Monday, December 31, 2012

The East is rising!

Chris Dercon, the director of the Tate Modern Art GalleryLondon, is excited by the talent of South Indian artists and the enormous success of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Photo: Chris Dercon and his wife, Sonja Junkers, with MP P. Rajeev at Aspinwall House 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Chris Dercon, the director of the TateModern Art Gallery, went to see a video installation of the ‘Burmese resistance of 1988’ at Mattancherry. While there he saw four policemen who were taking down notes. “I asked them why they were doing so, and one of them said, ‘This is so interesting, I did not know about this resistance movement,’” says Chris. “He was jotting down impressions not because of his job, but as a human being. I was moved by that.”

Dercon has been very impressed by the art works at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the people who are attending it. “I have never seen so many families and young people at a biennale,” he says. “I wanted to read the text placed next to the exhibits, but I could not do so, because there was a crowd standing and reading it. It means that people are much more complex thinkers than before. They want to understand these art works.”

And although some have found the art works baffling, they have been drawn again and again to view them. “An acquaintance I met in Fort Kochi told me that his friend said, ‘My God, art in this biennale is mad, it is really mad,  but I have come three times already,’” says Dercon “I am not surprised that 75,000 people have visited the event.”

And Dercon, who had come to Kochi 20 years ago, has been taken aback by the tremendous changes in the city. “The place is booming,” he says. “There is much more of tourism. There are so many nice homestays in Fort Kochi, but the pollution is a problem. I cannot separate art from pollution. I love to see art polluting the world, but not plastic.”

He says that Kochi is on the verge of something special. “In the next few years, there should be a development of tourist and cultural infrastructure,” he says. “Local arts and handicrafts should be promoted. There should be social inclusion and ecology. If you can make a master plan whereby you can include these points, Kochi will become another Venice.”

Meanwhile, one indirect impact of the Kochi Biennale is that South Indian art has been placed on the global stage. “It is wonderful,” says Dercon. “I was much impressed by the painting of KP Reji and the installation work of Sumedh Rajendran.”

So, hopefully, one day, there will be exhibitions of South Indian art at the Tate, which receives five million visitors annually. And significantly, a large chunk of them are young people.

“They come to museums not to see art but to ask questions about sexuality, religion, economics and life,” he says. “This inner search is not only because of the decline of formal religion, but a loss of belief in politics and a feeling that there is nobody to represent them.”

Art today makes up for those feelings of loss. “It is touching on subjects which they feel unable to discuss with their friends, like identity and sexuality,” says Dercon. “There are some fantastic art works in this biennale which asks similar questions.”

Dercon has always been interested in Indian art. When he was the director of the Haus der Kunst (House of Art) inMunich, he organised an exhibition on Amrita Sher Gil (1913-41). “She was a young Indian artist who wanted to find a way to express her country in her art,” says Dercon. “She did not want to obey the rule that the art of the west is the dominant one. Amrita wanted to say that both [Pablo] Picasso and [Rabindranath] Tagore were her idols. Amrita took from the East and the West and was communicating back and forth.”

And Dercon is convinced that most Indian artists of today will be doing the same thing what Amrita did so many years ago.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Art is rocking!

Impressions of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale

By Shevlin Sebastian

After coming from chilly Britain, Chris Dercon, the director of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art Gallery in London, is enjoying the hot sunshine in the garden of a hotel at Fort Kochi. But there is also pain on his face. “Ever since the economic crisis of 2008, Europeans have lost their self-confidence,” he says. “They find it so difficult to make decisions. And women are discussing whether to have children or not. What is going to happen?”

The unthinkable is happening. After 500 years of world domination, the decline of Europe has begun, as Asia, and India, begins to shake and stir.

One highly successful Mumbai-based architect, Raghav Kothari (name changed), got so excited by the buzz about the Kochi Biennale, that he came on a visit recently. And as has been the case with all visitors, he was overwhelmed by what he saw. Later, Raghav sat with one of the organizers of the cash-strapped Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) and said, “My parents were poor. I came up the hard way and have become very successful. But now I want to give back to society.” The end result: the architect gave a Rs 10 lakh donation and became a Patron of the KBF.

Ordinary people have also been patronising the Biennale, in large numbers, even though the tickets are priced at Rs 50 for adults and Rs 10 for students. “We have earned Rs 2 lakh one day,” says Shwetal Patel of the KBF. “Isn’t that great?”

As an art aficionado talks about the wonders of the Biennale, he flings a nearly finished cigarette on the ground. A man standing nearby, picks it up, puts it in a dust bin, and says, “Please practice ecological tourism.” Or, in other words, please come down to earth, instead of floating high on the rhetoric of art.   

Just before he gets into an auto at the ferry at Fort Kochi to see the Biennale sites, a man says, “Brother, I am a local. Please don’t charge me Biennale rates.” The driver smiles, and says, “Will spare you Sir, but do remember this is the season we make the money for the entire year.”
Not unexpectedly the Biennale has a lot of foreign women in varying stages of undress, thanks to the bright sunshine. So they are wearing short shorts, mini skirts and tight jeans. An 11-year-old daughter tells her father, “Papa, why are you staring? And that too, with your mouth open.” Message to dads everywhere: ogle only when children are not around.

Malayali wit is not far away. At one exhibit, if you pour spices on a lid, music will spring forth. One man told another, “Is it possible that if we pour spices on our wife’s head, she will dance to our tunes.”

A member of the Kochi Biennale Foundation says, “There are negative opinions about us. But no issues, this is a democracy and it is messy, and there will be people saying all sorts of things. But we refuse to get into the ring and give back as good as we get. We are higher than that. But I do know that the majority of the people like the Biennale and I am sure their voices will carry the day.” Well said!

