Posts Tagged ‘Kerala’

It has been 46 years since a great novel shook up Malayalam literature – so much so that many critics consider that year as the start of a new era in the genre of Malayalam novel. Yes, I am talking about OV Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Ithihaasam. I was in my late teens when I first read the book and I dismissed it offhand as a book with a defeatist attitude. That was my first brush with the Ithihaasam. Then, over the years, something drew me back to it; there was something magical and surreal about it, which kept making me go back to it. Slowly, over my many re-readings, I somehow fell in love with the book and my appreciation of Vijayan grew each time I took up the book.

Vijayan’s imaginary Khasak was modelled after a real village named Thasrak. This village is just about 15 kms from my hometown Chittur, yet I had never visited the place. Vijayan visited and lived in Thasrak for a short time in 1957 and his novel is based on the lore and people of Thasrak. As I planned a trip to Chittur this time, I decided that I must visit Thasrak.

In preparation, I took up the Ithihaasam once again for yet another reading.  As always, it was provided a different reading experience this time too and new gems popped out of the book and delighted me.  The blue veins of Maimuna continued to excite me, the plight of Kuttaadan Poosaary continued to amuse, the fate of Allaapicha Mollaakka continued to haunt, Ravi’s feather like existence was still beyond me, Chandumuthu with her repeated question tugged at some corner of the heart but what stood out for me this time was the scene of Allaapicha Mollaakka making Kunhaamina promise not to join the new school, which he deemed as competition to him. He first makes her take an oath in the name of Sheikh Thangal, the most revered Islamic figure in Khasak’s lore and then, “to seal all holes”, the Mollaakka asks Kunhaamina to swear by Mariamma, a Hindu Goddess. It is expressed beautifully in the novel in Vijayan’s fantastic language.

For many a year, Thasrak and its role in Malayalam literature was forgotten by the authorities. A couple of years ago, they woke up and decided that something ought to be done. They laid siege to the Njattupura (a small building used to store paddy) that Vijayan had lived in when he was in Thasrak. In the novel, Ravi has his school in the Njattupura. The building itself is said to be more than a hundred years old and thankfully, the mud building is preserved as such. However, an eyesore of a gate has been erected and the courtyard paved with interlocking tiles. The net effect of such changes is to subtract from the overall experience and not to enhance it.

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We met an elderly gentleman named Majeed there who takes care of the Njattupura and shows visitors around the place. He told us that he was four years old when Vijayan visited Thasrak and he told us that almost every one of the characters have passed away, except Maimuna who he said, is in Coimbatore. Going by her age in the novel, she must be pretty old now. He was quite helpful and talked about how the times have changed. He said that Vijayan used to sit in the verandah and sketch. I asked him how he felt of a novel being written about his village and his friends and relatives, especially as I had read that some of the locals had been some reservations on how some people were characterised in the novel. His response was that in any story, some embellishments are to be expected and the Ithihaasam should also be viewed from that perspective.

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He took us to the Arabikkulam (a pond) where Sheikh Thangal, the legendary military commander of Khasak, had thrown the heads of his enemies after beheading them. It is completely covered with weeds now and needs to be restored.

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Right next to the pond is the new mosque. We were told that Allaapicha Mollaakka’s mosque had stood at this very site earlier.

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We walked back to the Njattupura and we could see some of the famed palm trees of Khasaak in the distance. Legend has it that the trees bent down so that the tappers didn’t have to climb up the trees to tap them.

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A visit to Thasrak is a fulfilling experience overall, if you have read the novel. The authorities, as always, could have done a much better job at preserving the ambience of a location that is so important to Malayalam. As I left Thasrak, the two images that stuck in my mind were the closed door of the Njattupura and a headless palm tree. They reminded me of the irreparable loss we have suffered as a society – never again would there be a novel like Khasaakkinte Ithihaasam and even more sadly, never again would we have that innocence in our society wherein a Muslim priest makes his student take an oath in the name of a Hindu Goddess or vice versa.

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Note: Khasakkinte Ithihaasam has been translated into English by OV Vijayan himself and is available under the title “The Legends of Khasak”.

