Until two years ago, Fort Kochi found no mention on the art map of India. Today, it hosts arguably the second largest running biennale in the world, after the Venice Biennale. “The exhibition is conceived both as an observation deck to contemplate our world and as a toolbox for self-reflection,” said Jitish Kallat, curator of the Biennale in its second edition.
At the opening ceremony, Kallat ushered in political dignitaries including State Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, Minister for Culture KC Joseph, Minister of Tourism AP Anil Kumar, former Union Minister KV Thomas, and CPM politbureau member MA Baby, all of whom had to be led in with umbrellas because of the unexpected and heavy rains. Music from the bass drums (valamthala) and cymbals (ilathalam) marked the celebration, as chenda maestro Peruvanam Kuttan Marar and his troupe performed a two-hour traditional percussion concert Pandi Melam. This was preceded by lighting of the lamp with artists and scholars in the audience.
While art is scattered across the streets, eight venues of the Biennale are primarily heritage properties, from Aspinwall House — a former British trading house on the waterfront — to the quaint Pepper House and historic Durbar Hall. These will house artwork of 94 artists from 30 countries.
Several exhibits are yet to be installed. While some are waiting for customs clearance, other installations are underway. Kallat says that they got possession of the CSI Bungalow only last week.
The organisers are still canvassing for funds. “The total budget is Rs 15 crore, of which the government has promised 63 per cent but only 2 crore has come to us till now. We’ve been told we’ll get the rest during the course of the Biennale,” says Bose Krishnamachari, president of the Biennale. The online crowfunding initiative has only garnered a couple of lakhs until now and individual contributions have come from artists such as Sudhir Patwardhan, Vivan Sundaram and wife Geeta Kapur. Kallat, meanwhile, has volunteered to work without pay.