Longing for the World: A Memoir of Two Days at the Kochi Biennale

[Disclaimer: I am not an art critic, artist, or travelled in the world of art. This is just a memoir]

(I)

Fort Kochi, 9 Feb. 2017

Though I had already been to the biennale in January and had a roaring time, something kept urging me to go there again. That something, I believe, is my insatiable imagination – which has always had a life of its own as long as I can remember, needs to be fed all the time, and actually drives me crazy. But maybe I should be thankful: if I survive this loveless existence that is my life, it is because my imagination has always spirited me away even from the midst of the worst emotional violence and uproar. Social theorists who use trickster figures or such characters as Daedalus who give power the slip, or manipulate it to their own ends, are probably saying the same thing.

The only ‘Moral Science’ lesson I remember from school was from the fourth standard, about the invisible guardian angel who supposedly protected us from evil. What intrigued me was the suggestion that each of us had a special angel-companion of our own who was ever-present though invisible – quite a lovely idea to a lonely child who found it hard to blend and settle into her playmates’ world. For me that was the unseen power which transformed a boring class into a musical concert by playing music inside my head; wove words and images into tales there; scared me sometimes, but equally let me exorcise the fear; and led me to all sorts of nooks and corners in the house and the yard and showed me all sorts of things, almost a world that I, but no one else, could see.

I pulled myself out of the world of research that employed, that did not satisfy, my imagination, and went again to the biennale. Two golden days! No words exist to reveal how my heart sang at the prospect. And besides, I was going to stay with dear, beloved friends, people who lived steeped in imagination – unlike me, whose current existence involved the use of the imagination (though it can never be mastered fully for sure) in a self-conscious way. My friends who run a little homestay near Fort Kochi reach out to others with extraordinary warmth mainly because, I think, their world is so incredibly diverse – populated by not just all sorts of diverse human beings, (rich, poor, high, low, of different faiths and castes, related by marriage, friendship, acquaintance, country-cousinship, common humanity, vague feelings of familiarity and so on), but also by spirits, saints, gods, all of who are felt and reached.

(II)
Fort Kochi, 10 Feb. 2017.

Viewed from the outside, Pattalam Road and Mackenzie Nagar are nothing out of the ordinary – they are just like any other street in peri-urban Kerala, rapidly sprouting new, often garish, showy houses on both sides, but populated by still-intimately-connected families. But there is more to this road than meets the eye, for sure. There is a quaint little chapel, some three or four gates away from our place, dedicated to St Anthony, and I tell my hostess what a pretty place it is. “That St Anthony is well-known in these parts,” says she, and goes on to tell me about how he saved a Hindu policeman from the jaws of death. This man, a certain Sukumaran (aha – from the name, a male virgin – ‘goodly virgin lad’), was returning from duty late at night, when a beautiful siren lured him farther and farther away from home, into the beach, and right into the waves. Mesmerised, Sukumaran waded deeper and deeper into the sea, when suddenly he heard a voice calling him from the shore. He glanced back and saw a radiant priest gesturing to return. He turned back and retraced his steps to where the priest stood, but when he reached the place, there was no one there! It was this St Anthony, said my hostess – he saved this Sukumaran from the jaws of the sea (and of course his virginity stayed intact as well). Who was the woman, a yakshi? I ask. “Probably some restless woman murdered by white folk when they were here – so many women used to be brought here then…” That is of course a familiar story, though in Pattalam Road the she-ghoul walks with her stiff garment making a starchy-sound, instead of the silvery peal of anklets.

For my hostess, this is no story but part of very many daily experiences of grace and danger from all kinds of unseen forces, and their colour and drama is the very stuff of life, neither external to it, nor unreal and exotic. These are forces that care nothing for the silly divisions that human beings make – and their power is such that all of those are rendered porous and surmountable. Her young son sings like an angel, and he recently gave a concert at the famous Krishna temple of Ambalappuzha – and his proud parents attribute it all to the concerted efforts of the Catholic saints and Hindu gods on their behalf in response to their earnest prayers.

So all-pervasive are these forces that I begin to conjure up my own stories of the unseen. Four or five doors away from St Anthony stands the dilapidated ruin of a small building that once housed the progressive People’s League of Cochin. The roof has caved in, the windows and doors have bid goodbye, and the walls are crumbling. Yet the structure stands amidst the triumph of the wild in a tiny tongue of land. Thick creepers cover the ways and equally copious foliage has taken over the flooring. “Don’t go there too much,” warns my hostess. “There are pythons there.” Pointing to the huge old rain-tree that stands just opposite the narrow road from the ruin, she says, “a photographer-chap who wanted to take a picture of that building from above was perching on that branch. He was trying to get the correct focus. He heard hissing sounds, and he turned around – what did he see but pythons climbing up the tree! They chased him up further, poor fellows, and he had to be rescued. He gave up!” Pythons? In the middle of a bustling peri-urban neighbourhood? But I believe, for the air is thick with saints, virgin policemen, sensuous sirens, probable -yakshis.

