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

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012: A Photo Critique

Kochi - Muziris Biennale 2012 main venue at Aspinwall House.  Huge bio installation on the left and bamboo structures to the right.
Kochi – Muziris Biennale 2012 main venue at Aspinwall House. Huge bio installation on the left and bamboo structures to the right.

 

Pepper House in Calvathy Road, another main venue of Kochi Biennale
Pepper House in Calvathy Road, another main venue of Kochi Biennale

 

Detail from Vivan Sundarams installation with potsherds from Pattanam/Muziris.
Detail from Vivan Sundaram’s installation with potsherds from Pattanam/Muziris.

 

Part of Kochi city ion the mainland from Fort Cochin boat dock
Part of Kochi city on the mainland from Fort Cochin boat dock

 

People from Kerala and abroad queuing up to buy tickets worth Rs 50 for the Biennale at Aspinwall.
People from Kerala and abroad queuing up to buy tickets worth Rs 50 for the Biennale at Aspinwall.

A big sculptural installation by Reghunadhan K
From a big sculptural installation by Reghunadhan K

 

Digitally altered self portraits by Vivek Vilasini
Pregnant with Kerala culture, society and history: Projected and  aligned (on one eye) self portraits by Vivek Vilasini that visually engage with the world and the region very subtly but with an illuminating impact.

Cruisers birthed at Wellington Island harbor; a view from Mattanchery
Cruisers in the Wellington Island harbor; a view from Mattanchery dock, before the Dutch Palace

 

On the ferry boat from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi for the Biennale
Self portrait taken aboard the ferry boat from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi

A huge mural on a warehouse near OED gallery
Altering the whole urban scape: A huge mural on a warehouse near OED gallery

 

"Last Supper" by Sumedh Rajendran at Aspinwall.
“Last Supper for Gaza” by Vivek Vilasini at Aspinwall.  Very much contemporary politically contingent and visionary.

The Jewish Synagogue, Jew Town, Mattanchery south of Fort Cochin.
The Jewish Synagogue, Jew Town, Mattanchery south of Fort Cochin.

 

Biennale as self discovery and empowerment: Standing tall with Babasaheb's image.
The art of the possible;Biennale as self discovery and social empowerment: Standing tall with Babasaheb’s image.  A self portrait before Vivek Vilasini’s altered portraits.

The art of flying: An egret gliding along the boat on the way to Fort Kochi for the Biennale.
The art of flying: An egret gliding along the boat on the way to Fort Kochi for the Biennale.

 

Art that responds to genocides and fascism: Detail from Zakir Husain
Art that responds to genocides and fascism: Detail from Zakir Husain

On the margins of the Biennale: Artist Victoria in her Namaste Studio on Bazar Road
On the margins of the Biennale: Artist Victoria in her Namaste Studio on Bazar Road connecting Fort Kochi with Mattanchery.

Huge installations in Aspinwall.  Inside and outside we see real and represented imagery from navigation and overseas trade.  What is real and what is imaginary is a real question in the Biennale.
Huge installations in Aspinwall. Inside and outside we see real and represented imagery from navigation and overseas trade. What is real and what is imaginary are real questions in the Biennale, prompting us to ponder on the truths in art.

 

Mala Aravindan and Parvathy Omanakuttan on location of a Malayalam film at Bazar Road.
Mala Aravindan and Parvathy Omanakuttan on location of a Malayalam film at Bazar Road.

 

Phenomenal and awesome: Subodh Gupta's big installation using an old country boat of Kochi at Aspinwall.
Phenomenal and awesome: Subodh Gupta’s big installation using an old country boat of Kochi at Aspinwall.

Riding on an auto through Bazar Road
Riding on an auto through Bazar Road

A mural on an abandoned godown wall by artists from Europe
A mural on an abandoned godown wall by artists from Europe.  The decay and garbage are also part of the lay out, connecting art with its material ground realities in an illuminating way in the third world.

