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India's First Biennale

Idea

India’s First Biennale

It feels like a long time ago now, but earlier this year I did some work with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale*, held in the coastal city of Kochi in Kerala, South India. Leading up to my arrival in Fort Kochi, I dreamt of days consisting of coconuts, curries, chai and palm trees, riding bicycles through warm air to outdoor art installations, working in an office overlooking the water and finishing days with G&Ts on the pier.

While I realise this sounds quite idealistic, the reality wasn’t too far off. There was all of the above, and more. More work to do, more people to meet, more art to see. And the bicycle rides were less about the warm air and more about getting from A to B without hitting a goat.

Curated by Mumbai-based artists of Kerala origin, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was proposed in 2010 because of the lack of an international platform for contemporary art in India. As Bose states in the official book of the Biennale (titled Against All Odds, if that gives you any indication of the Biennale's lead up) 'When the idea of the Kochi Muziris Biennale struck us, we knew there was nothing bigger we could do for India culturally.'

Two years later, the global art world came together in Kerala. Held over the space of three months, the Biennale had an average of a thousand visitors a day, exhibited more than 80 artists’ work from 23 countries, was spread over 14 different venues and 60 exhibition spaces.

There was street art every corner you turned; concrete walls covered in sketched portraits of the tea vendors of Kochi; giant structural installations teetering over the water; previously abandoned colonial style buildings holding work by international artists; even M.I.A. performing on opening night. The co-curators state, 'Biennales democratise art, taking it from the confines of galleries and mix it with people and place, removing the elitist tag.'

While the artworld takeover was quite intensive, Kochi’s character still rang true. There were giant old trees, famous Chinese fishing nets and breezy cafes with antique teapots dangling from the roof. Kochi locals yelling out ‘Bee-en-nah-lay! Bee-en-nah-lay!’ everytime someone with the red Kochi Muziris Biennale lanyard walked past.

The word Biennale is Italian for 'every other year' and is most commonly used to describe large-scale international contemporary art exhibitions. The first was the Venice Biennale in 1895. Since then, many different cities have held their own Biennales - ranging from Istanbul, Sydney to Liverpool.

The next Kochi Muziris Biennale will be held in 2014.

Interviewed by
Vinisha Mulani

Photography by
Vinisha Mulani

India's First Biennale