Tourism in Fort Kochi has packaged and sold all its magic, including its very many ghosts, white and black. I am excited to meet spirits who actively resist the packaging! And who could they be? Perhaps the brave progressive souls who built the People’s League? Maybe the chief of the pythons was none other than the defiant Ponkunnam Varkey who fought the Catholic Church throughout the prime of his life – in Biblical language, nalla payattu payatti – fought the good fight – and the little plaque on the wall of the ruin says that he inaugurated it. Maybe this is the hideout of all the rebels of the unseen world, led, maybe by those who escaped Christian burial via the temmaadikkuzhi, the rogues’ grave! I love the image of the indefatigable Ponkunnam Varkey and maybe his peer Kesavadev, and local heroes and heroines of the People’s League, in sinewy gleaming python-bodies, sunning themselves luxuriantly in this tiny, wild, stunningly green haven – a Paradise ridden of human beings and their pettiness – right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Pattalam Road, waiting for the next opportunity to scare the shit out of any image-peddler who might try to exoticise their beloved abode!

III

At Aspinwall House, the main venue, I feed my hungry imagination. Art does not move me. I do not try to understand, I try to see, ramble over, let the imagination invite, dismiss, jumble up thoughts. I let the imagination hook itself on art to loosen up my inner world. Like the nail in A K Ramanujan’s thoughtful reflection in the poem ‘Moulting’, art lets me pull off that worn old inner snake-skin, and for this to happen, art must be a hard, unmoving thing. It stays apart from me, iridescent but stubbornly opaque, complete to itself in the strength of the inner worlds the artist has endowed it with. I must move myself, and for that, art should be resistant to easy interpretation.

Ghosts and spirits – and sounds that evoke them – are a strong presence in this edition of the Kochi biennale, much to our satisfaction. There are spirits that move light gently and peal softly in ribbons and on delicate machines; those which ride on the sonorous humming of African voices, aptly placed on peethams – benches – in a room that opens south-westward towards the lake and the sea– towards Africa, perhaps. I am secretly relieved and thankful to the organizers for that as I sneakily look at my hostess who has come to see the biennale with me. She tells me that it was strange that she hadn’t ever been to the biennale though it happened at her doorstep, never felt like going there. I can see why; she probably didn’t need to go. Quite possibly, she is of a different species altogether, a bird who sheds her feathers and flies in the clean sharp air; she does not need to moult unlike me, cursed as I am to glide on the hard earth. But she too sheds tears near the installation for Syrian child-refugees drowned in the ‘Sea of Pain’, and her sigh is worded when we look at the children’s paintings which often had a tiny house nestling in the hills or resting by water, overwhelmed happily by the immensity of hill or water or sun, quietly day-dreaming amidst thriving animal and plant life. ‘Look,’ she says to me, ‘this is all that we really long for, that is why the little children keep drawing it, and we can’t see that or hear them anymore.’

Not all of what is here today is art in my sense: some of it is depiction – powerful in its own right – of all sorts of known and unknown realities that been hidden from sight, mostly. Some of it is fake too, unsuccessful at reviving tired themes of postcolonial thinking or the current obsession with cities. Collected objects need not necessarily conjure up a place and its multiple densities. And I do not like some things whose sole warrant is a claim to be radically disruptive. One does not stand in front of art blankly; silence is not passive in the gallery. So I do not appreciate people bursting into halls reciting whatever fancy stuff they call ‘mobile lecture’. And their assumption that lecturing in urban English would be instantly appealing to the many kinds of people there, disturb me. The mobile lecturer’s voice ricochets harshly in the hall, shattering the silence that is the necessary accompaniment to the ghostly factory floor, the sewing sweatshop floor, set up inside Aspinwall, where I stand now. Loudness doesn’t mean unsettling, quite the opposite, often.

However, shards of poetry, long forgotten, float up to the surface of the mind as I leave my eyes and ears alone. Subrat Kumar Behera’s work summons up Dylan Thomas’ passionate and redeeming poetry in my mind – Death and Entrances, perhaps – or something in which all sorts of poetic and non-poetic things and words, allusion, catachresis, slang, rhythm, many different rhyme-schemes, nonsense, new coinages and old, all come unhinged from their proper places to join the last dance at the eve of Apocalypse. ‘Dylan’ means the Sea – and like the sea, he hovers unseen in every site that unsettles and redeems. The collateral exhibitions outside call up poetry too – Mark Doty’s ‘A Display of Mackerel’ haunted the hall which housed the photo exhibition ‘Fish/Us’:
They lie in parallel rows
on ice, head to tail
each a foot of luminosity
…they’re all exact expressions
of one soul,
each a perfect fulfilment
of heaven’s template
mackerel essence…
… Suppose we would iridesce
like these, and lose ourselves entirely in the universe

of shimmer – would you want
to be yourself only
unduplicated, doomed
to be lost? They’d prefer,
plainly, to be flashing participants,
multitudinous. Even on ice
they seem to be bolting
forward, heedless of stasis.
They don’t care they’re dead
And nearly frozen,
just as presumably
they didn’t care they were living;
all, all for all,
in the rainbow school
and its acres of classrooms
in which no verb is singular,
or every one is. How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.

