Thinking a local Cosmopolitanism – the Kochi Muziris Biennale: Interview with Dilip Menon by Riyas Komu and CS Venkiteswaran

English transcript of  interview published in Malayalam in Mathrubhumi Weekly, October 17 2017.


Kochi is a curious choice as a site for an international art event like Biennale, isn’t it? It has played no prominent role insofar as art activity, practice or market is concerned, nor is it a metropolitan city like Mumbai or Delhi. One qualification, of course, could be its long cosmopolitan history of trade and the movement of people, ideas, religions or goods from time immemorial. Is KMB in a way, trying to invoke and re-imagine the cosmopolitan past or heritage of a place like Kochi?

Dilip Menon

I think there is a particular history to why such an event should happen in Kochi, and why it could be successful here alone. Kochi, being a port city, was always part of a universe that was much larger than the immediate geography within which it is located. So, like most port cities, it sits on the edge of land and looks out to the sea. When one thinks about the idea of cosmopolitanism, there is something about the already existing cosmopolitanism of port cities, whether it is Malacca, Kochi or Venice. It is not without significance that two of the more important biennales are in Venice and Kochi. I think that a port city is located in a much longer history of movements of people, ideas, materials and political ideologies across the ocean.  Even though these ports are now part of nation-states, their histories and memories are much deeper and much longer. The Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) is able to summon up these memories.

The Kochi biennale is distinct from other biennales in that it draws upon memories that are different from that of Venice, for example. While Venice, historically waspart of a much larger maritime world, the idea of belonging to Europe and the European Union were particular continental ideological intellectual formations that circumscribed the imagination of Venice. Kochi continues to be part of the larger Indian oceanic world. The artists here come from places like Iran, China, large parts of the Middle East, Africa, as also from Europe, the former Soviet Union and so on. All of these are spaces of past historical engagement. The oceanic connections with theMiddle East and Africa through religious networks, trade, and migrations are obvious. The artists who create at the KMBwho come from the former Soviet Union, remind us that the post-colonial Indian state was invested in notions of kinship and affinity with countries like the Soviet Union through ideological affiliations as much as institutional investments. We werelinked with countries in Africa and Asia through the Bandung Conference of 1955, the Non- Aligned Movement, ideas of Afro-Asian Solidarity and so on which were born out of the moment of decolonization. So even before KMB came into existence, these imaginaries were in place. These are not merely political imaginaries sustained by postcolonial states; they have been summoned up again and again through film festivals, literary movements and institutional partnerships such as when students from India, Africa and south east Asia went to study at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. The imaginative geographieswithin which Kochi is located make it a kind of door into another world, another time, and deep memories and imaginations.

An immediate and local historical fact is that Kerala moved from being one of the most hierarchical societies in India in the early twentieth century to a society that aspired to equality-between people, and of access to resources- in a very short space of time. The first half the twentieth century was characterized by political mobilization, social reform movements and the formation of the first ever elected communist government in 1957. This is not to say that we’ve achievedequality but that egalitarianism is the bedrock of all our imagination, whether it is political, literary or social. What that means in everyday terms is theidea of equal access for people to material comforts as much as artefacts of the imagination such as art, literature, music and films. An average Malayalee sees a need to engage with literature, film, theater as part of a full life. Our public sphere has been created through revolts against inequality and the hierarchies of the past leading to an insistence that all knowledge ought to be available to everyone. This is both good and bad, obviously. On the one side, there is the cheapening of the coin of intellectual thinking, but at the same time, ideas are democratized.

At the heart of the public sphere are two things: the translation industry and the production of cheap books. When a writer gets the Nobel prize for literature, their works are immediately available in Malayalam. It is not a question of whether they are good or bad translations; for it is not a question of aesthetics alone, but the question of a politics that believes that everyone should have access to everything. That is central to our life. Second, books are inexpensive: because the idea here is that books are meant to be read. This functional approach is different from the Euro-American onein which books are also conceived as aesthetic objects for display. Their place is within a consumerist world where display and advertisement are crucial. They have to be printed on particular kinds of paper, and have to be objects of allure. If you look at the average book published by DC Books, a jaundiced reader might say it looks like a photocopy. But the point is that they sell and circulate in large quantities, where mere sales is not the indicator of their reach into a public imagination.

