onset of the performance, as soon as the headphones were put on, I also had this inexplicable urge to sleep. I wasn't sure if this was brought on because I was tired or because I found the spoken tract a little naive and didn't connect with embracing change through the Biennale, which I now viewed without sight. There was a shift but it was making me sleepy. I'm aware how fear of facing things does create this illusion, but there had there been no real fear. Not about the performance in any case. I walked with caution but I also knew that I'd be led safely. Maybe it was a deeper fear surfacing, or maybe shutting out the visual created a familiar, sleep-inducing space. Each day had been packed with stimulating experiences, so it could just be that – the surfacing of a latent desire to sleep!
When I was asked how the experience was, the only word I could summon was 'weird'. I hadn't had any kind of spiritual epiphany of experiencing myself at a deeper level of knowing, nor I had I recollected the art works seen in days or even hours just passed. The sensation of wanting to sleep overwhelmed, and the coconut palms all around me, dominated my subconscious.  I fought the urge to sleep - I had to, I mean, how could I sleep standing up?  As I walked, unknowing where I was, I did experience various degrees of darkness and light, which led me to think I was going inside or coming out into the open which brought about the shift regarding the levels of light. At the end of the half-hour session when the goggles were removed I was standing calf-deep in Raul Zurita's 'Sea of Pain'.
Returning to that inescapable Sea of Pain
Overwhelmed by the urge to slumber, I headed out of Aspinwall in search of some South Indian filter coffee to find none. I returned to my room in Thoppumpuddy to get my camera and rushed back to Fort Kochi for a Kathakali performance and make-up session. While the experience was photographically enriching - watching them do the make-up was novel, the whole performance was designed for touristy kind of viewing and I was possibly the lone Indian among fifty foreigners.
doing his own make-up

The man who played the female lead should have retired a long time ago, but hogged the limelight while the younger man who was more interesting in attire and fluidity of movements as well as elegant facial gestures, so vital in Kathakali, was relegated to the background.

When I bought my ticket and a young man guiding me to my seat, softly asked why I was wearing a man’s dress; was it because it was ‘Women’s Day’? I had forgotten I was wearing the mundu, I had forgotten it was the 8th of March and reminded of both in this way, I forgot to tell the young lad that, in the normal scheme of things, I wore a ‘man’s dress’ more often than what is narrowly designated a ‘woman’s dress’.

The interplay of life with art heightened by such unexpected occurrences, my third day at the Kochi Biennale ended with a delectable bite of figs and roasted almonds coated with a delicious dark, dark chocolate. I headed back to my homestay in Thoppumpudy in an auto, reaching just in time before it started pouring down with rain. Although I was relieved to not have been caught in the downpour, it did flash through my mind that Kerala has two monsoons - the south-west monsoon in June and the north-east in October, bring plentiful rain which means that unlike other parts of the country it is never parched. “Falling Down, pooling up, /Out of the sky, into my cup. /What is this wet that comes from above, /That some call disaster, and others find love”, wrote the poet Mitchell. D. Wilson, echoing the paradox where the falling wetness may irk but water and especially rain, is also an integral part of the Kerala landscape. In addition to the extensive shoreline of the Arabian sea on its west, Kerala also has a network of rivers and lagoons with tranquil stretches of backwaters, all of which add to its lush greenness and abundance of natural birds and other species.
Early morning birds on the Vembanad

And as I readied for slumber, I reflected on the irony that rain, rivers, backwaters, tears of laughter or grief - all form an integral part of our existence. The human existence in it its many facets, brought forth to ponder upon through the art extravaganza of the Biennale, is fraught forever with error and misguided evaluations leading to pain, inflicted by self or others. Whether it was walking through the Pyramid of Exiled Poets, reflecting on the changes in society brought about by imported ideas, the fragility of nature, haunted memories of an abandoned past or redefining gender, all these expressions arose from a some kind of an ache. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale art was therefore a constant reminder that the ‘experience’ of life, which eventually salvages the lost sense of self in our knowing, almost always come through the mistakes we make in our unknowing. That the nature of human consciousness is one that merges or emerges from that proverbial 'Sea of Pain'.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Turning, Returning, Reclaiming: Day 2 at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2017

Breakfast in Kochi was a soul indulging experience and a habit that could be hard to break. Each morning, I sat out on a verandah with gleaming red tiles that lead to a handkerchief-sized emerald green lawn, which overlooked the backwaters. Watching the coconut palm bending towards the Vembanad as I nibbled sweet, ripe, golden jackfruit or sipped some tea, beyond a white picket fence, I could also see the Thoppumpudy Bridge that crosses over the backwaters into Ernakalum. More often than not, it was packed bumper to bumper with traffic. But although I wasn’t too far, the water acted as a buffer and I could barely hear the urban cacophony. In the heart of this historic buzzing port of Kerala, I was fortunate to begin my day watching fishermen and birds on the large expanse of water gently rippling along with the tide, its fluid surface shimmering in the subtle light of morning. The empty plastic water bottles and polythene bags that were carried with the tide were disconcerting, but I was told that it is better than it used to be and people are becoming more conscious about such things.