January 24 & 25, 2013

An unexpected change of plans left me with a few extra days at Kerala and off I went to Kochi, with a couple of friends, to catch up on the rest of the Biennale. I had spent about a day and a half in my earlier visit but could only see a portion of the Biennale. Since we set off early, we reached Fort Kochi by around 11 and decided to start with the Pepper House this time as we were sure that if we started with the Aspinwall House, we would spend all of our time there only. As is the proper course of action on these sort of jaunts, we started with a leisurely coffee in the quaint little café inside Pepper House. The first exhibit that catches your eye is a rusted anchor with a broken chain that reaches upwards, as if the scene is frozen, as the anchor is dropped. I felt that an anchor is something that really connects one with Kochi and Muziris with all its history of maritime trade. This is installed in the open courtyard and the position of the sun was such that the chain threw a shadow in the shape of a question mark. I am not sure whether this was intended but it was a fitting opener for the rest of the day.

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The next was an installation by an Iranian artist, Hossein Valamanesh. This consisted of many Persian carpets laid crisscross on the floor with alternate columns of black and white hung from the ceilings. The white columns were provided with internal lighting. We had to remove our shoes before we entered and that very act somehow brought a feeling that one was entering a holy or a revered space. The rugs added to that feeling. Since there was no other light in the room apart from the white columns, one’s attention was automatically drawn to the circular patches of light falling on the carpets from the white columns. I found the interleaving of the bright and the dark quite interesting and the overall feel was one of peace and quiet. Those portions of the rugs, under the unlit, black columns were not visible at all; they were in the dark, unseen and hence unsung. Sections falling under the white tubes that have been lit from above, are in glory. Funny enough, I was reminded of a young Australian Christian missionary I had met in Brigade Road many years ago, who insisted that I had to accept Christ as my god and “come into the light”. So, what shall we do with the unlit tubes?

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An ink painting by Clifford Charles was next. The explanation talked about the artist’s preoccupation with water as a substance. The painting itself was titled “Steps from Villa Sebollini, Belaggio” and it seems that the work was started in Belaggio and finished in Fort Kochi. Apart from the fact that I have been to Belaggio and Fort Kochi, I could not connect with the art work at all.

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Physiognomy is the study of a person’s character or personality from his or her external appearance, especially the face. This was an ancient science, much used by the Greeks. In modern times, a Swiss Pastor by name of Johann Lavater revived this science and Lavater himself was given to the quest of reconstructing Jesus Christ’s face or his “true image”. He tried to do this by reverse engineering what the physical appearance of the face of a person like Christ could have been and then giving these instructions to various artists. The instructions themselves (a copy was displayed) were very specific. However, he was never satisfied with the images these artists produced as he felt that they were always influenced by the existing images of Christ.

In the Biennale, a Dutch artist by name of Gert Jan Kocken has retraced the steps of Lavater and has commissioned three sculptors (Vinu VV, Anoop Kottekatt & Sanul KK) to create faces based on the descriptions. The only difference being that the artists were not told that the description was that of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, the artist was trying to take away the influence that Lavater always objected to.

It was interesting to see the output of these artists. One did indeed look like the Christ we see in pictures and one looked a bit like Abraham Lincoln! I thought it would be interesting to apply this technique to the Hindu Gods and see the output. I am sure it would lead to a lot of issues. We are so bound to the images that we are used to. For instance, one is so used to the South Indian depiction of well rounded Gods and Goddesses that it is somehow irritating to see the lean frames as painted by some North Indian painters. I can only imagine the frustration that Lavater must have caused in the artists by insisting that they had to forget the image that they were used to.

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As we were going around the courtyard, we came to a doorway that led to the pier and the words “All of past must be resurrected” were painted over it. We were a bit confused at first as to whether these words were part of the building even before the Biennale started or whether it was done for the Biennale. It was only as we read the explanation provided that we realized that it was part of an installation by an artist named UBIK. As you pass under the arch, you enter a short corridor and then emerge out of an old door on to the pier, which overlooks the modern port of Vallaarpaadam. The view shifts from a dilapidated old building to spanking new infrastructure. The corridor was what I connected with. I viewed that as “transitory land”, a neither-here-nor-there position; something which I often find myself in when I look at the nostalgia tinted past and the reality of the present.