When we put all this together, the Kochi biennale sits at the heart of various circuits of political, literary and social transformations, long term histories and so on. The fundamental fact about Kochi is that the Malayalee imagination is influenced by the idea of reclamation from the sea. The founding myth of Parasurama, who having slain 24 generations of Kshatriyas, flung his bloodied axe into the sea to reclaim land for settlement as atonement for his sin, is a story that is very much alive in the Malayali imagination. Parasurama is not just somebody who lived many centuries ago, or a mythical figure; he exists in the Malayali imagination almost like a common ancestor. He appears in everyday conversation, in film songs and as a conversational metaphor. So, this idea of land reclaimed from the sea implies a connection with the sea which can never be lost. Once you have the connection with the sea, you have connections to a space that is much larger than region, locality and nation. I think there is a complex set of things that we need to think about why Kochi is different. It is not only the cosmopolitan imagination, it is also the entrenched idea in the region that everybody shares that cosmopolitan imagination.


Dr. Thomas Isaac, our present Finance Minister, while talking about KMB and why a state like Kerala should be investing in art, said that he wanted an average Malayalee to be familiar with the best of contemporary artists from all over the world, just as they know world literature, cinema, theatre etc. So, in a way, the state is trying to live up to the aspirations of the people with regard to art and culture… But alongside this is the problem of leveling, of everything getting diluted. Also, there is the question of the sudden and recent interest in reimagining our cosmopolitanpast.  There were decades when Kochi was nowhere – it had lost its importance as a port, as a centre of world trade, and there was very limited economic activity? All the institutions,landscapes and heritage buildings that we see now, were in limbo for many years, until the tourist industry and the biennale reinvented it… What happened in the intervening years?


I don’t agree with you here. When you think about imagination, it is not an object or a thing; it is not something that becomes a ruin through disuse. A particular imagination always circulates in conversations, in literature, in films etc. If you read Malayalam literature of the last 30 years, you can see this cosmopolitan imagination as always being present.It is something very evident in the uniqueness, within literature in the regional languages of India, of the Malayalam novel which is set also in Kerala, rather than merely in the region.  There are several Malayalam novels that are set in the Gulf, Russia, Malaysia and all over the world, and sometimes in North India too. Therefore, I think the imagination never died. It was always there as the bedrock of Malayali sensibility.

Kochi, as a city, has had many incarnations. Its history is an oscillating graph. It comes into existence as a major port in the 14th century with the demise of Muziris. The rise and decline of merchants, trade routes, and kings has played a part in the prominence of ports.With a strong monarch,a port assumes prominence and then loses it with the decline of political authority. There are multiple stories one can tell about Kochi and not all the stories are of decline. They are about the traces of the various kinds of economic, political, and social activities and various kinds of migrations. From the 1970s the waves of new migration to the Gulf, revitalized the old networks along the Indian ocean. Kerala’s economy itself is recast, and to the agro-processing industry is added tourism as a major source of revenue. The film industry was revitalized by remittances from the Gulf: the emergence of Mohanlal as an acting phenomenon owes much to this infusion of finances towards a new cinema. Political and economic reasons underlie Kerala’s transformation into God’s Own Country over a period of time: where the economic and welfare based “Kerala model” becomes a paradigm of well-being.Earlier there was matriliny and communism, and now there is the Kerala Model in a land which with its backwaters, and greenery is so beautiful. The irony of the natural beautyis that, in part, it stems from the fact that Kerala is industrially underdeveloped. There is no pollution because there is no industry.

A cosmopolitan imagination has persisted through its reinvention within multiple conjunctures. It is not surprising that Kochi should be thought of as a place where you can create an event that speaks to the world at large. Kochi are Ernakulam are certainly the most cosmopolitan cities in Kerala. One could call Trivandrum a Nair town, and Kozhikode, a Muslim hinterland. Kochi belongs to everyone, and everyone can belong to Kochi, so there is this cosmopolitan port-city dimension which continues.