One artist says, “The ones who are making the most noise against the Biennale are those whose works have not been selected. It is the sound of jealousy. Hell hath no fury than an artist scorned!” Oh William Shakespeare, sorry, William Congreve [English playwright, 1670-1729], what will we do without such apt phrases!

One artist, who is not recognised by the crowd, stands at one side of his exhibit and keenly watches the reactions of the audience. “This is the beauty of art,” he says. “We can know the effect that we create, or the lack of it. You writers cannot have that pleasure. You can’t see your readers.” True, and, perhaps, a blessing in disguise.

The Pepper House gives some options to visitors. On the first floor, there is no railing. Instead, there is a white ribbon tied from one end to the other. If you feel like committing suicide, lift up the ribbon and jump down. If life is happy, enjoy watching the ribbon swaying in the breeze. 

(A shorter version appeared in The New Indian Express, Kochi)


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The artist and his muse

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Zoya talks about life with artist Riyas Komu, Secretary of the Kochi Biennale Foundation

By Shevlin Sebastian

Zoya met Riyas Komu when they were both in the same class at the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai in the 1990s. “What I noticed immediately was that he had a zest and an infectious energy,” says Zoya. “Since he was from Kerala, there was an element of rawness – a kind of innocence – about him, unlike most of my other classmates.”

They were drawn to each other, because of their mutual interest in world cinema. “We attended a lot of film festivals together, and admired the films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Andrei Tarkovsky,” she says.

And they gradually fell in love even though they belonged to different backgrounds. Zoya's parents are from Uttar Pradesh, but they have been settled in Mumbai for a long time, while Riyas is the son of politician MM Komu in Thrissur.

The fact that Zoya did not know Malayalam was not a hindrance for Riyas. Whenever he would come across an interesting article in a Malayalam magazine, he would translate it so that Zoya could also enjoy it. “Thanks to Riyas, I have read [Vaikom Mohammed] Basheer in an English translation,” says Zoya. “He is one of my favourite authors. I loved 'Poovan Banana (Poovanpazham)'.”

The couple got married on April 7, 2001. And for their honeymoon, they came to visit Riya's large family, of seven brothers and two sisters, at Thrissur. “I am an only child, so it was an interesting experience to become part of a large family,” she says. “The language and culture were so different. You are into and still not into the family. Sometimes, it was difficult to comprehend things, but at the same time, it was quite engaging.”

What ensured Zoya's assimilation was because she loved Riyas intensely. “He is not obsessed about art only,” she says. “Riyas has an open mind and is interested in all subjects, be it football, theatre, films, literature, and about people and happenings in his village and the world.”

And unusually, for a Malayali, Riyas gives Zoya the mental and physical space to be herself. “Riyas wants me to have my own views and feel free,” she says. “That is the case with the people who work with him. As a result, everybody feels at ease with Riyas.”

In Mumbai, on an ordinary day, Riyas gets up at 8 a.m. Following breakfast, he goes to his studio: it could be the one where his sculpting works are done, or his painting studio, both of which are in the suburb of Dahisar. “If he starts work on a painting, he will spend hours on it, and continues labouring on it through the night,” says Zoya. “That is how he likes to work.”

Of course, an artist leads a different life, as compared to a banker or a businessman. “Every day is fluid,” says Zoya. “You have discipline, but you don’t have rigidity. The advantage is that you can do whatever you like, but there are different responsibilities, as compared to a person working in an office. You have to manage your own life.”

In effect, Riyas is the star of his own show. “But the only time he feels pressure is when there is a show coming up, and the works are not ready,” says Zoya.

Not surprisingly, Zoya has a few favourites, among Riyas' works. One of them, which was displayed at the 2007 Venice Biennale, is a set of paintings called, 'Petro Angel'. This was inspired by the plight of Iranian women, as shown in the film, 'The Circle' (2000). “He has been able to portray the different emotions of women very well,” says Zoya.

Riyas, himself, has gone through an emotional roller-coaster because he, along with Bose Krishnamchari, struggled to set up the landmark art event, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. “He was asked to take the responsibility, and did so,” says Zoya. “Riyas knew that it was important not only for him or Kerala, but for establishing an art culture in India.”

Incidentally, because of Riyas's preoccupation with the Biennale, Zoya has moved to Kochi with their four-year-old daughter Mariyam. “I am happy to be here and am proud of what Riyas has achieved,” she says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, December 24, 2012

A ruler’s magnanimity

Joseph Semah, a Jewish artist, who lives in the Netherlands, has made an installation art in tribute to a king of Kerala, who conferred recognition on Jews and Christians

Photo by Manu R. Mavelil

By Shevlin Sebastian

Around two and a half months ago, Netherlands-based artist Joseph Semah came to Kochi for a visit. Like any Jew, he went to the 450-year-old synagogue at Mattancherry. It was there that he came across a replica of copper plates which highlighted the 72 privileges given by King Cheraman Perumal in 1000 AD to the Jews to live and do business in Kodungallur. He also gave similar benefits to the Christians.

Semah got very excited. “It was incredible that the king decided, for whatever reason, to elevate the Jews and the Christians,” he says. “It showed the magnanimity of the ruler. He brought these people closer to him.”

The entitlements included sitting along with the king, travelling on an elephant, riding horses and collecting taxes.

Semah made 72 drawings, highlighting each of the rights, using India ink and tracing paper. Thereafter, to make the copper plates, Semah worked with the local artisans. And what he has produced is a striking and vivid installation. Each copper plate has been embedded on the hard surface of a wooden table. And through the various holes there are white cotton threads, which also lie all over the floor.

It is not only about the 72 copper plates, but the harmonious way that people of different religions live in Kochi,” says Semah. “You can hear the muezzin’s call to prayer five times a day, and see the open church doors, with a Hindu temple next to it. And the people walk in and out in complete freedom. There are no differences, till you ask them their names. And then you understand that this one is a John, while the other is a Mohammed. This is a paradise of integration. If this assimilation can be emulated all over the world, there will be world peace.”
Owing to Semah's background in electronic engineering – he took a degree from the University of Tel Aviv – there are precise numbers for the installation. So, the length of the table is 22 metres, to resemble the 22 letters of the Hebrew language. The size of the copper plates is exactly the size of the India ink drawings: 8" x 3".

The white cotton threads have a length of 5000m. “This is the circumference length of the walls of Old Jerusalem during the time of Jesus,” says Semah. “Since the Chera King gave the privileges to the Jews, I wanted to make a link to Jerusalem.”

Another reason is personal. “Every artist wants to be international, but, at the same time, each one of us would want to relate to our most private places,” he says.

Semah, who was born in Baghdad, lived in Tel Aviv for many years, before he moved to Europe as a young man in the 1970s. “I had participated in a few wars – ‘Six-Day’ and ‘Yom Kippur’ – between Israel and Egypt, and the experience was horrific,” he says. “I was tired physically and mentally and decided to move away and have a career in the arts.” Semah settled in the Netherlands in 1980.

As an artist Semah makes videos, films, drawings, sculptures and writes texts. At the Kochi Biennale, he put up a performance art. About eight people of different religions, like Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, read from their Holy Books. Then 72 children, from local schools, holding a wine glass, danced and lit one end of the privilege, written on a piece of paper, with the help of candles and placed it inside the glass. Those glasses have been neatly placed, one on top of the other, near the copper plate installation.

Not surprisingly, the Kochiites have taken the artist to heart. When he got into an auto-rickshaw recently, the driver effortlessly began discussing the installation. “This could never happen in the Netherlands,” he says. “When I entered a tea-shop, the people recognised me and clapped loudly. You cannot find so much of love, appreciation, and sincerity in Europe. I will go back with an enormous fund of good memories.”

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine, South India and New Delhi) 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Capturing political realities

Vivek Vilasini’s photograph, ‘Last Supper-Gaza’, has been a worldwide hit, and sold for Rs 20 lakh. It can be seen at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 2008, Malayali artist Vivek Vilasini called up his friend, the Palestinian poet, Yousuf Ahmed (name changed) in Dubai. Yousuf was in a sad mood. “He told me that he is a Palestinian artist, with a Jordanian passport, and living in Dubai,” says Vivek. “And nobody gives them a proper space. He said, 'You guys are lucky. So much is happening in India.'”

It set Vivek thinking. He was touched by the plight of Yousuf and began to ponder about the life of the Palestinians. “They were second-class citizens in their own country,” he says. “They lacked freedom. And, because of constant wars, a lot of the men were killed and the women had to bear the brunt.” By coincidence, at that time, Bose Krishnamachari, one of India's well-known artists, was the curator for the India section at the Arco international art fair in Madrid in 2009 and had asked Vivek to contribute.

Suddenly, a brainwave occurred. ‘The Last Supper’ of Jesus Christ, made famous by the iconic painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, actually took place, not far from Gaza. That was when he decided to take an unusual photograph.

The Kochi-based Vivek went to the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore where he was once a visiting faculty. He asked for volunteers and 13 first-year girls stepped forward. All of them wore burqas and face veils, and stood behind a long narrow table with a white tablecloth. On the table there were steel plates which had loaves of bread and red pomegranates. The background was painted in charcoal black.

The women were busy talking and looking at each other. “I shot the image using a 45 mega pixel camera, with a wide-angle lens, apart from 13 lights,” says Vivek. It ended up becoming a large photograph, 12' x 4 ½'. The title: ‘Last Supper-Gaza’.

On the day it was displayed in Madrid, on February 10, 2009, Israel attacked Gaza. Associated Press photographer Paul White took a picture, showing two Spanish women intently studying Vivek’s photograph, and sent it through the wires of the international agency. More than 100 newspapers worldwide published the photo. Eventually, it was put up for auction at Christie’s, London, and bought by a Palestinian from Dubai at a price of Rs 20 lakh.

It was also displayed at a cathedral in Santiago De Compostela, Spain. Later, it was shown at the Atopia show in Barcelona in 2010. And this same photograph is now on display at Aspinwall House, during the Kochi Muziris Biennale. This is the first time the work is on public display in India. According to sources, it is the most photographed photo in the biennale. “It is a high point for me,” says Vivek.

But Vivek’s life had not been a high point for years. After he completed a three-year course as a Marine Radio Officer at the All-India Marine College in Kochi, he spent a couple of years in an ashram in Mayapur in 1984. Thereafter, he decided to do a degree in political science, but opted out because it was not interesting. Then he got a job in Delhi and was there for a few years. From there, like most Malayali youngsters, he went to Dubai and worked there for some years, before he returned to India. Now he divides his time between Bangalore and Kochi. But all along, he was doing various types of art, like painting, video, digital projections, sculpture and photography.

But today, Vivek has made a mark, especially in photography. One notable photographic series was about the houses in Kerala painted in so many vibrant colours. “This reflects the rising prosperity and the self-confidence among the people,” he says.

The artist is fascinated by his home state. “Kerala is just a narrow strip of land,” he says. “For centuries people have been coming to the state from all over the world for trade purposes. And all along, Malayalis have been absorbing new ideas, internalising it, and making it their own.”

So, the people have accepted Christianity, Islam, Communism, modernity and fresh concepts in literature, music, and the arts. “It is an intellectual absorption,” says Vivek. “Nobody had to fight and pressurise us to accept them.”

In fact, one of Vivek’s first works was of photos of locals, with names like Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Che Guevara, and Ho Chi Minh. “This is an extraordinary form of identity construction,” he says. “And I have spent my career trying to understand it.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Going at top speed

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

V. Sreenivasan talks about life with former champion athlete P.T. Usha

Photo: By K. Shijith 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the news broke out in Ponnani that V. Sreenivasan, an inspector in the Central Industrial Security Force, was going to marry the illustrious athlete P.T. Usha, the people in the town did not know what to make of it. When Sreenivasan went to the fish market or the provision store on his cycle or by foot, the shop-keepers asked him whether he would soon be coming by car. At that time, Usha owned a Standard 2000 car, which was one of the most expensive cars.
When I would travel on the bus they would say the same thing,” says Sreenivasan. “There were many comments like that. I think they were afraid that I would change as a person.”
It was an arranged marriage. Sreenivasan had heard, through his relatives and friends that Usha was a family-oriented girl who knew how to adjust to all types of people. “There are some wives who will create unity, while others create disunity,” he says. “I needed a wife who knew how to live in a joint family.”

Their horoscopes matched and when they met there was a mutual liking. The couple got married at the Arzhakodi Devi Mandiram in Kozhikode on April 25, 1991.

And today, the duo leads a routine life in Payolli. At 5.45 a.m., Sreenivasan and Usha set out for the Usha School of Athletics at Kinaloor, Balussery, which is 36 kms away. Usha supervises the training of 17 girls, ranging in age, from 12 to 23, while Sreenivasan is busy helping her in various ways.

By noon, they return to Payolli. After lunch and an afternoon nap, they return to the school by 4 p.m. More training and supervision follows for the next three hours, Then they return home. “Thereafter, after dinner, we will review the performances of the wards, and answer e-mails,” says Sreenivasan. “Then the schedule for the next day is fixed and we will go to bed at 11 p.m.”

During the week, sometimes, both of them have meetings with doctors, regarding injuries to the athletes, sponsors, government officials and the media. “People will come to Usha for different types of recommendation,” says Sreenivasan. “There are visits by relatives and fans.”

Having seen Usha at close quarters for so long, Sreenivasan is an admirer of her character. “She is a bold person,” he says. “Once she makes a decision, on the personal or professional front, she does not budge from it.” But then Sreenivasan pauses, smiles, and says, “Except when it comes to our twenty-year-old son, Ujjwal, when she can suddenly become flexible.”

Her other strong quality is her perseverance. “Usha will never give up,” says Sreenivasan. “She will keep trying. That is how she was able to set up the PT Usha School of Athletics, despite several hurdles. Her honesty and capacity for hard work is more than 100 per cent.”
Of course, the champion athlete has drawbacks. “Usha can lose her temper quickly,” says Sreenivasan. “But she cools down just as fast. As a straight-forward person, who tells the truth, she has to endure a lot of controversies. I tell her not to be so frank. Sometimes, you have to say things in an indirect manner. Otherwise, people will get upset. But she will not change. Because of this, on many occasions, she has suffered from setbacks. If an official causes a delay, she will get angry and ask the reasons for it. So, what should have been sanctioned in a week can take up to four years.”

Asked about his experience as the husband of a celebrity, Sreenivasan says, “Usha knows how to tackle it. When we go for a public function, as soon as the organisers see Usha, they will surround her and take her to the dais. Nobody would have noticed me. Usha will walk a few steps and stop. The organisers will ask what has happened. Usha will look back, point at me, and say, 'My husband is also here'. Then they will rush to accompany me. And Usha will give me a sweet smile.”

Asked for tips for a successful marriage, Sreenivasan says, “Where there is love there will be quarrels, anger, and sadness. If these experiences are not there, then it is not a genuine marriage. It is important to communicate with each other and solve the problems. Otherwise, it will affect the children.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Corporates associate with Kochi-Muziris Biennale to enhance brand image

Photo: Thomas Girst, Head of Cultural Engagement, BMW Group

By Shevlin Sebastian

One-and-a-half years ago, when Dr. Thomas Girst, Head of Cultural Engagement, BMW Group, was at the Venice Biennale, he received a proposal to be a partner of the Kochi Biennale. “We were interested from the beginning,” says Thomas. “As you know, BMW has opened a plant in Chennai in 2007. Whereever we are, the company has a policy of being active within the community. We do this through social and cultural programmes. The Kochi Biennale seemed to be right project where the company could share a common passion for the arts.”

There is another reason for the company's involvement. “The way people look at brands has changed,” says Thomas. “It is no longer about cars but about the behaviour of the company in society. So, the arts are an important way for BMW to foster a good image.”

Asked about the possible monetary benefit to the company, Thomas laughs, and says, “This is more about our reputation, rather than about selling cars. That is what the showrooms and dealerships are for.”

Nevertheless, the company has achieved a spectacular growth in India. In 2011, BMW sold 9371 cars, up 50 per cent from the year before. It has annual worldwide revenues of 68 billion euros, from sales in 140 countries, and a one lakh workforce.

In Kochi, Jose Dominic, the managing director of the CGH Earth Group, is also a partner of the Biennale. “We are providing accommodation, hosting get-togethers of artistes, and have provided venues like the David Hall and the Rose Tree Bungalow to showcase the works. People will realise that the CGH brand is associated with culture and art, and that we have a certain personality. So, it is an indirect enhancement of our image.”

And this motive is confirmed by Shwetal Patel, Executive Officer of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale: “Corporates look for brand enhancement by sponsoring culture in general. There is an opportunity to reach an audience in a subtle manner. It is about soft power, values, ethics, and creativity. A corporate gets a sort of halo that art gives.”

And it could also be a boost to the economy. “Where there is art, it indicates an increased quality of life,” says Jose. “This sends a signal that it is a place worth living, and a place to invest in. In other words, art can be a driver of the economy.”

And it can also be a driver of tourism. “Thanks to the Biennale, cultural tourism is going to be the next big thing in Kerala,” says Johny Abraham, of Intersight, a Kochi-based travel and tour company. “We will now be able to showcase our great Kerala heritage.”

Cultural tourists, as the name implies, are those who travel to places to see the local art and culture. Today, they account for 37 per cent of world travel, according to the World Tourism Organisation.

Cultural tourists have the disposable income to buy quality art works,” says Riyas Komu, the secretary of the Kochi Biennale Foundation. “When they stay in hotels they will pay service tax, which will generate income for the state government. A new economic model, based on art tourism, can be set up.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Crowds happy, but organisers in sombre mood

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale needs an inflow of funds

Photo: Riyas Komu (left) and Bose Krishnamachari

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a sunny Saturday morning. And people are streaming into Aspinwall House, the main venue of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. As could be expected, there are all types. There is teacher, A.J. Devasia, who has come all the way from Kottayam. “I read a lot about the Biennale and wanted to see for myself what it is like,” he says. 

Clad in a white shirt and dhoti, he admitted that it is the first time in his life that he is seeing installation art, mud sculptures, and a cocoon made of dry wood pieces. “Yes, I have never seen such works before,” he says. “But it is great. And on my next visit, I will be bringing my family along.”

On the other end of the knowledge pole is Ratna Bhusan, an art critic and historian from Hyderabad. She has kaajal-rimmed eyes and flowing black hair and is clad in a bright red blouse and brown slacks.  

The biennale is absolutely exciting,” she says. “There is something beautiful and different about it. I was sure that Bose [Krishnamachari] and Riyas [Komu] would come up with something solid. And they have. Both have every reason to be proud.”

But Bose is not in a proud mood at all. He tells frankly, “I am happy the people are streaming in and enjoying the show. But I am rapidly running out of money. I have no idea how I will be able to run the show for the next three months.”

It casts a sombre mood, and local resident Robert D’Costa casts a further pall of gloom. “Many food stalls have come up on the seashore, against the violations of the High Court,” he says. “It is unfortunate, especially since the Cochin Corporation had removed all these stalls earlier. Sadly, the people are littering the place, and spoiling the landscape.”

But Sarah Windermere (name changed) from London is not spoiling the landscape. She is wearing a tiny skirt and shows off shapely blonde legs. And not surprisingly, a photographer, who is busy shooting an installation art motif, takes in her legs as well in the shot.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala edition) 

From Kabul, with love and fear

Amanullah Mojadidi, a featured personality at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, talks about life as an artist in strife-torn Afghanistan

Photo: 'Jihadi Gangster: After a Long Day’s Work' 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Afghan artist Amanullah Mojadidi was supervising a JCB earth excavator, which was removing mud to form a cavity, in a wooded area in Fort Kochi, Kerala. Suddenly, one of the tyres burst. “I immediately dived to the ground and covered my head with my hands,” says Amanullah. “That is what happens when you live for nine years in Kabul, where there is the ever-present danger of bomb blasts and AK-47 machine gun bursts by Taliban fighters. The fear holds you in a tight grip. My beard, which was black, has turned grey.”

But Amanullah is having a new experience in Kerala. “In Kochi there are no bombs going off, nor are there any checkpoints with armed policemen,” he says. “I am revelling in the freedom. It is calm and quiet.”

And in this tranquility, as a featured artist of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Amanullah is creating a unique mud installation. Amanullah’s ancestors are Naqshbandi Sufis, who went from Afghanistan and settled in Sirhind, 40 kms from Chandigarh. 

Later, several descendants returned to Kabul and called themselves as Mojadidi, which is Amanullah’s surname. In Sirhind, there was an Islamic scholar named Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi (1564-1624). And it is one of his relatives who makes a trip to Kochi and settles down.

So, Amanullah has made a brick outline of the house. There is an archaeologist’s tent at one side, with a rickety table and a chair, and glass cases which contains artifacts from Kerala and Afghanistan.  

The idea is to challenge historical assumptions,” says the artist. “In Afghanistan they only want to look at Islamic history, and not at our Buddhist or Zoroastrian heritage. The people are not interested to study the influence of other cultures.”

But Amanullah is, despite having grown up in Jacksonville, Florida, USA. “As I became older, I wanted to reconnect with my country’s history and culture, and do something to help,” he says. “Afghanistan has gone through so much of conflict, because of the Russian invasion in 1979, the Taliban rule, and now the NATO presence.”

Today, in Kabul, Amanullah produces mixed media installations, photos and short films, in response to the experiences he has had there. In his short film, ‘Payback’, he explores the ‘tea money’ that taxi drivers routinely pay to policemen. So Amanullah wore an Afghan police uniform and set up a fake checkpoint. “Instead of taking money I offered 100 Afghanis and an apology on behalf of the police,” says Amanullah. Most people were scared to take the money, but in the end, greed prevailed. Out of 20 drivers, 16 took the cash. “Everybody loves free money,” he says, with a smile.  

And since the influence of the Taliban is pervasive, Amanullah made a remarkable series of photos called ‘Jihadi Gangster’. In one photo, called ‘After a Long Day’s Work’, a man is wearing a black turban and has a golden gun hanging like a necklace around his neck. A woman, in a backless top and hot pants, but with a blue veil, her back to the camera, is kneeling next to the man on the sofa. On a low glass-topped table, there are bottles of whisky, an ashtray full of cigarette butts, several bullets and a half-filled glass of wine.

These jihadis have used political corruption and religious intimidation to become rich and powerful,” says Amanullah. “They say, ‘I did jihad for ten years and so I deserve all these things’. My work is a critique of the abuse of power by individuals, as well as a kind of parody.”

But when it was shown to the review committee of the ministry of information and culture they said it was tauheen (an insult) to national heroes. “They called it un-Islamic and a criticism of Afghan culture,” says Amanullah. “For these reasons, they have never allowed me to show my work in a public space.”

This censorship has had an impact on his art. “Because there is so little direct criticism of things that are wrong in Afghanistan I have felt the need to make my work direct and to the point. In free societies, you can use metaphor and symbolism, but that would have little impact in my country.” 

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine, South India and New Delhi)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Art fever is in the air

(The Kochi Biennale is all set to make a mark on the international cultural scene)

Photo: The Cochin Club

By Shevlin Sebastian

At a get-together, organised on the eve of the Kochi Biennale, at the Cochin Club, at Fort Kochi, there is a vibrant energy floating around in the hall. There are artists like Ernesto Neto, of Brazil, in a white T-shirt and shorts, and the lean and tough Guiseppe Stampone, with long, thin strands of hair under his chain, and a bead necklace around his neck. 

And there is art lover Vinod Gangotra, from the UK, wearing bright blue trousers and a white T-shirt. “Be colourful is my motto,” he says. And there is Mahlet Ogbe from Asmara, Eritrea in Africa. Wearing a white shirt and a colourful skirt, she says, “This is my first visit to India, and it is simply magical. I felt an air of lightness the moment I landed. The people are so sweet.” 

And in the middle of the gathering, one man stood out: Dr. Thomas Girst, Head of Cultural Engagement, BMW Group. He was wearing a striking blue suit, with a multi-coloured tie, and shining black shoes. “I look like a sponsor, don't I?” says Thomas, with a smile. “I am excited by the Kochi Biennale. It is going to change the art scene in India.”

Meanwhile, Paul Greenaway, the director of a gallery in Adelaide, Australia, hugs Riyas Komu, Secretary of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, and says, “I liked your speech.” 

In his welcome remarks, to the artists, collectors, trustees, media professionals, sponsors and guests present, Riyaz had said, “This project has come up against all odds. I have to salute all the artists who are taking part.”

Adds Bose Krishnamachari, president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, “This is not Kochi's Biennale, but India's.” He receives a round of applause for that.

Later, on the pier at Aspinwall House, there is journalist Rachel Spence of London taking in the afternoon sun. “There is so much of energy and enthusiasm all around,” she says. “I know there have been a lot of challenges. I spoke to a lot of people today, and they told me that the best aspect of this event is that it is run by artists.”

Kerala should be proud that such a wonderful festival of art is taking place on its soil. 

(A shorter version appeared in The New Indian Express, Kochi)  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A sporting duo

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Former ace swimmer Wilson Cherian talks about his life with champion athlete Shiny

Photo by Martin Louis 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When ace swimmer Wilson Cherian saw Shiny Abraham at the SAF Games at Kathmandu in 1984, he was immediately attracted. He went up and congratulated Shiny on becoming the first Indian athlete to reach the semi-finals of an international track and field event. This happened during the 800m event at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

Shiny said, “Thank you.”

Thereafter, Wilson told his friend and fellow swimmer, TJ Jacob, who is now the DIG of the Central Reserve Police Force that Shiny was a smart girl.

Do you like her?” asked Jacob.

Yes I do,” he said.

Jacob told Lissy Varghese, who was Shiny’s roommate about this. Lissy then told Shiny about it. The champion athlete runner pondered over this for four days. Then she told Lissy, “Please ask Wilson to talk to my parents.”

Thus, Wilson’s father, CK Cherian, and Shiny’s father, KP Abraham, met at Palai. “Both concluded that we were too young to get married,” says Wilson. At that time, Wilson was 20 while Shiny was 19.

We decided to get married after the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul,” says Wilson.

But in the intervening period, they were far apart at times. There were periods when Shiny would be at a camp in Delhi, while Wilson was in Patiala. “There were no mobile phones in those days,” says Wilson. “A letter would take ten days to reach.”

Sometimes, they would meet in foreign countries. In 1985, Wilson had gone to Sydney in Australia for training. At that time there was a World Cup in Athletics at Canberra. Wilson heard that Shiny would be taking a connecting flight from Sydney to Canberra. So, Wilson, along with a Malayali friend, and Khazan Singh, an Asian Games medallist went by car to Sydney airport. “It was a three-hour journey from where we lived,” says Wilson. “I met Shiny for about ten minutes before she had to board the flight to Canberra.”

Eventually, according to plan, the couple got married on November 20, 1988, at the St. Mary's Church, Pala. Thereafter, they went for a honeymoon to Thekkady, but there were 15 people who accompanied them. They included Shiny's parents, brother and sisters, Bula Choudhury, a long-distance champion swimmer from Kolkata, and her coach Sanjib Chakraborty.

Yes, it was a crowded honeymoon,” says Wilson, with a laugh. “It was something similar to the film, 'Mithunam'.” When Mohanlal and Urvashi go for a honeymoon, the superstar takes the entire family along, much to the disappointment of Urvashi.

Despite his tongue-in-cheek comment, Wilson is not only an admirer of Shiny's talent as a runner, but of her as a human being. “She is a simple and down-to-earth person,” says Wilson. “She gets along with all types of people. Shiny has never behaved like a champion athlete.”

But for Wilson, her best quality is her capacity to render assistance to people. “If anybody is facing any problems, Shiny goes out of her way to help. I am sometimes amazed at this aspect of her character.”

Not many people may remember that Shiny has also displayed a fighting spirit during her illustrious career (see box). And unlike most Indian women who take it easy after having children, Shiny took part in two Olympic Games – 1992, Barcelona, and 1996, Atlanta – following the birth of her eldest daughter, Shilpa in 1990.

She was 74 kgs just after her pregnancy,” says Wilson. “Two months later we went for a training camp in Bangalore. People made fun, wondering how she could become an athlete once again.”

In fact, when she attended a couple of functions, photos appeared which showed that she was quite plump. One reporter said that she can never become an athlete again, but can pass the time inaugurating functions. “That made her more determined,” says Wilson. “Shiny began training very hard, brought her weight down to 59 kgs, and won a 400m gold medal and a 800m silver, within ten months, at the Asian Athletics Championships at Kuala Lumpur in 1991.”

Today, the couple lives a quiet life in Chennai. They are the parents of Shilpa, 22, Sandra, 13, and Shane, 10. While Shiny is the General Manager at the Food Corporation of India, Wilson is a senior Sports Officer in the Railways. Both of them stay in occasional touch with their sport. Every morning, Shiny does a couple of rounds at a nearby Corporation stadium, while Wilson does an hour’s swimming at the Railway Officers' Club. “I take part in Masters meets,” he says.

About Shiny Wilson

Shiny Wilson had been a national champion in the 800m for 14 years. She has represented the country about 75 times. Some of the competitions she took part in include the Asian Games, Asian Track & Field Meets, South Asian Federation meets, representing Asia in four World Cups, and four Olympic Games. She has won the Arjuna Award as well as the Padma Shri. Shiny and Wilson Cherian are a rare instance of both spouses having won Arjuna Awards.  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Placing Kochi on the world art map

The three-month long Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which will be inaugurated on December 12, will have the world’s top artists displaying their works 

Photos: Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari; Aspinwall House   

By Shevlin Sebastian   

On May 30, 2010, MA Baby, the Education and Culture Minister of the LDF government in Kerala was enjoying a dinner with Bose Krishnamachari, one of India's leading artists, at the latter’s home in Mumbai. The others who were present included fellow artists Riyas Komu and Jyoti Basu.

We were chatting about what we could do for Kerala,” says Bose. Then, finally, late at night, they came up with the concept of holding a biennale in Kochi.

Baby got very excited. He asked the artists to come to the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram and have an official discussion. The next day, Bose and Riyas got in touch with their contacts – museum directors, curators and artists – all around the globe and asked for ideas about setting up a Biennale.

Soon, they got some figures. The cost to hold the Biennale at Lyon, France, was $10 million, while the Gwanju Biennale in South Korea has a fund of $29 million.

A few days later, with the project proposal in hand, they flew to Thiruvananthapuram. But disappointment lay in store. The Tourism Secretary, Dr V. Venu, told the artists that the department did not have enough money to fund a biennale. Undeterred, Bose and Riyas went to Delhi and met with officials of the Prime Minister’s Office, who offered encouragement and hope, but no ready cash.  

Meanwhile, Benny Kuriakose, the chief consultant and conservation architect of the Muziris Heritage Project, which is funded by the Kerala state government, expressed his interest in being linked with the Biennale. Together, Bose and Benny met State Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, who, finally, sanctioned a sum of Rs 5 crore.

Others who chipped in later included the Australian High Commission, the Biennial Foundation, Netherlands, BMW (Global Cultural Engagement Fund) Germany, the DLF Limited, Gujral Foundation, the Farook Foundation from the United Arab Emirates, Goethe Institut, Brazil, and, not to forget, some of the local contributors: the Cochin Port Trust, Cochin Corporation, and Greater Cochin Development Authority.

In August, 2010, the Kochi Biennale Foundation was set up, with Bose as Artistic Director, and Riyas as Director of Programmes. They set about choosing a talented team, and as work gathered speed, people in Kerala and in other parts of India, asked Bose why the Biennale was being held in Kochi, and not in a metro city like Mumbai, where he lives, or Delhi.

Bose said that they had done a lot of research and discovered that most of the successful biennales were never placed in capital cities. “Paris or London does not have a Biennale,” says Riyas. “Biennales are not commercially oriented. We felt that Kochi would be the best place because it is a historical city.”

And indeed it is.

On a sunny, humid morning, Michelangelo Bendandi, the Director of Communication of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), leads the way into the Aspinwall House at Fort Kochi. A large, sea-facing building, it was built in 1867 by English trader John H. Aspinwall. Inside, there are large warehouses, smaller buildings and a residential bungalow.

Work is going on in full swing. A false ceiling on the first floor of a humungous hall is being broken down. A concrete installation, of a temple, by the artist Anant Joshi is being given the final touches by workmen. At another section, a river landscape by the Delhi-based artist Vivan Sundaram is taking shape. Vivan has used pottery pieces, which are more than a thousand years old, from the Muziris site, 30 kms from Kochi (see box).

At other places, the walls are being painted, and windows being boarded up. “This is a prime venue for us,” says Michelangelo. On the first floor, artist LN Tallur has created a massive roof indoors, using the traditional terracotta tiles from Mangalore. It is eye-catching and interesting. Other works in progress inside include those by Subodh Gupta and Nalini Malini.

Outside, the grass is growing wildly. And Michelangelo – as he leads the way to a concrete pier – thumps his boots on the ground. “This is to scare the snakes away,” he says. After a while, he bends and picks up something from the ground. “This is snake skin which has been shed recently,” he says, with a smile “Don't worry everything will be cleared and cleaned before the December 12 opening.”

At the pier, Michelangelo says, “This prime seafront area will be open to the public. It will be a great opportunity for everybody to enjoy the view.” 

Another place to enjoy the view is The Pepper House, on Kalavathi Road. There are two huge warehouses, one facing the road, and the other the sea. The rickety staircase has been replaced with new wooden steps. On the first floor, the balcony has no railings. So, you could slip and slide over. But Michelangelo points at the carpenters in the courtyard who are busy making new railings.

In a large hall, Kerala artist K.P. Reji is working on an untitled oil on canvas, a 10’ x 15’ tryptic, which shows a Navy ship lazily going past, as a few boys stand on the shore, beside a gaggle of geese. Reji holds a palette in his hand, and says, “I have been working on this for the past two months.” Through the windows, the sea can be seen and the sunlight falls gently on one side of the painting.

Around 16,000 sq. ft. of space at Pepper House will be used,” says Michelangelo.

Outside, Michelangelo goes towards Cabral Yard, a ground which once contained Aspinwall's hydraulic baling press for coir yarn. It is a place with plenty of trees. But right in the middle, the mud has been removed to form a large cavity. Afghan artist Amanullah Mojadidi is planning a mud installation which will depict one of his ancestors coming from Kabul to Delhi and then onwards to Fort Kochi. The grey-bearded artist sits on a rickety wooden chair and smokes a beedi.

I love the ambience of Fort Kochi and the friendliness of the people,” he says. “The biennale will be a great show.”     

The other impressive venues are the David Hall, which was built by the Dutch East India Company in 1695, the 19th century Cochin Club, and the Parade grounds. In Kochi city, the 150-year-old Durbar Hall gallery has been renovated at a cost of Rs 3 crore. “It is of a world class standard,” says Michelangelo. “And it is fitting, because the best artists are coming.”

To select them, Bose and Riyas travelled all over the world, visiting the studios of various artists, and assessing the work. “We must have visited around 200 studios, out of which 40 were selected,” says Bose. The duo studied the potential of the artists and whether their style would be suitable for the KMB.

Overall, 80 artists from 35 countries, including India, will be taking part. “The majority of the work will be installation art, videos, images, sculpture, new media, and paintings,” says Riyas.

And all this is going to be a brand-new experience for the people of Kerala. Agrees Bose: “For most people, this event is going to be a revelation. Many art-lovers have never seen a biennale, so this will also be an education of sorts.”

Apart from that, there is an economic component also. Bose happened to attend the last Biennale in Sydney in May, 2010. The chairman, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis AM, declared at a press conference that, thanks to the biennale, there was a benefit of 60 million dollars to the local economy.

I am sure there will be a similar impact in Kochi,” says Bose. “It will be great for Kerala and India. The branding of Kochi has already begun: abroad, in the art world, it is now known as the Biennale city.”

And some of the more influential people in the art world will be in attendance. They include Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern, London, Sheena Wagstaff, Chairman of the Modern and Contemporary Art Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate Art Gallery in London.

So, watch out for December 12, when Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy will inaugurate the biennale and, at once, Kochi will be irrevocably placed on the art map. And for the next three months, there will be a sumptuous feast on show to warm the hearts of all art lovers, be it Indian or foreign.

About Biennales
Biennale’ is an Italian word and means every other year. So, a biennale takes place every two years. The first Biennale was set up in Venice in 1895. Some of the popular Biennales include those at Sao Paulo, Sydney, Lyon, Havana, Istanbul, Sharjah, Gwanju, Berlin, and Moscow. 

What is the Muziris?
The city of Muziris was once a prosperous port and financial centre in the 1st century BC. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during a massive flooding of the Periyar River in 1341.

The city drew hordes of Romans, Greeks, Jewish and Arab traders because of its trade links, and they left their influences. The Muziris is home to India ’s first church (Mar Thomas church), first mosque (Cheraman Juma Masjid) and the oldest monument (Portuguese fort). Today, there are archaeological remains which are being excavated and restored by conservation architects.     

Some participating artists:
Hossein Valamanesh (Iran)
Ariel Hassan (Argentina)
Joseph Semah (Netherlands)
UBIK (Dubai)
Rigo 23 (Portugal)
Jonas Staal (Netherlands)
Dylan Martorell (Scotland)

Atul Dodiya
Sudarshan Shetty
Jyoti Basu
PS Jalaja
Subodh Gupta

Quotable Quotes: 

Atul Dodiya: “The sites are amazing and fantastic. When I am showing my work in Germany, France, Japan, or the Moscow Biennale, these spaces are ultimately in a foreign land. But here, for the first time I will be showing a work in my own country. The walls, the floors, the smells, the lights, it is all so familiar and I am excited by it.”  

Amar Kanwar: Don't forget that Krishnamachari Bose and Riyas Komu are artists and not professional managers. Most of the people who are working with them are artists and young people. Anybody, anywhere in the art world, would be envious and excited of what is happening here because it is not a corporation-run show.” 

(An abridged version appeared in the Sunday Magazine, South India and New Delhi)