The Arts

Interview: Sudarshan Shetty on the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Patronage in the Arts and More

The third edition of the biennale will kick off on December 12 in Kerala.

Sudarshan Shetty. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Sudarshan Shetty. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

New Delhi: Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty took over as the curator of Kochi-Muziris Biennale from Jitish Kallat last year and the third edition of the contemporary arts festival is set to begin on December 12 in Kerala.

Although Shetty is much feted for his larger than life sculptural installations that deal with objects as varied as skeletons, boats, desks, chairs, broken bone china and terracotta, this was his first experience of being a curator.

He recently took part in a discussion on art and patronage in New Delhi and talked to The Wire about what awaits visitors at the three-month-long biennale straddling multiple venues comprising landmark buildings across Kochi.

Excerpts from the interview:

What should one look forward to at the biennale this year?

An enormous number of works spread across many venues, genres, regions. We lost one space this time but have gained two more in Mattancherry itself – Anand warehouse, an old place with lots of space, some of which is still in daily use and TKG warehouse beyond the market. (In all, the biennale will take place in 12 venues across Kochi.)

What were your challenges as the biennale curator? What went through your mind, can you take me through some of those corners where you got stuck before you came up with the final idea?

I was not specifically trying to be different. The first challenge was that it had already gathered so much reputation, so how could one build more on it? I consulted within my own practice to be able to do something which was, kind of, outside the limitations of the practice. I began to have conversations with people outside of the biennale. It became an organic process, the chain of events that you will see in the biennale is born out of this thought, very organic. At one point, we were thinking of limiting the number of artistes to 76 but it went up to 98 finally. It became humungous only because the decision to include them was more organic. The narrative constantly kept building.

We also thought, can we break the narrative? Can a visitor walk in, turn left or right [and] choose where to begin? Lot of artistes will have two spaces, so conversations can happen before you reach a certain practice again and before you sum it up all.

The biennale has certainly created a reputation of being able to engage with people, the local community. From one lakh visitors in the first edition in 2012, it grew to five lakhs in 2014. What must have worked?

I think a lot has to do with the character of the place. Kerala has a long history of literature, cinema, affinity to the arts; it is quite different from many other places. People in Kerala are naturally prone to the arts. Kochi, particularly, can be quite intense. Some time ago, I came across an autorickshawallah there who could name all the artistes who participated in the last two biennales. He asked me whether I was interested in having any South American artist in the biennale. I was shocked to hear him [and] hired him the next day [to work for the biennale]. He insisted on taking me to a friend’s house. It was a one-storey house entirely made of recycled stuff. The owner came to meet me in an overall from work. Kochi can surprise people.

In the last two editions of the biennale, the visitors had engaged with every text on the wall [and] the long videos. Such engagement of the people had nowhere been seen in a biennale across the world. I have not seen this kind of people’s participation in a biennale.

In that sense, we already had the advantage when we began preparing for the third edition. But one of my questions was, how do we work upon it, bring it even closer [to people], make it more inclusive. So one of the means was, can we see the biennale as something in the making in the time frame that it has? And may be, it can then spill over into the future. Are there those possibilities of conversations that one can generate through this floor? Can we see the biennale as a floor? I think that led us to look at various little aspects, to make it more performative, to push it a bit towards that direction, though not all of the works.

We want to generate those conversations – between works, not to see works in postulations, conversations between the audience and the works, between the works themselves. Can it be a three-way conversation?

I will give you some examples. The biennale will have a Dutch artiste who will remake a film with local directors over three months. He will do it by having a very casual engagement with the community. He will then go back, edit it and come back to show it across Kerala, much after the biennale.

Then, we will have practices that are not located in spaces [and] are peripheral. There will be Abhisek Hazra, who will take people into the biennale as a guide but is going to construct parallel stories about the works. We have Lundahl & Seitl from Sweden who are going to create a kind of parallel experience of the spaces of the biennale through performances. We will have the well known Chilean poet Raul Zurita who is going to use the space as an artiste. Sharmistha Mohanty is also going to use the space as an artiste.