View from Ginger House Restaurant, looking onto a naval base

While today Kochi may be the busiest port, historically it was Calicut, modern day Kozhikode, that dominated in trade.  When Vasco da Gama landed on the shores of Kerala, it was in Kappad in Calicut that he disembarked with his crew, in May 1498. Calicut, then under the rule of the famed Hindu Rajah known as the Zamorin of Calicut, was the archetype of commercial prosperity and hosted merchants and goods from every trading nation in its lively bazars. But the Zamorin and Vasco and his crew didn’t hit it off and the Portuguese eventually sailed out to Cochin to load their ships. It was through the Portuguese that Kochi came into prominence prior to which its history is not well documented. The Rajah of Cochin befriended the Portuguese and with his help many battles were fought against the Zamorin who, with the help of the Dutch, eventually conquered Cochin in 1663. However, after the retreat of the Portuguese, the Dutch assumed the mantle of protecting the Rajah of Cochin and in various other ways by interfering with the prevalent trading practices, undermined the Zamorin’s powers. Although the Dutch had a longer stint in Cochin than the Portuguese, they didn’t stay too long either. Weakened by constant wars against Marthanda Varma of Travancore the Dutch eventually surrendered to British forces that marched from Calicut to Cochin in 1795, as part of the larger Napoleonic Wars between Holland and England in Europe. By the end of the 17th century Calicut’s pre-eminence and glory faded, and Kerala’s great age ended by the turn of the 18th century with the dawn of the colonial era.
 Brunton Boatyard, Fort Kochi
Fascinating as history can be, and walking through Kochi one cannot help but notice various colonial influences, nature is a powerful magnet. And, as if by design, a big chunk of Day 2 of the Kochi Biennale 2017 experience, was viewing works on nature. ‘Landscapes and Silences’, an Indo-Canadian Project curated by Tanya Abraham and Wayne Baerwaldt presented artists who explored the changing relationships between artists and nature in art, re-looking at the moral and aesthetic values towards nature in a changing rural landscape.

Terry Billings, Adjusted Landscape, 2006, Acrylic on archival digital-print paper

Within this exhibition, Terry Billings, created an aural installation, recorded in Saskatchewan and Kochi, of a 'Dawn chorus' - of birds singing at the start of the day, which was placed at the entrance and stairwell of the Kashi Art Gallery, an old Dutch house in the Fort Kochi area refashioned as a cultural space. This gentle, twittering chorus followed us throughout the gallery, sometimes complimenting, sometimes contrasting and sometimes overpowered by the art works on display. The natural landscape was presented in its many guises.
Regina Horowitz, Starfields and Fields, detail
Through black and white photographs made by a pin-hole camera, Regina Horowitz created images that brought a sense of timeless transience in the natural world through her wispy, grainy images in shades of grey and black. Gabriela Garcia-Luna photographically documented the seen and unseen in natural vistas to index personal memories, presenting them in a circular format as quasi-abstract imagery which drew its impetus from foliage and trees.

Gabriela Garcia-Luna, Regina, Canada, a detail

Gabriela Garcia-Luna, Regina,
 Canada, Set of 3
The unending circumference around the colourful photographic landscape, evocative of a seamless merging of the inner and outer world was a compelling visual metaphor that drew the viewing eye inside the form and then, further within, into the self, to create an intimate viewing experience. Zachari Logan's portraiture of wild plant-life, though reminiscent of botanical drawings of an age gone by, were not necessarily biologically accurate but were created as deliberately provocative, imaginative hybrids, referencing the four seasons.
Zachari Logan, graphite and pencil on paper, 15 in x 15 in
I'm irrepressibly drawn to plant-life and enjoyed these art-works immensely. Walking around Kochi, I've also been mesmerised by the over-arching, larger than life, flowering 'Rain Trees' that line the streets around Fort Kochi. Kerala, is abundantly blessed with natural munificence and the large water bodies around the city bring in many birds. I've seen Seagulls, Heron, Kingfisher, Cormorants, Eagles, Kites an abundance of crows, as well as unique small birds that I can't identify. Here, nature, the mechanical and man-made co-habit with ease. There are no 'green' auto-rickshaws and taxis around, as seen in Delhi but, the debris floating out to the Arabian Sea is a constant reminder of how careless we become when nature sustains us so effortlessly. Walking out of these exhibits expressive of a dwindling natural habitat, I wondered how much impact could the subtle voices of these Canadian artists have on the collective consciousness in Kochi, and, as artists, are we merely speaking among the converted - is that as far we can go?
David Hall, Cafe, Fort Kochi
Nearby, David Hall - also an old Dutch bungalow that has been restored and redesigned as a cultural centre, cafe and gallery for contemporary art, had actually been the first Biennale venue I visited that day. My hitherto languid mid-morning, after breakfast overlooking the Vembanad, had been confronted by Padmini Chettur's multi-channel video, Varnam, 2016, where she sought to redefine gender roles through the depiction of love and longing in classical dance. Intrigued by the rhythmic chant and free-flowing but tightly controlled body gestures of women dressed casually in sarees, evocative of western modern dance with mudras from classical Indian dance, I sat on the wooden bench and watched three simultaneous videos being screened. It's never easy to impress upon your audience, in the matter a few moments, the essence of ideas that have engaged an artist for many years. The language becomes personal and thus codified and needs deeper engagement and more time than such a large-scale Biennale viewer can spare. I can't say I understood what she was saying but I was intrigued enough to watch and listen and carried with me a sense of its power, even if the real meaning eluded my grasp.
Padmini Chettur's multi-channel video, Varnam, 2016

In an adjoining room, this idea of a codified language was also voiced by Dana Awartani, from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016, a large-scale (200 x 200 x 200 cms), white on white panels of hand embroidery on silk. I was curious about these love poems and who had done the embroidery. I searched on the internet and discovered that I share my alma mater of Central St. Martins with the artist and therefore assume that Dana does the embroidery herself. 
Maggie and Anjalee distracted while viewing Dana Awartani's,
 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016, (200 x 200 x 200 cms)
Standing in front of the eight embroidered panels, or walking around, I found myself drawn into their depths, but that I was precluded from entering its inner recesses or sacred space. The white panels placed in the manner of eight receding doorways were hung from the ceiling and raised from the floor level and only a spirit floating inwards could possibly access the inner sanctum, as experienced by the poet. Ibn Arabi was an Andalusian Sunni Scholar of Islam, a Sufi mystic, poet and philosopher, regarded by Sufism as "the greatest master" and a genuine saint who wrote:
"The mystery of that is that in the world of subtle beauty
people are only infatuated with the world of form.
Were they like me in love, they would be satisfied
and they would witness his essence in every form of belief;
for they would be [sharing] in what my vision determines
if they were in love from the world of direct observing.”
[Translation anon]
Dana Awartani, 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016,
(200 x 200 x 200 cms),detail
In concurrence with the aniconism reflected in the poem and the poetry of geometry which the Islamists believe created the universe; as an act of reviving the practice of Islamic geometry and its highly codified mathematically derived forms, Awartani embroidered familiar patterns from the Islamic repertoire. “Using the tradition of Saudi textiles” and creating “genealogies of meaning that act as a form of meditation, praying and search for the inner spirit”, with white thread on white Moire silk, Awartini delicately envisioned the purity of a spiritual encounter”, recalling Ibn Arabi’s experience at the Ka'aba in Mecca. I am a fan of Islamic art and was once a keen student of the concepts of geometry and mathematics that defined it. In Awartini’s “act of revival” of its highly-coded language, I had hoped for some contemporary light on the precepts that formulated this art, especially to decode the mystery of symbols embroidered in her work and their particular relevance with the poems of Ibn Arabi, but I was disappointed.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 1, 2016, (150 x 100 cms),
In another gallery within David Hall, walking across the hallway and once again encountering Padmini Chettur's video performance on my way, were large, embroidered tapestries on organza by Avinash Veeraraghavan from Bengalaru. In 'After the End' 1 and 2, 2016, (150 x 100 cms), he used traditional embroidery techniques to evoke notions of what could have been an abandoned childhood - harking back to the past, through the present recording of absence - the absence of human form. Forgotten playgrounds, going to rust, were lushly portrayed with sequins, beads and thread work, seemingly celebrating rather than lamenting the empty and abandoned spaces. His use of padded beadwork to raise and highlight the relatively shining metallic structures of a rusting slide and carousel was most effectively contrasted against the organic and rough texture of the rest of the tapestry. And even though the extravagant use of material in the elaborately sequinned landscape, of fallen autumnal leaves and the sky, raised many questions about the shimmer and shine, there was, nonetheless, a haunted quality to the embroidered tapestries that evoked an emptiness which the gleaming plastic sequins could not disguise.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 1, a detail
Although I inferred that the execution had been done by artisans, it wasn't stated whether Veeraraghavan had embroidered the works himself or employed skilled craftspeople to assist him. The Biennale Guide text references embroidery with its ancient tradition as a vehicle for reclamation of the past. But, do those continuing a tradition need to reclaim it, or is it for us now removed from such practices, to find ourselves through that tradition? In this instance, I am not sure how that could have been achieved, not unless the artist undertook to learn the skill and execute the embroidery himself. In addition, the absence of credit given to those who may have worked with him in continuance of the tradition of this embroidery practice, detracted from a statement that was also not corroborated visually. From the perspective of craft revival and enhancing the value of working with the hand, the craftsmen employed could well have been exposed to newer ways of using age-old techniques that would augment their vocabulary of form and texture and enhance the scope for embroidery. And, I was happy to see thread used so extravagantly and find its place in the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The skilful execution of these two tapestries was also a significant feature that attracted and sustained my interest.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 2, a detail
Looking at so many works of art needs frequent pauses and the galleries at the Biennale are well located among cafes and restaurants to create a viewing experience that includes quaint lanes and expansive vistas of a charming city, its history and multi-layered culture. Quite naturally Maggie, Anjalee and myself sat back and relaxed in the natural environs of The David Hall café to natter and mull over the art we’d just seen. Filter coffee, Kerala style, with an impeccably cooked French toast using banana bread, was the perfect punctuation after some intense art viewing. The swing, hung by coarse rope from a tall tree, was just too good to miss out on and taking off from Veeraraghavan’s embroidered playground, swinging high, I reconnected with a childhood pastime.  However, the eerie viewing of a chicken’s dismembered foot on the garden path as I walked past, created a horrified Eeeks! for the reality of everyday living, to offset the aah’s of art appreciation.