IV

Fort Kochi, Mattanchery, 11 Feb. 2017

How may one relate to what a poet would call ‘alien grace’? How can words relate to sound, to movement, to images? Too often they are all bound together like prisoners shackled by the same chain, under the control of a power that claims for itself fancy titles – Tradition, Culture, Margi, whatever. How to unshackle them and make them hold hands differently, away from what is familiar to us in dance and performance? Each of it has its own grace, its irreducible dignity; how to string them in a luminous new web which illumines all and leaves out none? Today I see a surprisingly large number of artists thinking loudly through their installations about this question. This isn’t really ‘art’ as I understand it. These are invitations to think or converse, perhaps – about movements, emotions, and controlling sounds in classical dance in one; Nature, sounds, gestures, and movements, in another. I feel a little bad, as though the burden of guilt of words, who are prisoners too, but used to control others, fell on me. Though I think words and sounds are capable of rebellion – the longing for the world. Has not the Poet (Mark Doty again, in ‘Difference’ here, but many others have said this time and again) said, all they can do is connect what we know with what we don’t? And … what’s lovelier,/than the shapeshifting/transparence of like and as :/clear, undulant words… Hear how the mouth/so full/of longing for the world/changes it shape’. Then I view Padmini Chettur’s installation at David Hall which radically reinterprets Bharatanatyam again, and console myself that it is as much as the rigid vocabulary of movement and the freezing of emotions, as it is about abstract, controlling sounds: they are bound together and Chettur is slashing away at the whole chain. Hannah Tuulikki, however, I relate to more easily, with her installation at Pepper House. I feel greater kinship with her in the way she treats both the sounds and the classical form as open-source, however hallowed and ancient they may be, borrowing lovingly and irreverently. That’s close to what I do with swollen-headed Western social theory. That’s perhaps a less intense and less risky thing to do, but together, we make the point precisely: all irreverence is not love, but love is always irreverent.

Irreverence is not love always: the AES+F serve up Apocalypse at Anand House, and it screams this. They too string together movement – of the fashion shoot – music – of the most revered sort – images, enjoyed in dread since medieval European painting, but this time, for a kind of depiction rather than art, mixing up tenderness and dominance, grace and violence. I am only partially convinced: perhaps there are no pure dominators and pure subordinates in this world, but things may not end there. But then AES+F is from Russia, and they know more about revolution than me. Irreverence is playfully political daydreaming too, as when we step out of Michael Karidikis’ installation at the Map Project Space, the angel-voiced-child looks around the dilapidated structure lie brooding beside the lake and says, ‘children should take over this place too.’

If art is a nail with which to moult, then it is perhaps spiritual too, something that’s clear from the pyramid in the middle of the Aspinwall yard. The labyrinth inside draws you into pitch-darkness and you are alone with the sound of exiled poetry, and your own inner self. As I walk, or stumble, on, I think: how right Marianne Moore was about the mind : it is ‘… an enchanted thing/ … the mind/feeling its way as though blind/ …It has memory’s ear/that can hear without/having to hear/…it is memory’s eye/its conscientious inconsistency’.
V
My hostess and I take a long walk back through the wonderful maze that Mattanchery is. We pass orthodox Syrian Christian churches, Konkani temples, Cutchi Hanafi mosques, Portuguese-style Latin Churches, Bhagavati shrines, Salafi study centres, the old Kocchanadi Mosque. We chat all the way, exchange recipes, advice on how to deal with troublesome relatives, thoughts on love and patience, friends, memories of our childhoods. My two golden days are over; it is time to leave and return to the arid life of the social researcher. But something in me is renewed – the ‘soft animal’ in me is fed and sated for now.

And I look forward to one more golden evening at my hostess’ house – a home lit up by the fierce, healing, intensely nourishing love of this woman, and the loving acknowledgment of it by her husband, a man who does not fear to be reborn in its great embrace.

5 thoughts on “Longing for the World: A Memoir of Two Days at the Kochi Biennale

  1. K SHESHU BABU

    Diverse experiences of art and life .. Kochi biennale has become the medium to project the unsaturated love of people and art which the ultimate philosophy every artist strives for … And, most of the times, succeeds …

  2. Majumdar

    Devikaji,

    It needs to get bigger, for that it would need funds. They should approach Zee TV or perhaps Gautambhai.

    Regards

    1. jdevika

      Really? It should get better, not bigger, and getting better needs more than just funds. But I will be pleased if you can persuade these evil chaps to spend on good things like the biennale and less on fucking up people’s lives.

      1. Aniery

        Devikaji, Your article is very inspiring, it brings a different perspective. I feel also like going back to the Biennale after four years.
        And your description of your friends makes me feel like going to their homestay.
        Why enrich hotelowners?
        Do you mind sharing their address? Thanks

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