Indian art, Venice style - Kochi hosts first Biennale

An installation at the Biennale The Biennale features more than 80 artists

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India's first art biennale, its largest ever gathering of contemporary artists, has opened in the southern city of Kochi. The exhibition, modelled on similar ones across the world, particularly in Venice, features more than 80 artists.

"This is a bit like a wedding, and a family get together, and it means a lot to us," says artist Atul Dodiya as he runs around his exhibition, greeting people as they arrive, like an expectant groom ushering in guests.

December is peak marriage season in India, a fitting time perhaps for the country to hold what is being seen as a life-affirming event for its contemporary art scene.

"The first biennale is extremely important, it's an international event with people coming from all over to celebrate," says Mr Dodiya.

INDIA AND THE BIENNALE

The Italian word "biennale" - meaning every other year - is used to describe large contemporary art exhibitions held every two years

The first art "biennale" was held in Venice in 1895

Since then similar events have been held worldwide, including in Sao Paulo, Sharjah, Istanbul, Berlin and Moscow

A Delhi triennale (held every three years) was set up in 1968, but it declined in recent years - the last event due in 2011 was not held

Like any good Indian wedding there is a sense of organised chaos. On opening day many of the installations were still being created, with ladders and workmen serving as an accompaniment to the art.

What makes this gathering of artists so unique are the spaces in which they are exhibiting.

In a country starved of museums and galleries, Kochi has provided a perfect backdrop to showcase the art.

Old warehouses used in the days of the spice trade more than two centuries ago, works of art in themselves with their high ceilings and wooden beam structures, have been transformed into venues.

Mr Dodiya's offering - "Celebration in the laboratory" - is being shown in an old science lab and features photographs of Indian artists, including celebrated painters MF Husain, Akbar Padamsee and SH Raza.

Well known for his paintings, this is his first-ever photographic installation, a sign of how Indian contemporary art is evolving.

Niche audience

On offer at the biennale are a range of creations that use video, audio, even scent, alongside the more "conventional" forms of paintings and sculptures.

Kurien School student Kurien says he is "very impressed" with the art

All this reflects the shift in contemporary art in India in recent years.

When Mr Dodiya went to art school in the 1970s, his parents were warned by friends their son might starve if he followed such a path. Today, he commands hundreds of thousands of dollars for his work.

But it is still a very niche audience that consumes contemporary art in India, something the biennale hopes to change.

The event opened with a performance from the Grammy award-winning singer M.I.A, who played to a crowd that included local teenage boys, tourists, international art enthusiasts and hipsters from across India.

The melting pot in the mosh pit reflects the mixed clientele organisers hope to attract during the three-month-long exhibition.

"India very badly needed a space where there was a meeting of art, that brought contemporary art to more people," says Riyas Komu, who conceived the idea for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale along with Mumbai-based artist Bose Krishnamachari.

Not inclusive enough?

India's art scene centres around Delhi and Mumbai, but the biennale was conceived around Kochi, not just because its creators hail from Kerala but due to the exhibition space many of the disused buildings and warehouses offered.

One of the main venues, Aspinwall house, is a sprawling former spice warehouse which in the 19th Century was owned by an English businessman John H Aspinwall, who traded in pepper, coconut oil, coffee and lemongrass oil.

But despite efforts to bring art to the community, organisers have faced criticism that the event wasn't inclusive enough.

Anti-biennale groups have put up posters in the town and, according to reports, even burned brochures to protest against what they say is a corporate-driven occasion which does not promote enough local artists.

"From a curatorial point of view, when you choose 80 artists from all over the world, it is tough," says Mr Komu, adding that 23 of the 82 artists showing are from Kerala.

"It's not like it's an excluding exercise, perhaps some of the artists who weren't shown should have organised a fringe biennale."

Other events such as the annual India art fair in Delhi, which will host its fifth event next February, already attract thousands of visitors every year. Organisers of the Biennale, which doesn't offer work for sale like the art fair does, hope to attract some 800,000 visitors.

It is too early to gauge whether this will happen, but the initiative is bound to broaden the reach of contemporary art, says art critic Kishore Singh.

"We don't have a practice of going to museums and galleries, and students don't look at art, so the understanding of it has been extremely limited, but anything that creates a buzz and gets talked about like this will help change that."

Mr Singh says many in India are dismissive of contemporary art and don't properly understand it, focusing instead on the more traditional art forms the country is known for, from centuries past.

One of the exhibits at the Biennale

"People still think graffiti is contemporary art, and is very cool, and don't believe anything else is. It's hard to take forward a form which people don't understand," says 24-year-old Tarini De, who describes herself as an "anticipation artist" who uses video to express her art.

Ms De, who is from Mumbai, says the reaction she gets when she tells people she is an artist is mixed. "My family believe it's never going to be a paying job, and it's not a stable job," she says.

While Ms De believes the scale of events like this Biennale go some way in convincing her parents of her career choice, she believes the biggest way to attract more interest is by having more role models, in an aspirational country like India, where the young worship sports and Bollywood stars.

"Any form of media gets successful when there are superheroes attached to it here. If there's a proper superhero for contemporary art, people will start to emulate it. A bit like Saina Nehwal (the Olympic medallist) has done for badminton."

The real impact of the biennale will only be clear after the three-month run is up. But it is made an impact on 18-year-old Kurien, who goes to school in Kochi.

"I've never seen this kind of art before, and I'm very impressed," he says.

The very fact that he is able to see such art is a small, yet significant, sign of how things are changing.

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