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I had heard about KP Krishnakumar and a friend had spoken very highly of his work. His work, called Boatman, was displayed at Pepper House. Sculptures have never really resonated with me but I could connect a little bit more with this. It was quite expressive and the face kept drawing me back to the work.

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In the same room was a very large painting by KP Reji. This depicted the legend of “Thoombinkal Chathan”, a Dalit, who sacrificed himself to save a paddy field from flooding. The painting is split into three panels with a huge naval ship (looked like an aircraft carrier) in the background. While the panels on the two sides looked similar, with depictions of a green tree, children etc. the one in the centre was different with the tree looking dead with crows sitting on the branches eating dead fish. The children are obviously school-going children but they have in their hands some implements which can be tools or weapons, depending on how you look at it. There were a multitude of images in the painting and I felt that I could not understand what the artist was trying to convey fully, though I felt I got the overall gist; I felt drawn to the picture and spent a long time with it. It made me think about these myths that we repeat with admiration and pride, about the man who was brave enough to sacrifice himself for what is ostensibly the common good; but we seldom reflect on the fact that it is often for the good of the landlord only. Invariably, the ones that are the “heroes” in such stories are the downtrodden, mostly from “lower” castes. They are made into heroes for that one act, and then relegated back into their old status. Their progeny gain nothing but the right to feel proud about a story – a story that will be kept alive by the powerful as they need more such “heroes” to be ready for other deeds.

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In the very next room was a very nice visual treat. Thirty white violins had been suspended from the ceiling in a neat row. There was also a video that showed violins exploding with the accompanying sound. This installation is by an artist named Ibrahim Quraishi. The overall visual impact was very nice and it was good feel to walk alongside these violins but I could not get what the artist was trying to convey. The long room with its whitewashed walls and the white violins gave a peculiar feel.

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Next stop on the agenda was Aspinwall House and we proceeded there after lunch. Last time, I had seen Vivan Sundaram’s installation but I had not seen the video he had made using the installation. The video was made by having the camera zoom in and out and move at different angles around the installation. Water was poured onto the installation and dried black pepper seeds were floating on the water, in some of the videos. Overall, it gave me the sense of a city going under flood waters or that of small islands and the visuals were captivating. This video was arranged in three large panels and projected on to the floor. So, it gave a sense of one standing over the land and watching the happenings from a vantage point. To me, it conveyed a sense of disquiet and calamity.

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From the calamity that befell a great city, we moved on to a work depicting the five basic elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air & Sky. The artist (T. Venkanna) is talking to us about how we abuse these five elements. There are five wooden discs suspended from the ceiling with etchings of such destructive items as battle tanks, airplanes, submarines etc. coupled with five large canvases. These are hung on walls and also placed on the ceiling and the floor. The canvases are filled up with charcoal drawings and collages of very many images. The images are pretty strong and bring out the conflicts and the acts of abuse. It conveys a sense of horror and doom about where we are headed.  Many of images were very disturbing indeed.

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I was not going through the exhibits in any particular sequence and the next one I saw was a work involving Kalidasan’s Meghasandesam. This was by an artist Alfredo Jaar and it consisted of one verse from Meghasandesam written with neon lighting and fixed on to one wall. The room was totally dark and the floor was filled with water; a wooden walkway provided access to the room. The text was inverted and so unreadable when one looked at the wall but was reflected clearly in the water. The verse itself is English translation from Sanskrit and the work is titled “Cloud for Kochi”.

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What happens to things that we have no more any use for? This is the theme of an installation by Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz. They have collected 170 grinding stones and then strewn them around in random fashion, leading to the pier, almost as if the stones are falling into the sea. Before the days of the electric mixers, the grinding stone was an integral part of each house. Once we all adapted to the convenience of the electric mixers, these were no longer needed and thus, were abandoned. Once abandoned, these become part of urban debris and we no longer notice these stones, which were once critical for us to make food. I liked this installation quite a lot and spent some time sitting there. The obvious connect to me was to people even in our own lives, who share the fate of these grinding stones. What struck me was how these artists had thought up this connection. We also had grinding stones in our houses when we were young but I have never bothered to think about what happened to those later. There was also a grid of black and white on one wall in the room in which the grinding stones were lying. Items are relevant only when they are able to fulfill their utilitarian role, a rather black-and-white concept.

