There are two ways to think about contemporary art; and this in the end will decide how you view the controversy that has dogged the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that opened on 12/12/12. One way is to think of art as a specialized field with its own jargon, paradigms, scholars and superstars: art as rocket science, as it were. To proponents of this view, when a government gives 5 crore to a new biennale, it is no different from a government awarding a similar sum to say, space research or neuroscience—esoteric fields that are understood by few; and have no immediate and tangible relevance to daily life. Contemporary art is similar—specialized and important for society but not in an obvious, measurable way, like say, roads and sanitation.

The other approach views art as a reflection of society; as being embedded in community. Most folk art—Madhubani, Gond—remains this way with specific idioms that everyone in the community understands. Traditional art was part of life and society. In this model, if Kochi wanted to do a biennale, the entire artistic community would have been involved, rather than two visionary co-founders. There would be support from the locals; but the locals would have also influenced the approach. Today’s contemporary art isn’t community-driven; it is commerce-driven.

It has become a field that is understood by a few and practised by fewer. It has, in other words, largely become irrelevant to the common man.

Is this what you did wrong, I asked Riyas Komu, the co-founder of the Kochi Biennale. Is there a controversy because you failed to carry the community with you? He paused and unleashed a paragraph of explanation: “People don’t understand the magnitude of this project.... The art community here is misguided because they don’t understand contemporary art at all. The government doesn’t have a policy to understand art galleries, museum structure…" and so on. But it is what he said at the end that stuck. “If anyone has felt hurt; if they have felt that they were not included, they all should pardon us. Because of their blame we suffered a lot, that is enough punishment. Now it is time to move on."

Komu recommended that I talk to one of their trustees—P. K. Hormis Tharakan, the former chief of RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), to get an inside view of what happened. In the measured tones of a bureaucrat, Tharakan laid it out. Although the facts are evolving, what is known is this. The previous LDF (Left Democratic Front) government of Kerala, gave 5 crore to the founding team of the Kochi Muziris Biennale; and also exempted them from the usual financial code restrictions that apply to government funds. Then the government changed. A small group of Kerala artists had opposed the idea of the biennale from the beginning, stating that the money could be used to provide grants to struggling Kerala artists. Sculptor Kanayi Kunhiraman, former chairman of the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, was one of the more vocal detractors. “I had gone and met him (Kunhiraman) with Riyas in the beginning," says Tharakan. “He seemed quite positive at that time. He gave us his blessing. Later, he joined hands with the people opposing the biennale."

Perhaps because of the pressure from the artists, the present UDF (United Democratic Front) government ordered an inspection into how the funds were spent. That report has not been made available to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation, says Tharakan. However, according to an official who requested anonymity, “The full text is available in a Facebook page, unsigned by the principal secretary. It is a highly suspicious way of publicizing a government report."

Going by what appeared on Facebook, says this official, the financial inspection found several things that were unacceptable and excessive: 3 lakh paid to chenda artist Peruvanam Kuttan Marar and 100 chenda drummers to play at the inauguration; a dinner held in New Delhi for diplomats and ambassadors of the countries that were to send artists, costing 1,200 per plate plus liquor; trips to 10 international biennales by the principal organizers.

I tried to locate the report on Facebook but could not find it. Both the co-founders have spent a lot of their personal money in organizing this biennale. They have raised four times the government amount from private sponsors. You can criticize their methods, but these are nit-picks. The truth requires a comprehensive audit.

The real question is whether a biennale is the best way to promote art in a state; whether this particular biennale has done what it set out to do; and whether things could be done differently the next time.

The biennale will boost tourism in Kerala for sure. It will bring in visitors of a different ilk: not just the ayurveda and beach tourists. Will it help the state’s artists? This, after all, was the reason why the local artists were against the biennale. I think the biennale will help the state’s artists in the same way that travelling abroad will help a person. Interacting with international artists and viewing the works of big names like Atul Dodiya, Sheela Gowda, Subodh Gupta, and Vivan Sundaram will open the eyes and illumine the practices of young Kerala artists. It will provide the ferment that is necessary for art to thrive.

Could it have been done differently and better? For sure. But it is an innovative effort. For that, the organizers deserve more support than they got.

Shoba Narayan wishes she had heard the sound of 100 chenda drummers. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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