But there is another thing that is hugely significant, something that has been imperceptible.Within the art world and within art pedagogy, when you think of various art schools in India like Santiniketan;M.S. University,Baroda; J.J. School of Arts,Mumbai; the Trivandrum Fine Arts College, and so on, there has been a groping for something new after the slow demise of the dominant paradigms of the immediate post-independence period.In that searchfor a new idiom, many Malayali artists have been crucial, some of whom have benefited through scholarships to study and work in Europe, residency programmes etc. During the last decadein India,a critical mass of mature artists has emerged who are largely from Kerala. This is a phenomenon that deserves more research. What we were talking about earlier was the creation of a culture in Kerala, where the young were motivated to engage with art as a space for expression, that was not tied to the needs of the economy, or of conventional career options. The coming together of a cosmopolitan imagination and the emergence of a critical mass of artists searching for a new idiom has been an explosive combination. The KMB reflects the emergence of a new idiom of art.This is the delineation of what an Indian art practice could be within the world space of art.It is part of an ongoing struggle to construct a paradigm of theoretical production and artistic practice, and to break decisively with the specter of a derivative discourse that hangs over modern Indian art.

In Kochi this larger art world is constantly gestured to; after all the biennaleis hardly a local concept. Moreover, we get artists from spaces in the global southwho are part of our historical imagination of the Indian ocean, decolonization and so on. Their artistic production elsewhere speaks to their fame, but when they come to Kochi, they are located within and bounce off a present local conjuncture of artistic practice. This is something we need to think about more deeply. There is something new that is happening here, that is locating itself beside art practices in the West, beside the very idea of the biennale. I think that is what is crucial.  The last thirty years may seem like a wasteland, but they aren’t.  We can point to several historical conjectures, whether it is the Gulf boom, or the eclectic education and artistic engagement of a Malayali diaspora of artists whose art practices were not informed by any one paradigm. Malayali artists have been migrants through multiple locations and have thought in the interstices of art production within India and Europe. All of these factors come into play in Kochi in the production of something that is new. It is too early to analyze this conjuncture but we need to be alert and acute to what may be called the biennale moment in Kochi.


There is a disconnect or mismatch between art practices,on the one hand,that are globally contemporary and have been in circulation for a while, and on the other, art theory and art-historical discourses that have not kept pace and exist in a very rudimentary form. TheKMB also faces this problem – art criticism, writing and theorizing that exists here does not engage with this phenomenon fruitfully and creatively.Added to this is the fact that Kochi biennale is not curated by critics, professional curators, art theorists or historians, but by artists – the first one by Riyas and Bose, then JitishKallat, this time by Sudarshan Shetty and the next by Anita Dube. In that sense, for the Malayalee artists who went out to make it big in the art world outside, is the biennale a new creative space in their own land? Will events like the biennale provoke and invigorate theoretical and art historical discourses?


I think that is what needs to happen, and it will be a pity if it didn’t happen. The very fact of artists curating works here is interesting because curators belong to a different tradition. It is like the difference between a workshop and a university. Curators are like the university; they are part of institutions and institutional networks that reproduce existing models of thinking, they work within a paradigm…


As ‘Kesari’ Balakrishna Pillai (the Malayali literary critic and intellectual of the early 20th century) says, ‘universities are mortuaries that hold dead ideas…’