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The first sight that greets you as you enter Aspinwall House is an installation by Srinivasa Prasad – a  cocoon suspended in mid-air with steps made of gunny sacks leading up to it. The cocoon itself is made of bamboo, wire and thorns and there is an opening in the cocoon into which, one can insert one’s head. Supposedly, you leave bad memories and thoughts in the cocoon. Finally, the cocoon is supposed to be taken down and burnt, erasing all those bad thoughts. How fortunate, if it were so easy! Out of curiosity, I went up the steps and tried to leave some thoughts in the cocoon but my thoughts seemed too wedded to me.

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By this time the day was gone and we were pretty tired as well. The next day morning, we got up very early and decided to have a drive around Fort Kochi and Mattancherry taking in the early morning sights. We wandered around the deserted streets leading to the synagogue. I have been there before but had not got a chance to go inside the synagogue. It was odd to walk around a part of Kerala where you could see Hebrew writing and Star of David on the walls. There is also an old burial ground here. There was a plaque set into the wall of the cemetery that spoke about who had erected the wall – the Malayalam used was a bit odd, perhaps because it was written more than a century ago.

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We saw a building in Fort Kochi with a beautiful mural painted on it. The work was titled “The Debtor’s Prison”. Curiously, it had Kamala Suraiyya’s image also in it. I am not sure whether this was done as part of the Biennale but it was quite an interesting work.

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Further along the road, we saw a reading room that is quite characteristic of Kerala. It reminded me of a work that I had seen during my previous visit to the Biennale.

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There were many paintings on the walls along the street. I guess most of those were done by people in connection with the Biennale. Some of the graffiti style paintings reminded me of similar work I ahd seen in the streets of London.

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Opposite to these paintings we noticed a series titled “Guess Who” and the images were just fantastic. A poster exhorted one to not believe what one saw but to believe what one was told. The pictures were quite eye catching and later on, we saw some more such images near other venues of the Biennale. There was no indication as to who the artist was, but it has obviously been done by someone who wanted to set people thinking. I could not make up my mind on whether this person was for or against the Biennale.

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The early morning outing was quite a nice experience and the overall ambience of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry with all those old buildings and all the art work around can only be experienced and not explained.

Moidu’s Heritage is yet another endearing venue and we started there in the morning. In the attic there is an installation by a Brazilian artist called Ernesto Neto titled “Life is a river”. It is made up of cotton fabric and sacks of spices are hung in the fabric. Overall, it had conveyed a strange, colourful picture. From some angles, it looked like the udder of a giant cow. This was totally beyond my abilities of comprehension and I drew a total blank. The overall experience was enjoyable but I could not fathom what the artist meant or how the installation connected with its title.

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Since I had not been able to make it to the synagogue last time I was in Mattancherry, I went there to have a look around. Unfortunately, it had slipped my mind that it was a Friday and so, once again, I could not get inside the synagogue. I saw that there was a KMB venue – Mandalay House – on the street leading to the synagogue and I dropped in. It was a venue dedicated to the struggle of the Burmese people against the military dictatorship there. The “8888 Uprising” started on 8th August, 1988 and was put down brutally by the military junta. Sitt Nyein Aye, who was a student and a celebrated artist in Burma, had taken part in the uprising and had flee to India in the aftermath of the struggle. He made a painting with the figure 8, while at Manipur, in 1990. The painting was remade in 2000 and when the organizers of KMB were looking at this painting, they discovered an amazing fact. In their own words: “When we began working on the exhibition, we realized this painting needed restoration as it had a small tear in it. Two conservators Harriet Pearson and Mark Coombs, then living in Bombay, began studying the work. The identified other things, like older re-touchings, splashes of dirt and water that discoloured the red layers, and bird droppings. This led us to ponder the peculiar history of this work. How it had been painted in a small border town, two years after the uprising, and how later, Sitt Nyein Aye had used it in demonstrations and protest marches on the streets of Delhi. This work was never meant for the wall. It had had a life on the streets. That the conservators decided to let the work be, deciding to mend the tear, but leaving this surface intact as a testimony of its history, is a credit to them.” To me, it became much more than a painting when I read this explanation. It was a piece that embodied the resistance of a people denied freedom in their own land, a symbol of the undying human spirit, an object to be revered.