On our way to The Kashi Art Gallery, we walked through ‘The Passage Malabar’ to stop by and check out the merchandise at ‘Cinnamon’, a designer retail outlet. In the Passage, we encountered some curiously manipulated photos, as visual essays on the palaces of India, imagined by Karen Knorr where the inhabitants were creatures of the animal kingdom. It was part of a collateral event presented by Tasveer.
Meydad Eliyahu, The Box of Documents - Kadalassuppet, 2, Kashi Art Gallery

Some of the other art that I engaged with, included an installation at Kashi by Meydad Eliyahu [Jerusalem] who explored a lost personal history and connection to Kerala Jews, through ‘The Box of Documents/Kadalassuppet’, a compelling series of photographs by Endri Dani [Albania], at TMK Warehouse, expressing how people subvert the homogeneity imposed by totalitarian leadership, and Margaret Lanzetta [USA] speaking colourfully at Kashi, about the ‘Folded Language’ of patterns that have migrated through trade in textiles.
Endri Dani [Albania], CM 182, from a series of photographs,
 TMK Warehouse,
Margaret Lanzetta [USA] ‘Folded Language’, Kashi Art Gallery
Yesterday, Maggie and I had a sumptuous lunch at ‘Oceanos’ on Elphinstone street, where the ‘Thiru Kochi Mango Fish Curry’ and the ‘Syrian Catholic Fish Pollichathu’ were beyond delicious. Today’s choice was the Ginger House Restaurant in Mattanchery, which also houses an antique store.  Sitting on the waterfront, upon and among antique furniture including the tables, chairs, counters, pillars, door frames and traditional Kerala artefacts, the museum restaurant was a perfect counter point to contemporary art viewing and a reminder of the cultural palette of the city hosting it. 