Exactly!Curators come from spaces where ideas are going to die or are already dead. A biennale that is curated by artists is like a workshop where people come and talk and think about ideas in a tentative, provisional and dialogic manner. It is incumbent on us as intellectuals to think about what is the newness of art practice here; what are the categories we could use to describe them; what are the histories that are summoned up within this art practice;what new histories can we generate from them and so on. We have to be attentive to questions of genealogy(where do these ideas come from?); of affinities (what dothey imagine connections with); and of vocabulary (what is sought to be expressed here?). This is the responsibility that we have as intellectuals. Most of the artists assert that their works speak for them, which they may or may not. What we need to do is to understand the provisional and interstitial quality of the biennale, for it is somewhere in between multiple discourses. And as yet, the KMB has not begun to speak though it is becoming visible as a phenomenon.  It’s like spotting a new planet in the sky – now we have to begin describing it, for it doesn’t come with a description. And the descriptions we shall provide will have to be both rooted in very particular local histories as well as the understanding that the local is always already shot through with deeper histories of cosmopolitanism and the multiple ways in which the universe inhabits the local.

This is where an intellectual like“Kesari” becomes important; for he was one who saw himself standing at the beginning of a new world – as one the titles of his book Navalokam suggests. The idea that we are standing at the threshold of something new is crucial because, otherwise, we may too easily lapse into older, tired, and cynical forms of criticism.  In the context of the KMB, we also need to think about fundamental and singular questions about art, craft, practice, and theory.We have inherited an idea of artists and their genius that effaces the history, and the labor, of multiple people who have worked behind the art work. With a lot of conceptual art, the artist has been conceptualized as the auteur and there is a whole unnamed battery of people who work for him/her. This takes us back to Brecht’s famous question, ‘Who built the pyramids of Thebes?’ At the Kochi biennale, as artists create art in situwe see the act of labor; it is not a set of nameless individuals hidden from us. It is it not like Ai Wei Weihaving a million beads produced in a factory somewhere, where workers working under exploitative conditions do not figure in our consciousness. What we see is the glitter of the beads;a sheen that blinds our moral vision.There is something direct, visible and visceral about the art practice in Kochi which is about the labor of creation and the artist. It is collapsing the tired and old distinctions that exist between artist and the artisan, between art and craft. Here there is a coming together, a merging in many ways. I am not saying that all the art workbeing done here is like that. There was something distinctive about the 2014 Biennale – it had a number of works that were created on the spot which involved the muscle, sinew, labor, and the brain of the artist in question.


There is a criticism about the biennale that it is more of a nostalgia trip, of imagining a lost past etc. What is the new context that KMB is bringing about or located in?


I do not think that this is a serious criticism, but rather a lazy one.  For if Kochi were to be merely a product of nostalgia, we would not have had the biennale.  The biennale is about the present, and it is very urgently about the present. The artists who come here from other countries are told in a synoptic form about the past of Kochi which may or may not weigh on their works. Very often it doesn’t as you can see, when you walk through Fort Kochi and the sites of the biennale. The idea of nostalgia is also a very Malayali trope; a residue of the ongoing political struggleagainst the remnants of the imaginaire of the ancien regime of caste and feudal power. If you think about Adoor’s film Elipathayam [The Rat Trap, 1981],it is the prime example of this kind of nostalgia, where the memory of past power results in present inertia. The lazy upper-caste landowning individual has been reduced to sloth and lethargy by a past that weighs on him so much so that he implodes within. He is finally taken by the irate villagers and thrown into the pond where the cold water and the fear of drowning wakes him up. That is the point at which he breaks out of nostalgia; through the splash of cold water in the present. The film depicted a particular kind of trajectory, at a time when we as Malayalis wanted something to happen to shock us a society out a stasis in our imagination. But this has already happened.

The KMB emerges out of our awakening, not out of nostalgia. It may draw upon memories, earlier histories and genealogies. But it is very much a product of the present and of the contemporary moment that has very little connection with inertia or with the dead weight of tradition. The first thing you are reminded of when you enter the space of the biennale is not the always already familiar tropes of Kerala: cynicism, the weight of history, and hierarchy. You don’t notice any of these. It is something new that is happening here and our responsibility lies in recognizing this newness. Nostalgia is an old argument being reiterated about a new phenomenon.