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The whole of Mandalay House was dedicated to the Burmese struggle and in the next room was an installation by Htein Lin, called “Dream of a gun-tree revolution”. It seems many Burmese students had crossed into India with the hope that the Indian government would support an armed struggle and give them weapons. Instead, they found themselves in refugee camps with all the associated ills; food was scarce but for some reason they got a lot of turmeric powder. They kept asking for guns but supposedly, the Indian government just kept sending mosquito nets so that they could sleep well. Some students even made guns out of tree limbs for training. Ultimately, the government never sent arms and the idea of the “gun-tree revolution” fizzled out. The installation was amusing with its mosquito nets, wooden rifles etc. Yet, what it showed was the death of a dream. Of course, it is worth pondering whether it was proper for the Indian government to send them arms!

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Htein Lin seems taken up by nets. The next installation was dedicated to a book called “Bones will crow” – an anthology of contemporary Burmese poems published in 2012. It is supposed to be a meditative space with text and drawings on the nets, the point being that these stories will not die and will be told, however much they are oppressed.

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After this, I went back to Aspinwall House as I had seen photos of a fun-looking installation by Zhang Enli that I wanted to see. This was a couple of rooms, the walls of which were painted with water colours. There were some windows through which you could see into the other room. The colours used were bright, fun colours and the feeling was one of gaiety and light-heartedness.

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I had been told to watch a video installation by a path breaking Spanish artist, Santiago Sierra. This was titled “Destroyed Word”. This work took two years to make and was made across 10 countries. Each letter of the word “KAPITALISM” was constructed in one country and so it tool ten different countries to make up the word. The materials used were relevant to that country. Each letter was installed and then destroyed using different means. The video showed the destruction of all the letters simultaneously, thus showing the destruction of the word itself. The travails that capitalism is going through currently must have prompted the artist to create this work. Or did he mean that Capitalism leads to globalization and thus the loss of the “indigenous relevance”? I am not sure whether Capitalism would be defeated that easily – it will adapt and move on, with all its cunning. The new avatar is “Conscious Capitalism!” An oxymoron?

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There were still some more venues to be visited and some more works to be seen even in the venues I had visited. However, all good things come to an end and so too, my visit to Kochi-Muziris Biennale. To me, this was a great event which provided a fantastic opportunity to view many world-class art works. A point that needs particular mention is the selection of venues. Most of the venues were rickety old buildings which conveyed great character. Indeed, these buildings are remnants from a time when commerce was centred around maritime trade in Kochi. I doubt whether the ambience would have been as appealing as this had the venues been sleek, modern buildings.

In these times, as our society seems to fall lower and lower in matters of ethics and values, I feel that art has a great role to play. This problem can only be solved through an improvement in our overall culture and art and the awakening it creates, is one part of the solution. An event like Biennale is a dire need in Kerala today and to organize such an event, despite all the challenges, is a wonderful achievement that needs to applauded. Bose Krishnamachari and  Riyaz Komu deserve rich praise for staying the course and going through with the event and for all the wonderful work in the curation, selection of venues etc. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale was a cherished experience for me and I thank the organizers for this; it is my fervent hope that the event would be back in this wonderful location in two years’ time.

After much debate and discussion, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) opened on December 12, 2012. I had been following the news and had decided to make a visit. A few months back, I had visited one of the sites of Sydney Biennale and was curious to see how we would fare.

Art and its modern movements had been largely alien to me in general. I was always a bit curious on what these scribbles and strokes were about and it started getting the better of me four or five years back. At that time, I connected back with an old friend, Jayaraj, and I had frequent discussions and arguments with him and his wife, Sripriya, about the art pieces that we saw when we visited museums like Tate Modern. I started from whether these could be called works of art in the first place. Soon, Jayaraj introduced me to one of his artist friends, Murali Cheeroth and Murali too became a victim of my constant barrage on this matter. Through these discussions and the patience of the trio, I started to realize how art has become much more socially and politically committed and relevant in these modern times. I started to realize why it is important to know the various happenings in the society that the artist lives in and his or her reactions to those, their political positions etc. to fully understand their art. I started to realize why it is important to have clarity on my own thoughts and positions to better appreciate modern art. I also started to understand that seeing more and more art and assimilating what one can, is very important.

