Why was the original Dravidia Gallery closed and why are you reopening it?
A lot of other galleries came up and a space like Dravidia didn’t have any relevance. When Dravidia was started, there was no other space. That gave it a special importance. But later, a lot of different kinds of spaces came up, and a space which accommodated only elegant events and exhibitions didn’t have any relevance. The other way to be important is to have plenty of sales, and have publicity. Dravidia had neither. We had a specific media policy, we used to charge private media for shooting inside. We had a tariff for that. So we had neither sales, nor publicity. We could have carried on conducting shows and sustained the gallery, but that was not what was needed. Art needs funds on huge scales, and if the gallery can’t bring that, there’s no point.
So it was because the art scene changed, that you had to close.
Have you changed your vision this time?
Actually, what I tried back then is beginning to get communicated now. I think I was 10 years ahead. Now, people can understand what I’m trying to say. When we exhibited in a heritage space, a non-conventional space, there were a lot of differences in opinion – lighting, wall space, white cube and all were brought up as points of criticism. Nobody accepted when we tried to break it. But now, that’s what everybody is doing. Heritage building as an art space is a trendy idea, especially in Kochi. So now, it’s like my time.
Do you think Biennale has been influential in these aspects?
We can’t say that Biennale brought about the change, because these ideas were here before the Biennale. Kashi Art Café and all were doing it. Such ideas about space were there before Biennale, but Biennale executed it in a massive scale and attracted a much bigger audience.
How did the regional art movement that Dravidia was part of start?
We can actually say it’s a continuation of the practices of Santinikethan. I grew up among artists here. Almost all of them were closer to my father’s age than mine; Most of them were visual artists – I was comparatively less acquainted with writers.
Back then, to conduct an exhibition, one had to rent a gallery space. And then a multi-colour brochure had to be printed. Maybe get an advertisement from some textile shop or jewellery. I used to wonder why artists couldn’t get a place for themselves; there were about a 100 of us, in any case. Through a collective effort, we could easily maintain a space for ourselves. 1000 rupees a day was a big amount in the ‘90s, and most shows only lasted about 10 days. Even that would cost 10,000 just as gallery rent. Then the brochures had to printed, everybody had to be invited… Even then, there was little hope of works getting sold. There were no buyers. The same crowd that came to see exhibitions would come for film screenings, poets’ congregation and all those things. The audience was the same. Even if some program happened in Ernakulam, the same crowd would gather there. We were all part of this small crowd, this movement.
The other inspiration that can be specified is an experiment by poet M Govindan. Govindan, C N Srikantan Nair, Aravindan and others were part of a similar movement which gave birth to Kerala Kalapeedom. Personally, Kalapeedom has been a huge influence on me. It was a small space, in which eminent artists like V G Jog and Hariprasad Chaurasia came and performed, and we listened to it from up close. These happened because of a relationship among artists, not out of any monetary reasons. These were artists who were used to high remunerations and performing before vast crowds.
Such relationships are uncommon among visual artists, especially modern artists. Traditional artists have a relationship, but in their own way. They do work, at times, for little remuneration. But modern artists are not known to do that, and now, a kind of professional behaviour is being seen more and more among visual artists.
Did Studio Zen have an influence?
If we were to look at the spaces of Fort Kochi, Studio Zen would be the first hub for visual artists. Abul ran Studio Zen in Calvathy Road. People who were involved in Studio Zen were the ones who later ran other institutions or projects – Kashi Art Café, Leela Gallery, Mayalokam Collective; and in one way, Dravidia too. Even if you don’t include Dravidia, you could say I’m a product of that collective. We’re all interrelated, but I would say people like Abul were the pioneers. Abul was active in this field. He was involved in Kalapeedom as well.
Was there any particular reason to choose Fort Kochi?
It was simply because I lived here. I was involved in a lot of activities – planting trees, cultural activities, activism etc.
So there was an idea about doing something regional, instead of going to an already established hub like, say, Mumbai.
I didn’t feel the need to go anywhere else. I grew up here, was active here and simply continued that. But we had conducted camps in a lot of places, like Tirunelli, Hampi and Silent Valley.
How is Dravidia relevant today, since, as you said, many of the ideas that it previously put forward are now being practised by others? Doesn’t it have a danger of being “yet another gallery”?
It is a space that everyone can use. I don’t stand against anyone, politically or otherwise. The space is open. It’s natural that there is groupism and politics among artists, and this gallery is a space that looks to unite artists beyond such differences and create an atmosphere of participation. You can see that Riyas and Bose and plenty of other artists who might be against them are here, interacting. I’m also trying to collaborate with such people, as they can use this space – they’re already using places like Kashi, David Hall. They also know us, know our aesthetics, and this makes it much easier to work together.
It really is an attempt to resurrect the art atmosphere of the ‘80s and ‘90s of Kochi?
Along with your idea of doing quality programs, is it possible to be a presence in the market as well? Does such a market for art exist in Kochi?
I’m told that such a market exists, but I’m yet to experience it. I would like to. We used to be slightly off-located, and tourism used to be dull. That’s not the case now. Kochi is a tourists’ centre. Also, I want to be active alongside the people who are already in the field, so that Dravidia can exist as an individual space as well, while letting other artists and organizations use this space. EtP (Ekalokam Trust for Photography) is collaborating with us. Abul designed our logo. We will also extend our partnership to other areas. Ananda Surya is also associating, with his green organisation ideas – we’re also planning a show based on it. Bose, Riyas, the Uru project – we’re all discussing. This has turned into a venture that tries to bring together artists who have been separated due to various issues.