In your talk at the Biennale- At the End of Time: Thinking the World from Kochi’ [ ]- you referred to the Bandung Conference, the Non- Aligned Movement etc. in which newly independent, small nations from Asia and Africa imagined themselves as part of a larger whole, a destiny that would be common to humanity as a whole. Are these kinds of global imaginaries possible in today’s ‘post-truth’ world of Donald Trump, Brexit etc? Are the cosmopolitan ambitions or aspirations of smaller nations – of imagining beyond the nation – becoming a difficult proposition in today’s world?


One can be too weighed down by what could be called the symptoms of the present. When we think about Trump, Modi, Brexit, Putin or Erdogan we concentrate only on what is made visible to us by the media(which of course has consequences).At the same time,beneath and beside the rhetoric of the new despots, the migration of people continues which has always laughed at the hubris of national borders. When you think of the hordes of people who migrate across the sea, putting their lives into danger to come to Europe, they have been motivated by a vision that goes back almost to the dawn of the stone age: to move from situations of danger towards situations of hope and opportunity. Even as we think about an emergent politics that is deeply conservative and repressive, we have to remember too,the movements of people. This is the dialectic: the migration of people in search of opportunity and the attempts by states to close their borders; that’s the tussle we see now. The idea of the migrant who ruptures national borders has become a metaphor now and underlies the politics that is emerging in USA, Turkey or India. Its about the outsider who comes in and the insider who loses out.

So given the current situation, why do we think back to a moment like Bandung? Within the imagination of the new nation-states themselves, a counter-history was summoned up: the history of migration, a history of movement that knew no borders. It was a utopian moment. Bandung was of course followed by the 1962 Indo-Chinese war, and the crushing of communism in Indonesia;actions by states that ran counter to a broader imagination of affinity. But that imagination didn’t go away…From these very states, you have people who reanimate this imagination through organizing film and literary festivals, movements of political solidarity that connect up with revolutionary movements across the world and so on.There are many things happening simultaneously. So, at any given point, it is the question of our focus. In some sense, we are all monarchists at heart – we tend to associate the state of the world with the actions of those who rule! But when we think from below, we remember what has created national and international politics, constitutions, and institutions of various kinds:they are the products of popular revolutionary movements for change and transformation. Collective historical actions for the creation of something new, have congealed into the political formations that we see now. But the energies for change continue to pulsate. We tend to look at the top of the mountain, we tend to see the peaks, but we cannot sense the impending earthquakes.

So, when I think about the Kochi biennale, I am reminded yet again of Bandung. There is something happening here that is resisting the dominant political imagination of the time. It is summoning up some of the fundamental impulses of human life, that of experimentation, creating affinities between people, and of compassionate engagement in the world. It tries not to be bounded by distinctions of race, class, caste, color and so on. And that is why art is a utopian space, because it imagines something other than the present. An art that reproduces the present is the art of socialist realism which is subservient to a political purpose, but the art of the biennale stands beside the dominant paradigm of the present. Yes, Modi, Trump and others rule for the present, but all the art being produced or manufactured at Kochi’s workshop is actually resistant to that imagination.


You’ve earlier written about the shift in the Malayali imagination from a maritime imagination that is open to the outside world to an imagination that is tied to land. What is happening to this dialectic between sea and land in today’s context? I think the whole idea of the digital has something to do with fluidity, pace, spread, flux etc.and resonates more with the digital experience than the analog…


If you think about the internet and its relation to a new imagination, we were at a point where our minds could travel through books, but we could not see. The Internet allows one to both see as well as travel intellectually. In a space like that, the restrictions that are imposed by state, political formations, and religious ideologies, are merely attempts to control an imagination that can actually set sail, to continue with your metaphor about the sea. Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy is about people who move out and don’t see the ocean as a barrier but as continuous with land. Of course, it is about another time when there were no borders or passports; but people were moving out in the direst of circumstances, in search of opportunity and adventure. A similar thing is happening now, where that fluidity has come about as a result of the failure of a certain idea of terrestrial belonging, of care within a terrestrial space – the failure of the idea of the welfare state.Ideas such as being part of a nation where one is a citizen who is looked after by the state, where one doesn’t need to migrate, that there is a privilege in being a citizen; all of these ideas have been undermined.