The idea is to look at what is the expectation from the biennale, how do you meet those with practices that are seen outside of the art.

We are not looking at any particular genre or region; it is going to be a big mix. For instance, we have theatre director and filmmaker Anamika Haksar who would adapt herself to the situation – which is the biennale – by having one or two hour-long performances which she calls poems or theatre poems. These are based on the Dalit poetry of Namdeo Dhasal. There will be two to three performances a day; maybe she will come back later to do some more. These performances will constantly evolve with the actors’ interventions while she will be watching them as a director. So the first performance may not be the same the third day. Maybe, there will be a residual effect of it with the sets even after the performance is over.

The biennale also gives space to folk art. How do you go about selecting such work?

When we say folk art, I think there is a clear distinction made and I have a problem with that. For me, all contemporary artistes are folk artistes as well. What we often distinguish as ‘folk art’ is not necessarily a part of the biennale. I don’t want to bring in folk art the way it has been subjected to because then there will be even more distinction. People will say, ‘Oh there is also a folk artist.’ I don’t want to bring someone from a world which is so bracketed. That bracketing is also so detrimental [to folk arts]; we have turned many folk artists into people who are almost hawkers, rather than seeing them as artistes who lead one kind of life.

My position [as a curator] is not to create some sort of knowledge base. I think it is very important to bring aspects which are close to our hearts, close to our lives, into the biennale space. But, a space that is dedicated to contemporary art in itself can come with a lot of repetitions. Look at life in general. How do you bridge those, bring those two worlds together? It is a life time’s work. If I can manage even a little bit of it, the biennale is a success.

What were the other challenges?

One of them is patronage, which is very dismal in this country. The biennale struggles every year. Patronage doesn’t mean just writing checks, it’s multi-layered – a responsibility. Being an artist and saying there must be more patronage [for the arts] is being silly. It is the responsibility of all including artists.

So how do you create that atmosphere? We don’t have institutional support. We have the Lalit Kala Akademi, but it is not much of use. So we have the basis which has not worked very well. The CSR funds of the corporate world are also hard to come by. So it is time for all to come together in their private capacities [and] ask why it is important to support art and culture. We should go back to the basic questions. Why is it important for art to survive, why is culture important, why we should remember who we have been to understand who we are. Not enough has been done in that direction. So the perfect example is the biennale which brings a group of people to facilitate such thinking. So it needs to be nurtured. Two people [artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu] single-handedly created that platform, so it is everyone’s responsibility to make it a success. I know how the organisers have been struggling for enough funds in the last one and a half months. Demonetisation is also coming in the way.

Besides the biennale, what has kept you busy this year as an artist?

I won the Rolls-Royce Art Programme award (He is the first Indian to win it) which gives money to do a work. My work [made public this past October] comprised of two architectural structures based upon a folk story from Karnataka. It is about a woman who had a story to tell and a song to sing but doesn’t share it with anyone. So the story and the song decide to teach her a lesson. They turn themselves into an umbrella and a pair of shoes. When her husband returns home one evening, he sees the umbrella and the shoes and thinks she is cheating on him. The angry husband leaves home and goes to the ‘temple of lights’ where all the lights meet in to have a conversation. The light from his house reaches late. On asked, it narrates what happened. The husband realises his mistake, rushes home and wakes up his wife to ask what was the story and the song she has. She can’t relate to him, the song and the story are both gone from her. The moral of the story is, if you have a story to tell, a song to sing, do it.

I was also interested in the story because I could include other parallel narratives in it, not explicitly though, beyond the drama. Once I read an interview of director Mani Kaul where he said that Ritwik Ghatak made the distinction between the idea of drama and epic on the basis that an epic also includes other world views, it is much larger than the drama.

I also made the story twice, in two different locations. One was very scenic and the other was in a village, playing on the idea of retelling a story. We have to make a story our own, and only with that change and evolution does a story survive in a society.

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