365 days of Shringar, Nathdwara Pichvai,
Heritage Arts Antique Showroom Mattanchery, 2

It was also the venue for a Biennale collateral event presenting the Nathdwara Pichvais of Rajasthan where the highlight was a series of miniature-scale line-drawings depicting the various modes and forms of ‘shringar’ captured by an innovative artist.
Boats and a Boatyard, and Naval  ships in the distance, Mattachery
Thinking, about the art I had seen over the last two days, of being surrounded by the Arabian Sea, with large Naval ships and fighter aircraft flying above, I was waiting for my companions inside the antique store, seated on a darkly polished rosewood sofa-set with an ornately carved, large than life, Garuda backrest, when I glanced around me and found that I sat amidst dulled brass face and body masks used for dance performances, larger than life painted but faded wood carvings and other antique artefacts.
The Garuda backrest Sofa and brass body and face masks,
Ginger the Museum Restaurant Mattanchery,
In a city where civilisations have colluded and collided over trade and warring princes paved the way for colonial masters; where a culture once seeped in mythology and lore of an indigenous ethos had imbibed much yet ignored a great deal of the foreign influences of ruling factors, choosing to stay rooted in their own unique culture, I wondered how this city would be, or could be impacted by the world of International contemporary art and artists it was hosting. I wondered about the very language of art and its capacity to move others - especially the uninitiated public. Some of the artistic concepts that I had engaged with had been deep and required total commitment to viewing, letting go of preconceived ideas and just being part of the experience. This kind of viewing is a practiced art that comes from years of looking and making art, how then do others engage with such expression?
Alex Sexton [AUS] 'Refuge' 2015, [TKM Warehouse].
Though tired from stretching my mind to contextualise the art already seen, my day had not yet come to a close. Egged on by Maggie and Anjalee, I dragged myself to yet another Biennale venue to be utterly awed by Alex Sexton's 'Refuge' 2015, [TKM Warehouse], which highlights the struggles of those seeking political asylum. Powerful as the work is, I may well have overlooked it, not because it wasn't striking but because in my fatigued mind it appeared as if a tarpaulin fabric had been draped and cast in plaster of paris, so no big deal! But, as Maggie read out the details of the work posted on the walls of a run-down, possibly out of use warehouse, my senses perked up. Did she say carved marble statue? Yes, it was indeed carved as if the human being it draped had left a hollow of its earlier presence. By choosing to depict a single figure Seton [Aus] personalises the story of the refugee. The empty space could have been, or could be occupied by anyone, including myself.  His use of classic form, skills and material connecting to the history of sculpture that heralded the figurative and realistic representation, added another dimension. Not only did the concept gain strength through my admiring attention of its skilful execution, but the power that skill and excellence in execution has in drawing us into itself, was brought to the fore. In another, adjacent gallery, six, large (167 x 670 cms) water colour paintings by T.V Santosh compelled my attention in much the same way, marvelling at the technical expertise of using water colour at such a large scale.
T.V.Santosh,(167 x 670 cms) water colour
Yesterday too, despite relating to and thoroughly enjoying the deeply philosophical and socio-politically motivated conceptual art works at Aspinwall House, it was the lighter-veined, innovative drawings in a collaborative work with Madhubani artists, at a collateral event at OED gallery on Bazar Street, that had been just as memorable. Skilful in execution, imaginative in content and subject matter, with a lightness of being, were the hallmark of artworks that I found exceptionally attractive – be it embroidery, drawings, water colour or sculpture. The capacity for excellence in execution and presentation couldn't override the notions an artist explored, but somehow, it seems that conviction in the idea is often communicated and made consummate by the level of commitment in its execution, even if not done entirely by the artist him or herself.
Godh - in the lap of nature 2016, detail 2
The acquiring of a skill and facing challenges encountered in traversing newer conceptual terrain, is also about making a pledge to excel. Even where the artist is not the skilled executor, getting traditional craftsmen to interpret the concept and provide just the right technique and texture requires a tremendous level of commitment. It is perhaps this depth of engagement which can and does grip the imagination of even the uninitiated in art, leading to curiosity and awe and through this to impactful and far reaching dialogues - beyond that of the converted preaching to themselves. I am always moved by art that takes me deeper into myself, that enables an experience beyond the sensual. Yet, the sheer materiality of the embroideries, skilful water colour paintings and marble sculpture were breath-taking, even though the subject matter may have alluded to desolation, loss and trauma.
T.V.Santosh,(167 x 670 cms) water colour, panel of six
Indigenous art had found ways to incorporate a gamut of human emotional experience by embracing the disgusted and grotesque with as much power as the lovelorn and romantic. And these rasas became a highly-codified language now intelligible only to scholars and that ilk. In the realm of textiles, emphasis lay in the exquisite exploration of skill in making and embellishing fabric, prompted as much by trade as by a spiritual quest towards discovering greater and greater heights of excellence in human endeavour.  The ancients in India, had devised an art practice which eschewed personal glory by extolling the gods or creative forces of the universe that blessed the hands that created in its name. This encountered its own set of complications in the modern world dominated by western ideals of art making compelling a shift in the practices of art making in the subcontinent.
Dana Awartani, 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016, 
(200 x 200 x 200 cms)
Towards a return to traditional practices, Dana Awartini alluded to such ideals by emphasising the dominance of the art over the artist. However, in an era where personal glory is prized, such ideals are hard to sustain and her art, in keeping with the practices of the contemporary world, was presented with her individual identity. Placing technique at par with concept or of art over the artist, are ideals of the past, and perhaps in reclaiming the past, as Veeraraghavan attempts through the extravagantly embroidered abandoned playground, they become ideals for the future.  It is however, reassuring to see that no matter how tentative their steps, the masters of skill are beginning to find their feet in our contemporary world.  But, before renouncing identity to extol the forces of the universe that creates through the human form, they must  first find their place in a world of contemporary art that has overshadowed humble anonymity to exalt human vanity.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 1,
a detail