We have come to realize more and more that citizenship is not only a discourse of belonging; it is as well a discourse of exclusion.  By merely being born in a nation, you don’t become its citizen. This is what is happening with the Aadhar issue in India: it is not enough that you are born here, but you have to get yourself registered, there is a process for that, your finger printand iris scan are needed and so on, before one is considered a citizen. Otherwise, one is a mere cipher. In a situation like this, people are already thinking beyond the imagination of the governmentality and care of the nation state. When you think about the power of the state, which is what Trump and Modi summon up, what we should also be discussing is the sheer fragility and hubris of that power. At the same time, people realize that this is power that exists for itself even while it speaks in the name of the people. It is not premised on care. Therefore, popular imaginations will always exceed the territorial boundaries of nations.The fact that the Kochi biennale is reaching out into other spaces, and establishing affinities with people and ideas that are happening elsewhere, it shows to us both the failure of the national imagination and the failure of power to assert itself over imagination.


Post-1990s and the advent of globalization, and with the dumping and deluging of the local with global content (media/information/art..) there is a serious crisis of the ‘region/al’ or the vernacular that is being pushed into the margins. If earlier, regional content had an assured niche market of its own, now the local market is inundated by the global, thereby denying the opportunity or space for the local to address itself. What is the future of the regional in this context-the case of dubbed serials-even the lowest common platforms are lost and have been captured by the global.Local media producers are working with smaller economies of scale and limited access to human technical and financial resources in a difficult situation.


I understand this issue, but there is also another angle through which we can think about it. We have a notion of audiences: say ‘x’ television serial has ‘y’ kind of audience. Female audiences watch a certain kind of serial; certain films aim at a ‘national’ audience;other films with ‘international’ features addressa ‘global’ audience etc. Here, we tend to think of the audience in the singular; but these audiences actually cross-hatch. So, a person watching a Malayalam tele-serial may be also watching Hindi films, while being aware of international trends in art and literature. When one thinks of audiences one should not think of them as belonging to hermetically sealed categories. They are actually very fluid, quite protean, and occupy multiple terrains, and are influenced by various forms of imagination.

Then you begin to see that what defines a local culture in Kerala is precisely its openness to that which is not local. This is something that one sees in its literature, cinema and arts; one can see this empirically in the movement of Malayalis to different parts of the world. That’s why Benyamin’s new novel is set in Diego Garcia. I can’t think of any other contemporary Indian novelist whose narrative is set outside the ken of most Indians. When you think of his Aadujeevitham [A Goat’s Life], going into its 50th edition or so, that’s also the local; that is the local talking to the local about the experiences the local has of the universal.When Benyamin writes his novels, he is also gesturing to the person who works in Dubai, but who may stay at home and watch a Malayalam tele-serial and also reads Benyamin etc. I think what we need is a more complex understanding of this cross-hatching of the audience and the production of imagination of the local. Because otherwise what tends to happen is that we are reduced to an analysis of the Frankfurt school kind characterized by an elite pessimism about a vast mass entertainment industry that produces pulp, with common people falling prey to its spell.

Peoples’ lives and imaginations are much more complex. I am full of hope regarding that. I am also not sure that the local is not talking to the local.The local is riven by many imaginations, some of which are at times much bigger than the local. We have to find new ways of suturing all these together, which we haven’t as yet. That means we need new ways of theorizing, new ways of understanding what is new. To give a simple example about how we persist with theories drawn from the historical past, we have the notion that the creation of a middle class in any society creates political stability, leisure, culture and so on. Then you could ask the question as to how this middle class comes into existence.You could say: through prudence, savings, accumulation of wealth for another generation, hard work,  the Protestant ethic etc. where you proceed from one idea to the next in a seamless way. But one fundamental fact that has changed all over the world is that we are all now products of debt, that most middle classes anywhere in the world are not the result of prudence, foresight, savings and industry. They are the products of easy access to credit. And debt, rather than industrial manufactures is what is being produced in the world right now. That debt is a commodity that gets traded across the world is something we realized with the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis where people with no income and no job were given loans for home buying in the USA so as to generate debt as a tradable commodity.So, it is not what materially exists or what is transparent that governs peoples’ lives any more. When you think deeply about this, we see that we are not engaging with the present; we fall back upon theories from another historical era to understand a present that that has transcended and exceeded the theory!