The main venue of KMB is Aspinwall House, in Fort Kochi. This is set in a very picturesque location, by the water. Such old abandoned venues are perfectly suited for this sort of an event that invites participation by the public. The first exhibit that we viewed was a video installation by Justin Ponmany called “Done and Dusted”. I cannot say that I understood much of this despite the introduction provided at the door of the hall. So, I started out right, being bewildered!

In the very next hall were two photographs by Vivek Vilasini. The first was a series of photographs which had Vivek’s own face juxtaposed with faces of famous personalities like Gandhi, Che Guevera, Sree Naryana Guru, Mother Teresa, Ambedkar, Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer, VKN etc. The whole impact was quite interesting and it was well exhibited. It made me reflect on the various influences in my own life. The next was titled “Last Supper – Gaza” and the visual impact itself was quite stunning; not to speak of the emotions and thoughts it stirred up. I could not but marvel at the imagination of the artist and his ability to bring together these thoughts of conflicts and brutality into a frame that denotes such tranquility.

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Next was an installation by Sumedh Rajendran, which I have to confess I did not understand at all. It had various legs, tables, inverted chairs etc. but I could not get what was intended and hence did not enjoy this much.

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The next section was taken up by Amar Kanwar. I had heard of him but was not very familiar but Murali had recommended it highly and had insisted that I spend enough time on this. The installation is titled “The Sovereign Forest” and it consists of very many things including two movies, books, a seed collection and some photographs. The central theme is about destruction and displacement that happens when large factories and other projects take up the fields owned by indigenous people and it is based on stories from Orissa. As one enters the room, what strikes the eye is a collection of rice seeds. This is arranged in small, open boxes fixed to the wall. 266 varieties of indigenous rice seeds found in Orissa are exhibited here. I guess some of these are extinct while some are still cultivated. If we continue the way we are, most will soon be extinct.

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There are three large books on hand made paper with writing on one page and video projection on the other side. I had never seen a piece like this and it was very interesting. I wanted to go through all the books but could not finish even one book as there were a lot of people around.

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The story captured in the book “The Counting Sisters and Other Stories” is connected with the movie “The Scene of Crime”. The movie itself is 42 minutes long and I watched it two times. The quality of the video and the shots are amazing. There is no dialogue or narrative apart from the few short sentences that appear from time to time. The sound track is original with sound as present in the scenes being recorded, with no music added. Scenes move along slowly with small gaps between different shots; yet it is a very gripping movie with a powerful story. It reaches deep inside you and disturbs and evokes thoughts about how to have a balanced concept on development. The injustice of and trauma caused by what passes for “development” comes through very clearly. The rape and destruction of our land and our people by the custodians themselves, is hard to digest. What came to my mind was the statement made by the Chairman of Vedanta a few days back on how India could increase its GDP by a few percentage points if it were to “liberalise” its mining laws – the very same Vedanta which has often been accused of completely unfair practices and abuse of the people of Orissa. Even to my untrained eye, it was evident that Amar Kanwar is at a different league as an artist and my friend, who was with me, remarked that he is actually an activist. His socio-political commitment and position appealed to us. There was another short video called “A Love Story” and that also had a similar tale to tell. How soon before the images and sounds that we know of and are familiar with, are gone?

Next, we saw an installation by a South African artist, Clifford Charles, called “Talking Skins”. It was spread over five rooms and each room had a theme of its own. One room was a replica of reading rooms managed by the Communist Party that are seen in many parts of Kerala and one was called “Absence of Labour” and the other three experimented with colours, memories, our sense of protection etc. This one also stumped me and I was totally out of my depths here. I guess my sense of aesthetics needs more work.

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By now, we were starting to run out of time and it was pretty evident that we would have to pick and choose what we could look at before the end of the day and there were three more artists that we wanted to see – Vivan Sundaram, Subodh Gupta and Tallur.

