The Worldliness of Compassionate Art: Alapuzha as the New Art Hub

An installation featuring the light house at Alapuzha in the Lokame art show

The World is One Family, an art show at Alapuzha that began in April 2021; curated by Bose Krishnamachari the leading artist and curator, and one of the pioneers of the Biennale movement in Kerala is a dexterous and detailed depiction of contemporary art in Kerala. Five heritage monuments of the colonial era in the city in and around Vellapally suburb are renovated to feature the vibrant and diverse expressions of the young artists of Kerala in an ingenious way.

After the success of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the artful curator and his team have moved south to Alapuzha or Aleppey to bring the art world’s focus to this old port town by the Arabian Sea. History, culture, society, heritage, and art are brought together in an unprecedented and illuminating way here.

Metal sculpture by K S Radhakrisnan at Port Museum, Alapuzha art show

It is a truly contemporary, futuristic, and commendable act in the pandemic for the artists and the general public. The Kerala Government that is part of its organization must step in to make it more useful and popular with the local people of Alapuzha. Because of the lockdown, the public entry is restricted now. The opportunities to open it up for the people are to be devised and materialised.

At the same time, it also raises many questions on the representation, presentation, inclusion/exclusion, and showcasing of art in a democratic world, especially in the context of historic over-representation and gross monopolies in art, culture, academia, media, public service and politics in Kerala by the historically advantaged elites. The very concept and keyword of Taravadu is a contested category as it is derived from the elitist high culture of Kerala often notorious for social exclusion, power monopolies, and subtle and invisible casteist hierarchy operated in aesthetic sophistication and clinical precision.

As the elite exclusionary culture is often associated with the notion of the safe soil and reinforced raised ground of Tara and Tarakkoottam or Taravadu the people’s culture is often associated with toponyms and geo-cultural tags like the Chery or Pally that are keywords of culture in the whole of South India, derived from ancient Pali and Tamil, dating back to the Sangam culture and Asokan missionary age the foundation of Kerala’s composite culture. The very part of the city that houses the old Coir Corporation buildings is known as Vellapally the ancient seat of a white Vihara like Kadakarapally to the north associated with Itty Achudan Vaidiar. This enlightened people’s culture has recreated the modernity and renaissance of Kerala in the wake of European colonial intervention in the 19th century.

E G Chitra’ sculpture in Alapuzha art show

Art practice, performance, and art curation need to be more egalitarian, ethical, inclusive, compassionate, and sensitive to the cultural history and regional manifestations of culture at the grassroots levels. The micro-politics of culture must be reflected in art and its representations.

There are multiple works by women artists on the politics of gender and gender hierarchy and inequality from the context of Kerala, that are to be appreciated. But that much intensity or accent is not given to the much more entrenched issue of social hierarchy and caste inequality which is the rooted form of hegemony and violence in India and Kerala, when caste walls, wells, schools, roads, and even brutal caste killings are coming back as in Kevin Joseph murder at Tenmala and Aneesh at Tenkurisi in Palakad in recent times.

In a state where even daily waged working women are able to hurl casteist abuse at an aged and male Chief Minister in public as in the infamous episode of Mrs. Mani Pilla abusing Mr. Pinarayi Vijayan with a casteist slur in public on camera during the 2018 Sabarimala Viswasi riots; we must realise and address the crucial issue of caste and its material and symbolic violence in art and politics in truthful ways. It proves that caste is much more deeply inscribed in the body politic of Kerala and India than gender or class.

From the Alapuzha art show 2021

Such pertinent and rudimentary socio-cultural and political issues are to be represented in an art that is socio-politically sensitive, egalitarian, and democratic. Such awareness of the world makes it worldly and compassionate. Art gains transformative powers and values in society only through such a keen sense of truth and justice rather than mere cliched aestheticism and esoteric idiom.

Anyway, it is a great effort and opportunity and a creative beginning for the aspiring and practicing young artists of Kerala, who are working locally and also globally in myriad ways for a more wholesome and brave new world. Salutes to Bose and his team for this visually engaging act of worldliness and compassion.

Dr Ajay S Sekher

ajaysekher@gmail.com +919895797798

City of Enlightened Joy: Trivandrum or Tiru Ananda Puram

Boddhisatva idol by the Vayalvaram hut of the guru at Chempazhanti close to Trivandrum

Tiruvanantapuram the capital of Kerala is now renowned as a Vaishnava centre. Before eighth century CE it was a Sramana holy place of Jain and Buddhist antiquity and significance. In inscriptions and early land records till seventeenth century it is known as Tiru Aanandapuram after the lead disciple of the Buddha. It was also called Mitranandapuram and Anandankad.

