Kochi Biennale 2023: Why do I keep coming back?

Is it the charming location? The history? Or the art? A confirmed enthusiast investigates the reasons for her love of the Kochi Biennale

'Covering Letter' by Jitish Kallat
'Covering Letter' by Jitish Kallat

Shormistha Mukherjee

As my plane started to descend, I found myself staring out of the window, watching tiny palm trees grow bigger and wondering what makes me come to the Kochi Biennale over and over again.

This was my third consecutive Biennale. And of course, like any good history buff, part of the charm was the chance to spend an extended weekend at Fort Kochi.

Occupied by the Portuguese for 160 years, then the Dutch for 112 years and finally the British all the way to independence, Fort Kochi is a mix of architectural styles and influences, punctuated with Chinese fishing nets, political graffiti, and even a church where Vasco da Gama, who opened the sea route from Europe to India, and in the bargain brought us colonisation, was buried (his bones were later exhumed and moved to Portugal).

But there was more. As I dropped my bags in the hotel, and slathered my face with sunscreen, I found that old familiar happy feeling beginning to spread from the pit of my stomach. Three days of wandering around, walking in the sun, stepping into old warehouses which once stored pepper and coffee, and just receiving all forms of art and inspiration. Is this why I keep coming back?

I walked across to Aspinwall House to collect our tickets and wondered if the happiness I felt came from a feeling of nostalgia, or freedom. Living in Mumbai, I can’t remember going to a single festival that doesn’t frisk my bag or me. No carrying food, please don’t bring water into the venue, tie a band to your wrist—the list is endless. Kochi Biennale is just the opposite. Come as you are, do what you want. Let your mind run free.

And that’s exactly how I felt. Like a sponge with questions. Let me explain that sentence with two pieces of work that I just can’t shake off.

First there was Jitish Kallat’s goosebump inducing installation called ‘Covering Letter’, in which the artist takes a historical letter written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, on the eve of the second world war, and projects it, line by line. So there you are—standing in a dark room, watching Gandhi’s letter roll out in a projection in front of you.

Before your eyes, his plea for peace keeps disappearing into a fog of smoke that’s enveloping both the screen and you. You can walk right through his words and realise that they don’t exist. It’s only light and smoke that’s doing the trick. I loved the description that said: ‘the ever dissolving and ephemeral nature of Gandhi’s words echoes the fate of his message that went unheeded’.

Also at the same venue, the TKM Warehouse, was ‘Tangled Hierarchy’, curated by Kallat. On 2nd June 1947, weeks before Partition, Mountbatten went to meet Gandhi. Opposed to the Partition, and bound by a vow of silence, Gandhi communicated with Mountbatten via notes scribbled on the backs on envelopes. Just over 75 years later, Kallat takes these ‘Gandhi Envelopes’ and combines archival and scientific stimulus brought together by a host of artists.

These explore themes of loss of land, phantom pain, human suffering, manmade borders, and being invisible. Particularly moving were the drawings and documents of S.L. Parasher, who escaped to India during the Partition. An art college lecturer and vice principal in Lahore, his almost faceless sketches carry the weight of pain and loss in refugee camps.

I was immediately reminded of my grandparents, who had fled from Lahore to Delhi in an overcrowded train, with three children and two trunks.

Is that what art is supposed to do? Bring back a flood of memories? Hold up a mirror? Remind you that you have a voice that can take many forms? Or to tell you to learn from the past? And is this why I go to the Kochi Biennale?

My head buzzing with questions, I headed to my second favourite place—the Student Biennale, spread over the sea-facing warehouses in Mattancherry. And there I saw the most ethereal thing ever.

Students of KMEA College of Architecture, who had travelled across Kashmir, brought the state to us through an exhibition of their thoughts, scribbles, drawings, notes, digital displays and installations. What made me stop and stand for ages was a particular installation, made with wood and acrylic sheets, that almost eerily captured the calm of Dal Lake, as it floated before your eyes, making you forget how far away it really was.

What also struck me about the Student Biennale was how incredibly personal it felt. As if these artists had let us into their homes, communities and heads, creating a sense of vulnerability.

There was Ayushi Panchal’s work where she examines the scarcity of space in her Mumbai home, via etchings on fan blades. And Muskan Parekh’s work which attempts to represent the ancient culture of the Bastar community, and the loss of life and livelihood that it faces.

Students of KMEA College of Architecture recreated 'everyday life' of Kashmir through their installations.
Students of KMEA College of Architecture recreated 'everyday life' of Kashmir through their installations.

But art doesn’t just jolt you. It can be playful and fun, and you wonder what it is that’s making you and so many others giggle and take pictures in front of it. Like Alper Aydin’s ‘The Song of the Earth’, which consisted of a long wall filled with photographs of rocks submerged in the Black Sea. Each rock had its weight inscribed on it. In a sweet, childlike way, it made these rocks seem human. Something you’d never think of.

Then there was Devi Seetharam’s ‘Brothers, Fathers and Uncles’. A series of large works that depicted—waist down— men in lungis, nonchalantly standing around in street corners and markets. A telling comment on the ease with which men dominate public spaces. The number of women standing in front of Seetharam’s work, and taking selfies and pictures in groups delighted the heart while turning it into something subversive.

Finally, there was Iman Issa’s work. A stark room with long, elaborate descriptions of the artwork. I read the first description and looked around for the corresponding art, but nothing seemed to match. The volunteer on duty smiled and said, “It’s not there. The artist wants you to read and imagine it.”

And maybe that’s why I keep coming back to the Kochi Biennale. Because, in spite of all the art, the installations, the digital creations, it always leaves room for my questions and my imagination.

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