Muziris was an ancient seaport in Kerala that dated back to 1st Century AD. Muziris was a very important town in its time and three major world religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – arrived in India through this port. Muziris was destroyed in a major flood in river Periyar in 1341 AD and the exact location of the town was forgotten later. Vivan Sundaram has created a miniature city using thousands of small clay tile pieces dug up from the archaeological site of Pattanam, which is currently believed to be the site of Muziris. This is a large installation laid out in a rectangle of about 25 feet by 10 feet and what struck me first was the enormity of the artist’s imagination. Each piece is not more than two or three inches long and to contemplate such a large installation made of these small pieces, does require a special mind. The “city” has nice boulevards, circles, temples, orderly spaces, clutter, everything. I felt the structures were European, perhaps to show the connection between Muziris and Europe.

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I tried to get a “low” shot by placing the camera almost at the level of the tiles and that image was somehow disturbing to me.

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I felt that there is more to this work than what I could comprehend and this definitely calls for a revisit. Towards the end of the day, we also saw a video on this work but by that time, I had “art deluge” and so I could not concentrate on that; again, one for the next visit.

After looking at this city, which was lost in flood waters, you look up to see a massive boat – an installation by Subodh Gupta. It is very difficult to explain the exact feeling that one gets when you see the continuity of the two installations. A city, which one deems to be “permanent” is lost and we take refuge in a boat, which is at best a transitory location. All our material possessions are crammed into the boat. In the boat, we try to create a place of refuge. It conveyed many things to me – our tendency to withdraw in times of hardship, our unwillingness to let go, how we carry on with all baggage from the past and much more. The overall impact was quite significant and we spent a lot of time in that room. The boat is a regular fishing boat and looks quite large, especially within the confines of the room.

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The connectivity between these two pieces of art is stunning and it is very evident why these two artists are so highly respected.

The last one for the day was an installation by Tallur LN. I had seen an image of this installation in a magazine and was shot from the exact same angle as the photograph below.

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I could not at all comprehend what this was about and hence had wanted to see it. The explanatory note posted near the installation spoke about how man’s innermost desire is about conquest and that is evident even in the practice of Hatha Yoga, which is about conquering one’s body and mind. The note then went on to speak about how missionaries of Basel Mission set up tile factories to provide employment for the people they converted into Christianity. Later, these tile factories came under the British Government; at the same time, they set up a museum in Bombay and they wanted to create an ethnological collection there and Hatha Yogi figures were also made for the museum. After I read this note and saw the installation from a different angle, it became very interesting. I felt that this observation by the artist about man’s preoccupation with conquests and conquering is very profound indeed and various thoughts crossed my mind as I walked around the piece.

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Unfortunately, we ran out of time and we were tired as well; though our hearts and minds were full. There is much more to be seen and I would definitely want to go back and spend a couple more days at KMB. The curators, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyaz Komu, deserve credit for putting such a great event together, with so little support from the Government. The opportunity to see the works of so many world class artists in one location is very rare and is indeed a boon for all of us.

I have written only very little about the thoughts, feelings and emotions that passed through me as I watched the art works; I would need many, many pages if I were to do that. Vivek Vilasini brought thoughts about the influences in my life, Amar Kanwar made me think of the dichotomy between development and nature, Vivan Sundaram and Subodh Gupta about the permanency of the transitory and vice versa, Tallur about our deepfelt need for conquest and so on.  It is quite possible that the thoughts and ideas that came to my mind had no connection with what the artist intended but that is fine as what counts is my interpretation and the value I derive from the experience; that is the beauty of art and the space it provides. KMB was a very singular experience indeed and I hope to return to view the rest of Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012.

21 May 2012

As it often happens, the places that are the closest are often the ones that are farthest! This has been so with me, in the case of Tippu’s Fort which is located at Palakkad. Palakkad is but 15 Kim’s from my hometown, Chittur, but I have never visited the fort after my schooldays; which, admittedly, was way back. So, I had decided that I would make it to the fort this time around when I went to Chittur.