Asokan elephant or Gajotama by the Padma Teertha pond at Trivandrum Padmanabha shrine

As the Asokan elephant or Gajotama statue by the Padma Teertha Kulam of the Padmanabha shrine testifies it could be an ancient seat of Buddhism from Asokan times and later became a Mahayana shrine around fourth century CE and by the eighth century transformed into Vaishnava Brahmanism as the Buddha Neelkandha temple in Kathmandu. The place name Tiruvanatapuram is not mentioned in the ancient Tamil texts of the Sangam age of the early common era. Learned local historian and toponymy or place name expert V V K Valath who wrote the local histories of four districts in Kerala for Sahitya Akademi (1984) has clearly elaborated the Buddhist antiquity of the place. In the recent book by Hari Kattel from SPCS (2016) the Jain and Buddhist legacy of the city is accented. It was Ilamkulam Kunjan Pillai who wrote elaborately on the Aay kings of Potiyil Malai now known as Agastyarkoodam and their port at Vizhinjam and their capital at Tiru Atankod that eventually became Tiruvitankod or Thiruvithamkoor. The cave and sculptures at Vizhinjam are archeological evidences of the Buddhist rock cut architecture and iconography influenzed by the Pallava and Pandya styles, says Valath. Kantaloor Sala was a Sramana university near Tiruvanantapuram like the Buddhist university of Vanchi at Kodungallur or Muziris. The local lore on Pulayanar Kotta and Kokotamangalam Pulaya Rani also signify the importance of basic communities of people in the region since Sangam age. The great human rights struggles of Ayyankali for educational rights and freedom of movement exemplify the mobility and agency of the people at the bottom in the region. The early struggles of Ayya Vaikundhar, Tykad Ayya, Chattambi Swamikal and Narayana Guru also attribute to the cultural and political significance of the place. During renaissance cultural movements it was Sahodaran Ayyappan who wrote in his verse that the shrine at Trivandrum that is now worshiped after Vishnu as Padmanabha was originally a Padmapani Boddhisatva or Mahayana Buddhism in ancient times. Prof A. Ayyappan has also archeologically verified and substantiated this argument that the idol of Padmanabha is a modification of Padmapani Boddhisatva.

Prof A Aiyappan former VC of University of Kerala and Social Scientist. From Wiki sources

There are several places named after Aanada in Kerala like the Aanada Pally near Adoor. The proximity to Potiyil or Bodhiyil Malai is another significant aspect of the city’s Buddhist character. Legend has it that it was Cheran Chenguttuvan the Chera chief and the elder brother of Ilamko Adigal who composed the Tamil epic Silapatikaram, who consecrated the shrine of Kannaki as Patini at Kodungallur, Mangaladevi and Atukal. Patini as Mangaladevi is part of a Buddhist popular culture and tradition found in Tamilakam and Ezham or Sri Lanka. The ritual of Ponkala has its origin in the ceremonial welcome feast given to the young nuns when they entered the order by giving an offering, cooked with rice and milk by the laity in true spirit of a larger egalitarian community.

Mahatma Ayyankali the champion of Educational struggles in Kerala and Trivandrum in particular. From web sources

The recent Padmanabha temple treasure controversy in 2011 has also brought some light into the Buddhist past and treasures in the vaults of the temple as the Buddhist antiquity of Sabarimala or Chavarimala/Savarimala in ancient times that was exposed in the 2018 riots and standoff at the mountain shrine. In the case of Savarimala the Brahmanic priesthood was established only in early 20th century by the Travancore regime, before that the Avarana Ezhava chief of Cheerapanchira was the protector of the shrine. The city of Aananda retains many elements of the ancient city of joy with enlightened and ethical legacies that are deeply rooted in the soil and the people, though altered and modified in many ways as it is evident in the case of Kerala as a whole.

Dr Ajay S Sekher, Assistant Professor, Dept of English, SSUS Kalady, Kerala 683574.

9895797798     ajaysekher@gmail.com    www.ajaysekher.net 

Ajay Sekher’s recent books include Putan Keralam, Kerala Navodhanam (Ed) and Sahodaran Ayyappan.