When we ask questions about the local, the universal and the cosmopolitan and so on, it is a changed world we are looking at, where there is a cross-hatching of multiple kinds of media. When somebody sits in a room with access to the internet, they can access anything that they like, and at the same time shut down the internet and watch a Malayalam soap or a Hindi film. How should wethink about this phenomenon, where the world is at one’s fingertips and at the same time one’s mind is being fed by a local entertainment industry? But these again are not the only influences on one’s life. I think our theorizing is inadequate to the overload of influences on our lives. We are no longer like the child shut away from civilization in Herzog’s film Enigma of Kasper Hauser; insulated from the world and possessed of a pure native logic. To go to the imagery of the ocean, we are submerged in a sea of experiences and a theory that draws upon only one of these experiences is wholly inadequate. There is a lot that is invisible still.

Riyas Komu

You mentioned that Malayalee artists have been travelling and migrating. But one of the reasons for this artistic migration was the search for spaces that provided enabling conditions for their practice. So, by extension, this implies that even though Kerala produces a large number of artists, these artists were unable to find (or produce) enabling spaces in Kerala itself. Even the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is an attempt to create this enabling space. Why do you think there are no spaces for art in Kerala where art production and artistic practices are supported, not just physically, but also conceptually and philosophically? Why do Kerala artists have to go in search of enabling spaces when Kerala, with its focus on literature and cinema, could be, a space from which new discourses in art can originate?


This is an important question. Till the mid 20th century, the region we now know as Kerala was a site of internal migration – for example from Travancore to Malabar, and from the coast through the passes in the western ghats into the Tamil and Kannada regions – arising from population pressures and shortage of land as much as deep and violent caste hierarchies. There had always been voluntary migration along the coast towards the middle east, Africa and south east Asia in search of employment, whether as professionals or laborers. After independence and the formation of the state of Kerala arguably a different kind of migration also started parallel to existing patterns. If we are to take the case of the literary and artistic imagination, Malayali migration in search of jobs has inflected the formation of the aesthetic space. When we think of people like Mukundan, Anand, C Radhakrishnan and others, their employment has taken them far away from Kerala, allowing them the options of both a deeply local as much as a cosmopolitan engagement.

On the other hand, the question you are asking is about those who had to leave, as it were. While the communist movement and social reform opened up the social domain in many ways, arguably it also led to a narrowing of the aesthetic dimension. If one thinks with the Kerala People’s Arts Club (the Malayali equivalent of IPTA in the domain of theatre), Joseph Mundasseri’s literary criticism, or progressive literature as written by Thakazhi and Kesava Dev, the question of aesthetic production came to be determined too rigorously by a notion of social responsibility. Alongside this, we also had artistic production that was too narrowly determined by local history, the exemplars of which were MT Vasudevan Nair and Adoor. A narrow Nair imagination of loss came to be writ large over cinema and fiction. Those who sought a different paradigm found no place to breathe, whether they were artists or writers.

One can see this in the migration of young Malayali artists to Baroda, Santiniketan and Bombay where there were attempts to create a different paradigm for Indian art that was both global and local at the same time. For those who stayed it was a terrain fraught with conservatism and misogyny as we see in the extreme reaction of the male literary establishment to the pennezhuthu[women’s writing] movement of the 1990s under Sarah Joseph and others. If we think about the major conceptualizations of Indian art, by KG Subramanian and KCS Panicker, for example, they were done outside of Kerala. So there is a history of outward migration as a result of conservatism back home that one has to factor in.