Monday, 13 March 2017

That Thirst........ Day 1, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2017

Anjalee looking out at the Pyramid of Exiles
On my first day in Kochi, I hadn’t gone to the Biennale venues, choosing instead to take a sunset ride on the Vembanad. I wanted to go alone, in a country boat, without a motor, and somehow my hosts could organise this for me at short notice. I spent a delightful hour watching Peter, a fisherman cum sand transporter, manoeuvre his boat through the backwaters with a bamboo pole called karkol. The setting sun played all kinds of ‘light’ games with his silhouette, as his tall, lithe frame, turned the dark, long, wooden boat this way and that, or just letting it float in the rippling waves. 

Peter in his Vanji on  the Vembanad, Kochi


It was a photographer’s delight and I took almost 300 photos in that hour. Occasional fishermen in smaller boats passed by and Seagulls, Cormorants, Kites, Eagles and Crows flew past or overhead. This, my first day in Kerala was steeped in such wisps and views of the natural world amid the bustle of a successful commercial port that, I couldn’t help but envy the residents of Kochi who were blessed with the facilities of a city and the tranquillity of nature always so close by.
Breakfast in Kochi, overlooking the Vembanad

 The next day, I met up with Maggie Baxter who’d flown down from Australia and Anjalee Wakankar who’d adjourned her Ayurvedic medical treatment for the Biennale, and got down to some serious art viewing.  The way the exhibition venues are planned, one walks through different parts of Kochi, passing under the tall canopies of the overarching, shady ‘Rain Trees’, through the perfumes of myriad flower oils, masalas and fish aromas, added to which Dutch and Portuguese architectural accents, Chinese fishing nets and naval dock yards, make the viewing experience a uniquely enjoyable one. Everything mingles in the mind, making it a truly sensual experience, much beyond Biennale art.
Under the canopy of Rain Trees
As I looked back on the days’ viewing, in my recall, it was the last set of works I saw which came to mind first. At OED Gallery, on Bazar Street in the heart of the spice market of Kochi, were many interesting works that didn't come under the official Biennale banner, but were delightful to view, nonetheless.
Biennale Collateral Event curated by Helen Rayment 
 ‘Common Ground: the serendipitous happenstance project’
Madhubani artists Pradyumna Kumar and Pushpa Kumari collaborated with Ishan Khosla (Bangalore) and Mandy Ridley (Australia) to create fascinating, floor to ceiling, black and white scrolls on coated fabric panels, that transcended boundaries of culture - unique because of the visual and ideological exchange that created the forms, lines and language of visual communication. There was a distinct sense of the 'Western' style of drawing with an 'Alice in Wonderland' touch, but it was also refreshing to see a new vocabulary of marks and narrative emerging from ethnic artists that are wont to regurgitate ideas that don’t always resonate with the world we live in.
Godh - in the lap of nature 2016,

Godh - in the lap of nature 2016,
In ‘Godh: in the lap of nature’, 2016, the fluidity of Mithila lines and their naive representation of subject were seamlessly interwoven with skilful, realistic drawing techniques. I was intrigued: who drew them? Was the collaboration one where Ridley and Khosla conceived and gave sketches which the duo from Mithila inked, or were the marks a collective endeavour of the four artists. As part of a Biennale Collateral Event curated by Helen Rayment in ‘Common Ground: the serendipitous happenstance project’, this collaboration was based on collective memories of experiences in nature and from landscapes of childhood. And the different drawing styles of each of the artists were synthesised through the digital reproduction process. I wasn’t sure what stories these scrolls told, but the lines and marks tugged at my imagination and like Alice, I was tempted, but didn’t linger long enough to go down the rabbit hole.
Godh - in the lap of nature 2016, detail

