Syncretism by the seaside

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Janaki Nair
Now that he has opened his cultural account with a “virtual” appearance at the Coldplay concert in Mumbai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should take a much-needed break from the tedium of daily governance to “really” visit the Kochi-Muziris Biennale currently under way. Here are six good reasons why.
Commingling of cultures
A visit to the Biennale, and more properly Kochi during the Biennale, will reveal that cities can be made ‘smart’ through other means than technobabble. Cultural events, especially on a scale and of a class such as the Biennale, with national and international participation and sponsorship, end up creating a new cultural commons, rather than stealing the old as was recently attempted in Bengaluru.
The artworks might puzzle, titillate, outrage and awe, but the public is challenged to think not just about the artefacts and experiences on offer, but about the setting.
Long months of planning result in near perfect technical arrangements for uninterrupted viewing pleasure in derelict yards, abandoned warehouses, or dark godowns. The site and its histories (from the ancient Muziris to the modern shipyard) are interlayered so that the public is offered a viable, enjoyable and inescapably pedagogic cultural experience. Above all, the Biennale has been “owned” by a large proportion of the local population, and not only because they benefit economically.
The thoughtful visitor will also be able to explore an aspect of city life that thrives in a place like Kochi, and is seriously threatened in most other regions of India: the art of accommodation (not referencing here the many homestays and B. & B.s that have burgeoned in this seaside town). Kochi, as many writers including Ashis Nandy have pointed out, has a long pre-history of accommodating peoples of different regions, both from the hinterland and across the seas. The commingling of several religions, this “alternative cosmopolitanism” includes, unusually, Judaism. Though not unmarked by conflictual pasts, in this small space several faiths have taken root, as if declaring the incompleteness of any one religion: no religion is without its lacks, none without its uniqueness and achievements. Even the vestiges of such values are to be prized in the scenario shadowed by the darker preoccupations of the majority of Indian cities, namely, linguistic nationalism, communal antagonism and fierce battles over who may be defined as “sons of the soil”. Kochi’s ability to assimilate its immigrants into its linguistic cosmos is in sharp contrast to many other cities of that size. The resolutely bilingual exhibition, as well as its volunteers and guides, makes both insider and outsider feel at home in the new world of art.
The Biennale is as good a time as any to revisit the growing “common sense” of the place occupied by meat and fish in the Indian menu. From the brisk breakfast to the dawdling over dinner, Kochi’s cuisines are merely a reflection of what preoccupies most people of Kerala: the vital necessity of meat/fish from dawn to dusk and every meal in between. Poverty, rather than proscription, may more severely dent the prospects of heartier participation in such an unembarrassed meatarian culture.
In Kochi during the Biennale, one might, temporarily at least, flee the claustrophobic correctness that marks our public life, on the one hand; on the other, escape from “guilded honour shamefully misplaced… And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill” (Shakespeare’s sonnet 66).
Amiably adjacent are works of anger, pain, irreverence, critique, folly, playfulness, worshipfulness, though not of a kind currently fashionable. The Biennale spells out not only the end of work as we knew it (how many foundries, factories, occupations, and indeed sites of work – Kochi itself – are mourned and memorialised here!) but the beginning of new, dangerous and uncertain beginnings of art and work practices. Such an assemblage/curatorial venture would not have been possible without the close collaboration of state and market. But such exuberance would not have been enabled without bringing to life the maverick, the eccentric, the outsider and non-conformist. Even the local artistic opposition to the early pioneers found a space on the walls of Fort Kochi, in 2014, this time as artistic graffiti.
Of prospects and paradoxes
Long before the Father of the Nation had been turned into a social worker with a broom, and before his glasses had been made the official “effigy” of Swachh Bharat, swachhness had been quietly practised in places like Kochi in Kerala. What accounts for that culture of cleanliness when social divisions are probably no less marked than elsewhere in India? What prospect of this flourishing within the new plastic-wrapped economies? It is hard to predict, but for now at least, Fort Kochi presents not just a near immaculate city setting, but heralds the possibility of new and comforting civilities, where the unpredictability of the encounter with strangers is welcomed, not feared.
Coming at this momentous period in our Republic’s history, Kochi presents both the paradox and the prospect of the digital future. In a city laid low by the crumbling of earlier worlds of labour and economies, the Biennale presents a moment to recoup a living, to make a quick buck, to squirrel away some small fortune. Demonetisation could not have happened at a worse time. To be fair, there were no anxious lines before the ATMs as in many other Indian metropolises. But equally, at a time when there is a deluge of visitors from all parts of India and elsewhere, few establishments accepted plastic.
No marks for guessing that this was not an aesthetic preference. As many hoteliers who politely refused the card revealed, digital payments combined with the near impossibility of obtaining money from the banks (working capital) equals financial unviability. Workers and fisherfolk could not be paid, and neither could transporters. Hard cash alone could solve this liquidity crisis.
No city, no public event, is without its conflicts, its darker moments, its bitter exclusions, its recognisable weaknesses.
This was demonstrated quite forcefully by the Commonwealth Games and its shameful heritage. “We are like that only.” Or are we? Kochi, or more properly Fort Kochi, and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a memorable, if small and temporary, glimpse of the possibilities of another contemporary, another present.
Janaki Nair is Professor of History at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.

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