I think the Kochi biennale represents a distinct rupture with this paradigm in which aesthetic innovation, experimentation and practice had to leave Kerala in order to find themselves. What it is doing is saying that there can be new forms of practice and theory that arise from within the space of Kerala, if it is inserted into a global space of art and its history. The biennale is both a site of production as also a conceptual space that brings together submerged histories of affinity, movement and a ‘decolonial politics’ (to use Walter Mignolo’s phrase). Artistic production here is thinking through an impasse within the cultural politics of Kerala as much as one within a world artspace dominated by western capital, where innovation and experimentation are subordinated to the rhythms of Euro-American theorizing and markets. The Venice and Sharjah biennales are symptomatic of this. They represent a bringing together of artists working within an existing paradigm. Kochi, meanwhile, thinks beside the paradigm. And this is possible because of the sedimentation of so many histories in Kerala: of global movement and local radicalisms.


You spoke about migration in the context of the shifting global politics as also a retreat to the far right. But this migration is rooted in the movement of capital and is mostly focused on cities. But within Kerala, Malayaleesand people who come from other states (Bengal, Bihar, UP, North East etc) don’t necessarily ‘move around’ with a focus on the cities. There are many settlements that have formed as a result of this form of movement which are not necessarily dependent on the movement of capital (even though the prime intent is to find better economic conditions). Do you think Kerala enables a more inclusive form of migration and settlement as opposed to the prevailing global patterns? 


You are right about this. The migration to Kerala is a subaltern movement from elsewhere in India precisely because a local tradition of popular environmental politics and decentralized government has opposed unbridled capitalism (witness the agitations against Gwalior Rayons at Mavoor and the Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada). Again, a local tradition of trade unions, movements for self-respect and dignity of the laboring classes and so on has created a space for labor within a larger neo-liberal economy in which workers have few rights. Labourers coming from UP, Bihar, Assam and so on, find that the wages are higher and, more important, that their dignity as humans is respected. In many senses, in contemporary India, Kerala represents an anomaly in its rejection both of religious fundamentalism as much as the creation of precarious labor in the service of capital. We have to look at Kerala as a space of migration flows; outwards of locals to the middle east and elsewhere, and inwards of those from northern and eastern India. Local histories of political and social mobilization have created a paradigm that militates against the global patterns. This is aided by a high level of political literacy, a cosmopolitan imagination of the world, and the fact of a society governed by migration, therefore more accepting of the stranger in our midst.

Dilip Menon is the Director of Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, and a historian of Kerala


2 thoughts on “Thinking a local Cosmopolitanism – the Kochi Muziris Biennale: Interview with Dilip Menon by Riyas Komu and CS Venkiteswaran”

  1. I am afraid the kerala that Dilip sketches in this account doesn’t seem to be the one I am currently living in as a woman and feminist intellectual. The cosmopolitanism we see, mainly in the cultural and literary publics and the transnational flow of ideas,materials, institutions, and practices that shape our social spheres are not only different , but in flagrant contradiction. The biennale is indeed a ray of hope in the former but the dissociation between the former and the latter continues. Women, of course, take the brunt of this more. Secondly, there is deep depoliticisation of formal politics, combined with the strengthening of the security state, which both draws upon and strengthens social conservatism in alarming ways. An event like the biennale can only sidestep these tensions. While I enjoy the biennale immensely, both it and the other wonderfully cosmopolitan event we host, the iffk, increasingly saddens me when the yawning gap between the claims associated with these, and the reality of the Hadiya case, or the crushing of the Kiss of Love, appears before me in ways that I cannot ignore. Thirdly, I still say that the cosmopolitanism kochi is famous for must be reexamined. It is not unproblematic; indeed the reverse. That it unfolded within the framework of the brahmanical order should not be ignored. That is precisely why a community like the parankis have been abjected in Kerala’s history.A far more careful use of kerala’s shaping as an Indian Ocean society may be useful for sure — for that may smash all claims of local purity, endogenity, and also those of indian-hindu nationalism as well. But imagining it through a city (and I am not sure in what sense it was urban) and it’s past may be less so.


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