The fort has been restored quite recently and some of the ramparts that had fallen down have been rebuilt. It dates back to medieval times and was renovated by Hyder Ali (Sultan of Mysore) in 1766, when he was invited there by the king of Palakad to help against an invasion threatened by the Zamorin, the king based in Calicut. Hyder took advantage of the opportunity, realizing the strategic significance of Palakkad. The fort changed hands a few times between the British, Hyder Ali and his son, Tippu Sultan till 1790. The British controlled the fort from 1790 onwards and used it as their base. Even today, the fort is known as “Tippu’s fort” even if Tippu held the fort only for a few years and was not the one that built it. When I thought about it, I was happy that there were at least some monuments left as remembrance for this brave and patriotic son of India.

I have felt that Tippu Sultan has often been sidelined and his role in history underplayed, by vested interests. He was one of the very few kings in South India that realised the threat the East India Company and the British posed. His wars with the British have been well chronicled and even though he succumbed in the end, he remained a thorn in the side of the mighty British for many a year and that too when all the rulers of the neighbouring kingdoms had meekly surrendered, out of cowardice and for personal gains. He had the vision of free India and fought for it, ultimately giving his life. As a true hero, he fell in battle, fighting till the very end.

Yet, he is painted as a religious fanatic, one who was only interested in converting Hindus to Islam. No matter that the first sight that greets you as you walk into his fort in Palakkad is a Hanuman temple – one of the most powerful Hindu gods. This temple is a big favourite with devotees even today. It also does not seem to matter that the very famous Srirangam Temple stands within Tippu’s fort and stronghold at Srirangapatnam and I cannot imagine that it would have been a huge effort for him to mow it down. It is obviously of no significance that it was Tippu that sent money to help the Kanchi Mutt after that Hindu monastery was ransacked by the Hindu Maratha rulers. The list goes on and I am just writing what I have seen and heard and by no means am I an expert. I am sure that his armies would have raped and plundered as is the wont of victorious armies but then, which victor has ever held his forces back after a battle? Even today, in our “cultured” ways, the spoils of war go to the victor.

The fort itself stands on a small hill and there is a large moat surrounding it. In my childhood, I had heard stories that only Tippu’s horse could leap over the moat and when I looked at the size of the moat, I realised that it was just that, a story, given the size of the moat.

There is very little water in the moat today and you enter the fort through a small bridge.

The fort itself is very functional and is built with large granite boulders and limestone. It is of rhomboidal shape shape and has seven bastions with very thick walls. There does not seem to have been much effort spent to make it beautiful in any way. At the main entrance, I saw some decorations on the wall above the door and that was pretty much the only decorative piece I saw in the entire fort.

As you enter, on the right, there is a small idol of Hanuman set into the wall. This has now become a very famous temple and there were many devotees even at mid-morning, when we went in. I was not allowed to photograph the temple itself, in keeping with the recent form of intolerance which denies entry to non-Hindus to temples. I also noticed that the temple itself had a “saffronised” look with the imagery and colours used and even with name of Ram, written in Hindi. Perhaps this is a good indication of who controls this temple and I felt one could easily transport this temple to North India and it would fit in there very well.

In the centre of the fort, there are a few buildings and this must have been where the people that stayed in the fort lived. The buildings do not look as old as the fort and must have been constructed during the times of the British. There is a very well maintained lawn with a couple of large trees.

There is also a stepped well on one side of the courtyard and I learnt from the Information Centre that this well was dug later.

The Information Centre is hosted in an interesting stone building with 28 pillars, which was also constructed later. Unfortunately, there is not much information provided about the fort or the battles that were fought there or the people that lived there. There are some photographs of the restoration and of other places of tourist interest in Kerala.

One of the buildings houses a jail and that was of personal interest to me as my father was imprisoned here for two weeks in 1961 when they were agitating for the implementation of the Land Reforms Act in Kerala. I guess the jail must have been in the same old shabby condition even 50 years back.

There is a walkway that takes you around the wall of the fort and there were some good views all around. One could see that the fort offered a very good defensive position. I was quite disappointed that there were no markings or indications of any of the places of interest within the fort or any details provided about its history. There is a small board at the entrance with a few lines on it but that hardly does justice to the place. It was equally disappointing that there was no mention of Tippu or Hyder or anyone else that lived there. But, the people of Palakkad still honour that valiant son who was the first to rise against the British in South India and call it Tippu’s Fort…..