 

White luxury cruising liners from Europe berthed at Kochi
White luxury cruising liners from Europe berthed at Kochi

Zen percent upcycling: A French artist and conservationist making art and toys out of plastic wastes, near OED on Bazar Road.
‘Zen’ percent up-cycling: A French artist and conservationist making art and toys out of plastic wastes, near OED on Bazar Road.

 

Riaz Komu and Bose Krishnamachari the curators of Biennale addressing the people at Aspinwall House.
Riaz Komu and Bose Krishnamachari the curators of the  Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012; addressing the people at Aspinwall House.

 

A sand painting on canvas by Paris Viswanathan
A sand painting on canvas by Paris Viswanathan

Jewish synagogue from the east.  A glimpse through the eastern gate to Jew Town, Mattanchery
Jewish synagogue from the east. A glimpse through the eastern gate to Jew Town, Mattanchery

 

Artists in conversation at Aspinwall House, Fort Cochin.
Artists in conversation at Aspinwall House, Fort Cochin.

 

An antique art cafe in Jew Town, Mattanchery, Kochi.
An antique art cafe in Jew Town, Mattanchery, Kochi.

An abstract painting by Joti Basu displayed in Aspinwall House.
An abstract painting by Joti Basu displayed in Aspinwall House.

 

Distinctly displayed and curated photographs by Atul Dodiya in the lab of Aspinwall.
Distinctly displayed and curated photographs by Atul Dodiya in the lab of Aspinwall.

Kochi from Aspinwall House, Fort Cochin.
Kochi from Aspinwall House, Fort Cochin.

 

Thumbinkal Chathan by K P Reji.  Oil on a huge canvas, the painting of the Kochi Biennale that articulates the subaltern past and present of Kerala.  The issue of caste, slavery and the dalit question is evocatively but powerfully brought forth by K P Reji in a dexterous way inspiring awe and wonder.  This huge canvas substantiates the presence of the people in the Biennale at Kochi.
Thumbinkal Chathan  (Demon at Thumbinkal or Thumbinkal Sastha)by K P Reji. Oil on a huge canvas, the pivotal painting of the Kochi Biennale 2012 that articulates the subaltern past and present of Kerala. The issue of caste, slavery and the dalit question is evocatively but powerfully brought forth by K P Reji in a dexterous way inspiring awe and wonder.  See the agricultural slave, the Pulaya Chathan/Sastha in the foreground sacrificed on the bund in the paddy field. This huge triple canvas substantiates the presence of the people in the Biennale at Kochi.

Artist Kabitha Mukherjee explaining about the gouache technique in K Prabhakaran's work exhibited with wonderful curatorial intervention at Aspinwall.
Artist Kabitha Mukherjee explaining about the gouache technique in K Prabhakaran’s work exhibited  at Aspinwall to Artist Jain K G.

 

From a multiple video installation: The deconstruction of capitalism, seems to be too plain and macro political.
From a multiple video installation: The deconstruction of ‘capitalism,’ seems to be too plain and macro political.

Binnale paintings on display at Fort Kochi beach walkway.
Painted sunset: Binnale paintings on display at Fort Kochi beach walkway.

 

Kochi through the attic casement of Moidu Heritage a prominent venue of 2012 Biennale Kochi-Muziris.
Kochi through the attic casement of Moidu Heritage a prominent venue of 2012 Biennale Kochi-Muziris.

The magical world of painting and colors at the Kochi Biennale.
The magical world of painting and colors at the Kochi Biennale.

 

Before Prabhakaran's paintings at Aspinwall.
Before Prabhakaran’s paintings and drawings at Aspinwall.

Before an installation using a motor cycle.
Before an installation using a motor cycle.

 

Sultan of Indian art: M F Husain with his Ferrari; a photo by Atul Dodiya.
Sultan of Indian art: M F Husain with his Ferrari; a photo by Atul Dodiya.

A young Indian artist's perception of the elements in a multi canvas installation at Aspinwall.
A young Indian artist’s perception of the elements in a multi canvas installation at Aspinwall.

