When you make landfall in Kochi and are ejected off your antiseptic plane, the first thing you will notice, after the sudden burst of licked heat, is a giant, densely plotted mural of Mahabali.
The story, as has been popularly narrated, goes something like this. King Mahabali, an asura—a shapely waxed moustache over his shapely pink lips—has to be defeated by the devas who send Vishnu as a Brahmin dwarf, Vamana, hairless and smooth. Vamana asks the king for three strides of land. Unthreatened by his size, the king allows it, despite the suspicions expressed by his priest. It is then that Vamana emerges as Vishnu the god, inflating in size, turning into a juggernaut, and in two strides covers two worlds. Now, Vamana asks Mahabali, what about the third stride he promised? Mahabali, in humility and defeat, offers his head. Vamana places his foot on Mahabali, who then gets buried under the earth, where the asuras live, which is where the devas wanted to send him.
This is where the story usually ends—the asuras going back to where they came from; the devas getting back what is theirs; the balance restored. But the mural takes the story further, questioning the assumptions of good and evil that the first narration holds out. That Mahabali was actually a generous king. That the devas were jealous of his growing popularity, that Vamana’s incarnation was meant to teach him a lesson. When, after the two strides, Mahabali offers his own head, Vamana is pleased by his generosity of spirit and allows him to emerge from the underworld and visit his land and his loving subjects once every year. This day is celebrated as Onam.
What the artwork does is to extend a popular narrative, upend its moral assumptions—making the decision to send Vamana to earth a “devious plot” hatched by the devas—and enforce a new idea of morality. To be clear, there is a moral rigidity in this retelling, too, even as it quakes other rigidities. The good king is the generous king who subsidises the life of his subjects. The gods are the petty, jealous ones.
ALSO READ: What the CIA did in Tibet
This mural, however, became a totem as I was flushed out of the airport and into the city—first bus, then metro, then cab—and into Fort Kochi where the 2022-2023 edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), titled “In Our Veins Flow Ink And Fire”, is on. A totem, in terms of what I was looking for, what art writer and critic Olivia Laing called “a sensation of smear, of the collapsing boundaries that come with festivity or intoxication”. Maybe this was a misguided expectation. Maybe it was an excessive one, too.
Because the biennale was interested, by and large, in a rigidity, a beautiful, sometimes striking and throbbing rigidity, but a rigidity nonetheless, where art becomes “about” things, becomes a vessel whose meaning is ordained, a political firebreather, with descriptions of the artwork narrowing instead of expanding your interaction with the displayed work.
The curatorial note for the biennale highlights the “conviction in the power of storytelling as strategy, of the transgressive potency of ink, and transformative fire of satire and humour”, focussing on the “investigative methods in cultural work”. Storytelling as “strategy”—a word that brings to mind efficiency and clarity, a clarity that renounces the possibilities of smear.
This is not to say the entirety of the biennale was plagued by a strategic beauty because that would be a generalisation and a false one at that. With artworks by 90 artists from around world, across various exhibition halls—most in Fort Kochi, one a ferry ride across, in Ernakulam—there was a prolific feast, some of which jolted you out of your cynicism, while others deepened the pit of irony in which you sometimes find solace. It is hard to be sincere in your dislike of an artwork when you are sweating through layers of clothes and shedding sheets of sunscreen. Hostility comes easily in heat.
‘A sensation of smear’
What do I mean by “smear”? It is a complicated feeling, one where you feel your attention and imagination expanding, like how lungs feel after a heavy inhale, that these rubber bags of air could even touch and push against the ribs so recklessly. When seeing Devi Seetharam’s “Brothers, Fathers and Uncles”, for example, a series of large paintings of men—seen only waist-below—in white mundus, lined with gold that glints, with flowers at their feet, umbrellas and copper containers and banana flowers and newspapers and the edge of their mundus in hand, against a cardboard-brown backdrop, it seems at first an image of overwhelming, delicate masculinity.
It is almost queer, this pungent, exclusively male canvas. You are yearning to see what their upper bodies are like, their eyes. Are they looking at each other? How pregnant is the gaze? The write-up will point us, however, towards patriarchy, situating this male bonding, this “learned choreography of masculinity” in the lacking female presence. It reads the painting for its lack and makes that lacking its essence.