Godh - in the lap of nature 2016, detail
In a complete shift from these playful drawings, Ales Steger in creating 'The Pyramid of Exiled Poets' at Aspinwall House, nagged at my conscience, compelling me to enter and experience what it feels like to walk in a world where your voice is unintelligible; where strangers, and not your kinsmen who share language and cultural values, hear your words. What does it feel like to be in exile, to have lost your home and not be heard? And if heard at all, to speak in a world darkened by the knowing of your unknowing?
Ales Steger 'The Pyramid of Exiled Poets'
Invited to experience that articulated but unutterable anguish of separation and the pain of not belonging, I entered a life-sized Pyramid - emblematic of life after death, which was covered with cow dung. Walking through a pathway, dimly lit as if from below, I tread carefully through a maze of dark passages within the triangular space created by woven mats that partially obscured the light. As lightness got dim and darkness grew so dark as to engulf me, and whence I could barely see, I felt as though I had somehow been suspended in mid-air. My stride was hesitant and taking small, tentative steps, not knowing where or what to put my foot upon and what I could step upon, the only sense of humanity around me was an aural one. Poems spoken aloud in unfamiliar tongues became my guide. As long as I could hear something I was reassured that I hadn't taken a wrong turn (even though there wasn't scope for it). As the blackness enveloped me, I experienced the suffocating darkness, evocative of those who have been summarily dismissed or cast out of public consciousness - whose ideas have been stifled and exiled. It was a disturbing experience but one that left its mark. If anything marred, it was the nervous giggles of a group of youngsters who walked ahead and behind me. But even so, the darkness and sense of insecurity was consummate enough to taunt me through the day, reminding that we are all exiles, where the human experience itself is one of banishment from the kingdom of heaven.
In another gallery, inside Aspinwall, on the first floor. There was an installation with numerous brown ceiling fans accompanied by the occasional, sharp, rasping bark of an unseen dog. Placed just above the stairs on the landing of the first floor, this installation by Lantian Xie who lives and works in Dubai: ‘Ceiling fans, stray dog barking, Burj Ali’, became a passage beyond that of a space connecting floors and rooms. The strange, sharp rasping bark of the dog was to echo through the gallery spaces within and without and even if I wanted to forget, I could not. Like the restive and traumatised spirit of a soul that hasn’t found peace, this dog and the memory of those fans haunted me as I made my way through the other exhibits. Was this ghostly bark the voice of another exile?
Dai Xiang - 'The New along the river During the Qingming Festival', 2014, detail 1
Moving into the adjoining gallery, we found that by contrast there wasn’t even one ceiling fan in this room.  The afternoon was balmy and humidity was high after heavy rainfall the night before. We were hot, uncomfortable and peeved enough to ask why there was just one pedestal fan in the corner of this long room, to be informed it was so as not to disturb the paper scrolls on display. And somehow, we accepted this explanation without demur because by this time, the sheer scale of the scrolls and intense detailing had engaged us totally. Much discussion ensued between Maggie, Anjalee and myself as to how it had been done and naturally none had the answers. The horizontally positioned 115 x 2500 cms long scroll by Dai Xiang - 'The New along the river During the Qingming Festival', 2014, juxtaposed traditional modes of transport, dress, customs and architecture with the contemporary, and presented an engaging dialogue between layers of culture that interact to form and transform into present-day society.
Dai Xiang - 'The New along the river During the Qingming Festival', 2014, detail 2
Inspired by Zang Zeduan (12th century, Song Dynasty) this panoramic, 25-metre-long photographic scene, which had been digitally ‘sewn’, highlighted the socio-cultural conflict from 1970/80's and the opening up of Chinese society, between imported Western ideas and local Chinese traditions. Re-imagining the Qingming Festival, artist Dai Xiang transformed a monumental social-cultural shift through subtle satire that was gripping not just in its Chinese context, but one which provoked much thought regarding India's own cultural confusion and the layers of history which, though assimilated, are still distinguishable as separate from local traditions. And Fort Kochi - it's Portuguese, Dutch, Syrian Christian and British accents in architecture and cuisine juxtaposed with the distinctive indigenous culture of Kerala, created an evident parallel to mull upon.
Dai Xiang - 'The New along the river During the Qingming Festival', 2014, detail 3
Pondering upon the amalgam of intertwining cultural influences, I reflect back to the exhibits at the OED galleries in the Spice market area, particularly Maggie Baxter's (Australia) collaboration with Kirit Dave (Kutch). ‘The Poetics of Nothing’ 1,2 and 3, were three scrolls on hand-woven fabric, block-printed and embroidered, with marks composed formally within an ellipse with the same ‘block’ overprinted in varying intensities. 
Maggie Baxter and Kirit Dave, 'The Poetics of Nothing
Large, tactile, textile scrolls with printed, hand-written text in English became the backdrop for hand-sewn threads to be inserted and hung from this base material. This technique created an illusion - as if the warp and weft of construction had unravelled to now hang from the fabric. It appeared as if the boundary of language had transcended, moving out of the egg-like elliptical form, which dominated the background, evoking a resonance with the essential womb of creation and its energies that create any form desired, encompassing all and nothing in the same breath.
Maggie Baxter and Kirit Dave, 'The Poetics of Nothing, detail 1
 In keeping with Maggie’s preoccupation with scribbles, scrawls and alphabets, the printed works and marks continued her trade-mark free-flowing gestures enhanced by the ubiquitous running stitch and contrasted by Ahir embroidery diamonds done by numerous artisans, all of whom have been named in the catalogue.
Maggie Baxter and Kirit Dave, 'The Poetics of Nothing, detail 2
In another exhibition, also at OED, Krupa Makhija's use of computer keyboard keys to create a map of lost language followed in a similar vein – how languages as marks of culture, are lost or recreated.