 

Painting back and talking feminist: An amazing long canvas by Kerala artist, Jalaja P S.
Painting back and talking feminist: An amazing long canvas by Kerala artist, Jalaja P S being admired by a young group of students, mostly boys.

A Jina in white marble on display in an antique shop in Jew Town, Mattanchery.
A Jina in white marble on display in an antique shop in Jew Town, Mattanchery.

 

Northern block of Aspinwall.  Jonas Stall's installation using the flags of banned outfits on the left.  It was censored by the police.
Northern block of Aspinwall. Jonas Stall’s installation using the flags of banned outfits on the right. It was censored by the police.

A glass painting with acrylic by an Australian artist at OED, Bazar road.
A glass painting with acrylic by an Australian artist at OED, Bazar road.

 

The northern waterfront of Aspinwall.
The northern waterfront of Aspinwall.

Detail from an  installation using only organic biodegradable things at Aspinwall.
Detail from an installation using only organic biodegradable things at Aspinwall.

 

Heavan on earth: Fort Kochi milked in new year lights...
Heavan on earth: Fort Kochi milked in new year lights…

Biennale as an arena of imaging and photography.  Young students zooming in with their barrels at Pepper House.
Biennale as an arena of imaging and photography. Young students zooming in with their barrels at Pepper House.

Art that provokes the police.  Jonas Stall's installation using flags or banned outfits.
Art that provokes the police. Jonas Stall’s installation using flags or banned outfits.

 

The lonliness of the hero:  Bose Krishnamachari lost in deep though amidst the crowd at Kochi Biennale 2012.
The loneliness of the hero: Bose Krishnamachari lost in deep thought amidst the crowd at Kochi Biennale 2012.

 

Photos of the Kerala bishops by Anup Mathew Thomas.
Photos of the Kerala bishops by Anup Mathew Thomas.

Where nature, art and people meet:  props of Sheela Gowda's stone installation projecting into the Aspinwall dock beside the ship channel in Fort Kochi.
Where nature, art and people meet: props of Sheela Gowda’s stone installation projecting into the Aspinwall dock beside the ship channel in Fort Kochi.

 

A still from a breathtaking music installation quartet on street musicians across the world by Angelica Mesiti.
A still from a breathtaking music installation quartet on street musicians across the world by Angelica Mesiti. A blind train musician in the Arab world in picture.

A view of Bazar road near the Dutch Palace in Mattancherry.
A view of Bazar road near the Dutch Palace in Mattanchery.

 

A hanging installation on the attic of Moidu Heritage by Latin American artist Ernesto Neto.
A hanging installation on the attic of Moidu Heritage by Latin American artist Ernesto Neto.

Detail from K P Reji's Thoombinkal Chathan.  See the life in the periphery still and the persistent presence of the past in the present, rendered through live imagery.
Detail from K P Reji’s Thoombinkal Chathan. See the life in the periphery and the persistent presence of the past in the present, rendered through live imagery with the Chathan/Sastha/(Boddhi)Satvan lying in the foreground.  The life of the excluded in the margin is still unaltered by the shipments and cargo of modernity and social mobility.  Marginal existence exists as a phantom or specter of the real and the imagined nation and community.  The painting is such a grave socio political and aesthetic critique of Kerala modernity, democracy and cultural history at large.  It also anticipates certain coming communities that are inoperative in the contemporary sense but radically subversive in its making.  The awesome impact of the work is in its silent and solemn grey tone.  The painting generates intertextual references to the short stories of C Ayyappan and ultimately to the songs and spirituals of the legendary Poykayil Appachan who unleashed the memory of slavery in Kerala in the early decades of the 20th century.  See the power of art that can engage so swiftly with history and reality.

 

Calvathy Canal separating Frot Kochi and Mattanchery.
Calvathy Canal separating Frot Kochi and Mattanchery.

Sunset at Fort Kochi beach.
Sunset at Fort Kochi beach.