Monday, December 10, 2012

Biennale: Kochi-Muziris 2012

On December 12, the Chief Minister of Kerala would formally inaugurate the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 at the historic Parade Grounds at Fort Cochin. This would be India’s first Biennale. There was a Triennale at Delhi in 1968, but that was a one shot affair. The Kochi-Muziris 2012 would open the world of art and culture to tens of thousands of people from many countries.

Biennale technically means an art exhibition held every two years. The concept originated in Venice in 1895. The words Thierry Raspail used about the 11th Biennale at de Lyon fits Kochi-Muziris 2012 (Kochi is likely to be better known to people outside Kerala as Cochin) as well - “a kind of gigantic show window for all the best art at the moment.” Additionally, it reflects the history of at least three millennia.

Apart from art, there is also the cultural and historic aspect. The event would include the presentation of a number of traditional performing art forms, literary gatherings and an International Book Fair too. It is not surprising that Kochi-Muziris 2012 has been listed by The New York Times and British Airways Journal as one of the major global events of the year.

The label Kochi-Muziris has great significance. Muziris, in recent years known as Kodumgalloor in Malayalam and Craganore in English, died in the process of Kochi being born.  That was in 1341. Till then Muziris, about 30kms north of Kochi, was one of the most important harbours of the world. People from the East and the West came there for trading.

There are claims that teak wood for King Solomon’s palace went from Muziris. (Whether Solomon really existed is another matter.) Spices from the Malabar Coast were indispensable in the cuisine of the upper class, particularly in the West. The Semites probably had the advantage in the westward trade. They might have known of the direct trade wind across the Arabian Sea before others became aware of it as Hippalus Wind in 45-47 CE.

PHGCOM India-Rome trade route map.

Several foreigners who came for commerce settled in and around Muziris. It is generally believed that St. Thomas the Apostle landed in Muziris in 52 CE to spread the Word of Jesus Christ. This date appears to have been before Gentiles were admitted to Christianity. Even the word Christian had not been coined then. Some historians mention that the Apostle preached at the synagogues in Malabar.

Apparently there was a sizable Jewish population in Kerala at the beginning of the Christian era. Those converted by St. Thomas and their descendants came to be called Nazranees. There was another large scale migration of Jews to the Malabar Coast during Titan’s siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Many Arabs too had families in Kerala.

This flourishing port of Muziris became defunct in 1341 CE. There are different theories about this. One is that natural silting over the years closed the shipping channels. The other is that heavy floods in River Periyar deposited huge quantities of sand and debris making the port unusable. A third and probably the more likely possibility is that some geophysical occurrence in the sea closed Muziris and opened the connection to the Vembanad Lake at Kochi, making it a safe natural harbour.

King of Cochin in procession.

Envisioning the possibilities of the new port, an alert Perumpadappu Swaroopam (Cochin Royal Family) shifted the capital to near Kochi in 1405. The area started growing into an important international trade centre. A community of Jews moved in. (See: One more Cochini Jew Bids Adieu ) Then came the Portuguese, Dutch and the English. The Arabs were mostly concentrated at Calicut in the north of Kerala. But people from other parts of India like the Gujaratis too settled in Kochi. (See: Kerala: Sand from the lakes)

The Dutch capturing the Cochin Port from the Portuguese in 1663.

A view of Cochin in early 19th c.

English sailing ship MALABAR

The view of paddy fields and coconut palms

A backwater scene

An old drawing of a Chinese net for which Cochin is famous.

It was against this historical background that the Biennale was named Kochi-Muziris 2012. Originally, the idea of the show was given active support by MA Baby who was the Minister for Culture in the earlier Left-led Kerala Government. He was successful in forming a lead team of government officials, artists and other prominent persons. The Kerala Government also sanctioned funding of Rs.5 crores.

But in Kerala, the land of Raja Ravi Varma, nothing is beyond dispute. Some of the local artists are miffed because they were not included in organizing the Biennale. The media appears to have played it up without studying the details. All that led to the stoppage of government funding.

The Foundation that is managing the Biennale is feeling financial tightness. But there is personal funding to some extent. Private benefactors and galleries are also helping. It is only fair that the government conducts a proper enquiry quickly, publicizes the findings, and resumes financial assistance.

Perhaps it is not too late for the local artists who feel ignored to get involved in this great effort. KC Joseph, the Minister for Culture who has said that the present Government is all set to make the event a success, and Tony Chammani, the Mayor of Cochin can play a major part in bringing everyone together.

This is what Dr. Manmohan Sigh, the Prime Minister said about Kochi-Muziris 2012, “The jewel in the crown of Kerala will now earn prominence thanks to this event, which is aimed at promoting art from across the globe.”

The publicity for the project could have been possibly done more effectively, but there is no doubt that the Biennale would be a great success. It will have a major commercial impact as well in the area. The important venues of the event are Aspinwall House, Pepper House, David Hall and Durbar Hall, all historic locations of Kochi.

Kelly Crow, Art Reporter of Wall Street Journal tweeted, “FINALLY! India will debut its own contemporary-art biennial called the Kochi-Muziris Biennale on Dec.12 in Kochi, Kerala area.”

The show will be on till 13-03-2013.


Note: All images are from Wikimedia Commons. Some have been edited. CLICK to enlarge.

No comments: