There’s something wonderfully cosy about the Chennai art scene; go for an opening and you’ll meet your aunt or former schoolteacher. For out-of-towners drawn by new art events down south—Art Chennai (10-18 March), now in its second year, and the much-awaited inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala—whose music, performance and talks programme will continue for three months from 12.12.12 to 13.03.13—it’s an intimate, reticent new world which might just be worth venturing into.

Art Chennai consists of events at multiple venues, including the Taj Coromandel, which will host a conference and an artist residency. The participating artists at the event include Jitish Kallat, Atul Dodiya, Nilima Sheikh, Arpita Singh, C. Douglas and M. Senathipathi. “It’s a city-based festival," says businessman Sanjay Tulsyan, founder of the nine-day fair. “I started it because there was a lack of visual contemporary art out here. We wanted to take art to the common person, be inclusive." This year, there are seven large installations around the city at locations ranging from malls to the Lalit Kala Akademi and even Marina Beach, as well as a four-part, 30-artist exhibition curated by art historian Chaitanya Sambrani.

Art of the peninsula: A visitor to last year’s Art Chennai at a participating gallery

“The common perception was that the south was conservative," says Sharan Apparao, owner of the well-known Apparao Galleries and an art scene veteran of 28 years. “South Indians are sophisticated and subdued, but that doesn’t mean they’re conservative—this is beginning to be understood by art sellers."

Some of the Indian art scene’s biggest power players hail from the south, with a central base in New Delhi to consolidate their art world clout: Apparao in Chennai and Coimbatore’s Rajshree Pathy, art connoisseur and entrepreneur, both have their strongholds in the south but run their business empires from the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi.

“Art Chennai is very relevant as it brings a focus on both southern artists and the collectors who are largely quiet," says Pathy, founder of the first international India Design Forum in the Capital (from 2-10 March). “Regional events always serve as catalysts for growth in the area."

Pathy is also the founder of the multidisciplinary creative educational institute Coimbatore Centre for Contemporary Arts (CoCCA) in tier II city Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

“There are opportunities in the south, but this is not just about an art fair," Apparao emphasizes. “It’s about the sustained arts initiatives and events we organize on a regular basis; interactive art events, I think, are the future. Art Chennai is not big enough for people to come rushing down yet."

Yet, it’s apparently not so small that it will keep away major Delhi art world figures like Peter Nagy, director of New Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery. “I’m going for work as well as pleasure," he admits. “The (Indian) art market is not as robust as it should be, considering the size of this country and how much it spends on things. There is no rising south Indian art scene just as yet."

The Kochi Muziris biennale emphasizes the reanimation of disused buildings

While art fairs get media attention, their players understand that these are not necessarily indicative of an immediate increase in the size of the market—but more of a new energy.

Take the excitement around the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. “The Kochi biennale will be awesome in its breadth of intellectual contemporary art expression for India," says Pathy. “And the support from the Kerala government is an example of private-public partnership in the area of art and culture that should be emulated."

Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, Mumbai artists who are originally from Kerala, have planned the biennale as the first recurring international festival of contemporary art in India. “The India Art Fair is a market-based fair; this biennale is about people in a place, and artists coming from all over the world to make art," says a spokesperson for the Kochi Biennale Foundation, a non-profit cultural organization. The event emphasizes reanimating disused houses and creating site-specific installations. Events will be held in Kochi, Muziris (around 30km from Kochi) and surrounding islands such as Willington and Bolgatty across mediums including film, sculpture, new media and performance art. Over 80 international artists have been invited, of which 25 are working on new commissions. Among those invited are Fiona Tan, Atul Dodiya, Alfredo Jaar, Bani Abidi, Gabriel Orozco, Tallur L.N., Wangechi Mutu and Zakir Hussain.

The south seems to encourage experimentation; edgy outfits such as Bangalore’s GallerySKE are proof. Its founder, Sunitha Kumar Emmart, shows 5-10 artists a year. One of her shows featuring Škoda Prize-winning Navin Thomas had live birds and dead insects. “We don’t show pretty little pictures," Emmart declares. “The troubled market is on everyone’s head. But people are sitting quietly here in Bangalore and creating new work; it’s a space where artists can be productive." Emmart started with three artists in 2003 and today represents some of the country’s biggest names, such as Bharti Kher and Sudarshan Shetty.

Efforts to expose the south to the rest of India work both ways. Apparao, for instance, is bringing Janardhanan and Sunil Sree, two young Chennai-based artists, to Delhi for the first time later this year. Artists Ebenezer Singh, who hails from Chennai, and Ashish Thapar began Singh and Thapar Projects four months ago in Connaught Place, Delhi, a space where they can show lesser-known south Indian artists like Sharmila Mohandas and Aparajithan Adimoolam, which hasn’t been commercially viable before.

Ultimately, as Emmart puts it, “There needs to be the idea of building one language; what does it matter if it’s north Indian or south Indian art?"

rajni.g@livemint.com

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