On the other hand, rush your fingers over this breathtaking description of a paltry collection of Nasreen Mohamedi’s abstract artwork—lines, really, just elegant lines—that provides a way of reading her artwork “as asceticism, rebellion, prudence and grace; as a means of excavating, editing and sacrificing, in order to retain only what is necessary”. Suddenly, the lines are suffused with the weight of meaning—of so much meaning. This is the kind of articulation that holds your hands as it plunges you deeper into the art, paying more attention to what there is, as opposed to what there is not. And while it is true that absence can sometimes feel very present, to make that absence the crux of presence feels, to me, an abdication of articulating what there is.
The pungency of art comes from what is and not what is not. Shahidul Alam’s black-and-white photography, for example, accompanied by blunt descriptions, does not seem worried about grand meaning-making. In one of the most moving images—of people waving in Bangladesh’s airport as their loved ones take flight—the description is given the weight of only setting the context: “At Dhaka International Airport, only passengers are allowed in. One can only hear through the gap at the hinge, so one speaks while the other turns their head to listen. A woman bids goodbye to her man, unsure if they will ever meet again.”
As India’s first and only biennale, the KMB—which began in 2012, with the Student Biennale added in 2014—has on its shoulders the weight of significance, of engagement, of curation, of community. And it is easy to take all of this a little too seriously in the way they think and speak and write about themselves. It is easy to create a myth and buy into it, especially if it is so well-rounded in its choice of words and if it feels necessary. Feeling, as opposed to being. Grazing through the art grounds, you will feel this weight that the artists have imposed on themselves. It can get heavy. It can get exhausting.
“Like any festival of art, the KMB is also densely packed with possibilities, a density that does not allow for completion.”
Like any festival of art, the KMB is also densely packed with possibilities, a density that does not allow for completion, that always leaves behind a nagging sense of not having seen or experienced something. That sense of incompletion, alongside the sense of having seen too much, is the overwhelming vibe.
On Sundays, families swarmed around, with children staring at odd images that needed more explanation. Sometimes these images were sexual or erotic, but the parents were not too concerned. If it was a video installation, they would even rest a bit in the air-conditioned darkness. Sometimes, they casually ushered the kids out of the room, without drawing attention to the eros. College kids used the space for luxuriant selfies. People with professional cameras exchanged notes on lighting. Someone whispered about one of the featured artists being a well-known sexual predator. Nietzsche or Freud was discussed over espresso and chilled coconut water. As the day swam away, the mosquitoes swarmed.
The kids who manned the desks were reading Arundhati Roy or George Orwell. The volunteers in the more remote locations were more careless. One of the most stunning video installations—Claudia Martinez Garay’s dystopian Andean landscape of devastation—had the computer mouse clicker on the screen throughout. Jitish Kallat’s exhibit, where Gandhi’s letter to Hitler is shown over a running curtain of mist, kept malfunctioning until the people just stood appreciating how the light entered in sharp slabs every time the curtain opened. I ran through the misty curtain again and again until I was asked not to.
Does art need to mean something?
I do not make an argument for the utility of art because one cannot reduce everything’s value and importance to its utility. In the same breath, I do not want to make an argument for the utility of biennales. Where I chafed against a lot of the descriptions—and this was more acute in Durbar Hall, where local, greener artists were being exhibited, who loved to express their art in the first person, autobiographically—was this overriding sense of purpose. That their art needed to mean something. And in order for it to mean something, it needed to be “about” something, it had to linger on “themes”, it had to speak to the moment, it had to “juxtapose” this with that.
ALSO READ: Late start to Biennale exposes fault lines
The most powerful art I saw refused these simple grunts. Nishad Ummer’s series of photographs, over four years, from his protagonist’s diagnosis of cancer until his death, jolts you to the indignity of mortality, and suddenly a weep screeches out, staring at photographs of grandchildren and children swarming around a body that is increasingly growing limp and tired and shrivelled.
There is an honesty to these portraits, like that of Anup Mathew Thomas photographing his father as though he were an ethnographic subject. Easy to twist this project’s intention into something more hefty, but Anup leaves it at this: “I don’t know if I have become any closer to my father during the course of, or because of this project. However, I should mention that he was a great subject, a willing participant who wasn’t affected by my presence—he ignored me.” And just like that, the portraits bled something more than purpose—they leaked charm.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.