Krupa Makhija, Map of Lost Languages

In another work by Siji Krishnan from Kerala, soft colours evoked the time-worn textures carried as memories through photographs and souvenirs collected and often forgotten. In creating the layers of memory, especially childhood memories through small, life-sized wallets using papier-mâché and mixed media the works were so softly hued as to remind one of the many washes they have gone through – the washes of time which form the ritual of creating memories, more imagined than real.
Siji Krishnan

Siji Krishnan
Hours of viewing art can take their toll and the mind shuts down, but ‘Art’ also has the capacity to invigorate in precisely such moments. Mikhail Karikis, in ‘Ain't Got No Fear’, 2016, (Aspinwall) a single channel video with surround sound, used the noises of demolition in a recurring beat as young boys ‘rap’ about their lives. It was a compelling video with a mix of cultural references which I could hear but could not discern. But, from the rubble of the site being demolished and the dialogic beat from a complex and sometimes ‘hellish’ language of the past, you heard distinctly defiant voices of the young boys who had made this site their playground that they “Aint Got No Fear”. The juxtaposition of history and cultural voices, echoed the essence of changing values and ideas posed by most of the artists whose work we had seen today. But, it was the recurring beat and an insistently repeated chorus, amid shrill noises of the landscape that, hammered in the weighty question of how much could the human mind really eschew fear.
In another audio-visual presentation, Voldemars Johansons had created a documentation of the stormy North Atlantic Ocean, inviting us to enter a landscape of troubled waters. A large cinematic screen, with massive crashing waves and swirling waters, viewed in a gallery space could not have quite the same intensity of experience as being in the middle of the ocean to hear the roar and feel the turbulence of the waters, and the wind howling and beating around you. But I found myself watching, ‘Thirst’, 2015, (Aspinwall) intently, observing the roaring waves swell and break, to try and fathom what the artist was wanting to show me. Everything else that I had seen till then was momentarily relegated to the back of my mind. And despite the troubled waters before me, I felt a sense of quiet within my being to experience through this 'thirst’ for observation, the vital key towards understanding the ever-dynamic phenomenon of life, of going from without, within. Where briefly we are no longer in exile.
Through the day, I found myself surrounded by varied Art expressions and media, new vistas, water bodies, ships and ferries, spice markets and delicious food that beckoned, and realised how difficult it was to engage with it all.
Maggie at Brunton's Boatyard, Fort Kochi
We had started our viewing late in the day after an exotically flavoured lunch of Syrian Christian flavours steamed in banana leaf. Our first day therefore, was limited in its art-intake, and with periodic breaks for cardamom flavoured nimbu paani and impromptu shopping for spices, though slowing us down, also gave us scope to sit back and let the mind wander in other directions, to let art we did see, sink in effortlessly. 
Spice Market
Yet, the Art that we did see, left their scars, created parallel dialogues in my mind and invoked the spirit of intercultural influences, through trade, colonization or displacement - absorbed and amalgamated into the ever-dynamic traditions that we inherit and pass on. But above all, this first day of my viewing of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2017, created a thirst in me. That perennial thirst to know and understand the human experience, articulated through the visions and voices of artists from across the world: was it truly a universal one, and how much did the external world and its unique contours matter, in the ultimate analysis of things.