History is a controversial word. There are always several versions to it, however, in time, it often becomes one sided – narrated from the view of the victorious and the triumphant – meaning, it would tell the story of the one who succeeded in terms of money, power, wealth, reach or scale. The catalysts that influenced the rhythmic swell and slump of changing times are often forgotten and in due course their names become forbidden in the public discourse. There can never be any concurrences between these different versions, however, these feeble voices will always linger in the air – waiting to be heard.
Sangam era Muziris was a natural sea harbor (dockland), and much before the Greeks discovered the monsoon winds in CE 47, the ancient Arabs and Tamilakam sailors had crossed the Indian Ocean (around 110 BCE). What began as a route for a military expedition became a flourishing trade route, and the significant position held by the riverine port junction Muziris in the spice route trade and cultural exchange is well established. This flourishing port is believed to have disappeared during the flooding of the Periyar River (1341)- which also formed the natural harbor of Kochi.
The port activities started to shift and with the arrival of the Portuguese during the early 15th century the local culture and lifestyle of this dockland was changed forever, making it one of the India’s earliest European settlements. The war between Kochi and Calicut kingdoms, and the shifting of alliances and power led to repeated colonization by the Portuguese, Dutch, and later the British. The sea facing Fort Kochi came directly under the Madras Province and was dominated by the European monoculture, while the Mattancherry dockland, occupied by Arab, Jewish, Ancient Christian traders and trade guilds, had a penchant for multi-cultural amalgamation. The influences of the changing rulers and their philosophy could be seen in the local art, architecture and lifestyle, making this region culturally unique and cosmopolitan. During the reign of Rama Varma Rajarshi, the abdicated king from the Cochin kingdom, hailed as the ‘Father of Modern City of Kochi’ by Lord Curzon, railway line from Shornur was extended to Kochi (1902). This laid the foundations for the modern Port of Kochi, which was declared as a major port in 1936.
Known as Malayalam Era (ME), post-independent Kochi became the first princely state to join the Indian Union and continued to strengthen its trade and commercial activities. In 1950, Kerala was formed as a separate state, by merging the Travancore-Cochin sate, the Malabar district, and the taluks of Kazargod. ‘Fort Cochin’ became a sleepy post-colonial hamlet. The lonely streets and almost empty bylines named after the English (Rosy street, Burgher street etc.,) decorated this laid back town. Most of the houses were also vacant. Loud western music and smell of cakes from the remaining few occupied houses professed the legacy of the colonial past. Fort Cochin was not a tourist destination during those times, for both the nationals and foreign backpackers, as there were not many hotels, restaurants, lounge bars or art galleries. The Portuguese tradition of yearly celebrations also stopped in the 70s and only the unorganized fancy dress competition and New Year’s Eve celebrations were held at the beach.
It was during this time, commemorating the UN proclamation of International Youth Year (1985), three youngsters from Kochi, George Augustine Thundiparambil (Roy), Ananda Felix Scaria (Ananda Surya) and Antony Anup Scaria initiated a month long grand public event, to bring back the vibrancy and life of Cochin. Soon, Nirmal John Augustine, Radha Gomaty, Abul Kalam Azad joined the team and the effort took wings. As several others started getting involved, KJ Sohan, (Corporation Counselor) also joined the team. Fort Cochin RDO Valsala Kumari extended active support from the government side. Almost 150 youth had gathered from different clubs, and adventure sports, classical music concerts, theater, dance performances, and the Cochin Carnival were organized, purely with the funds raised from the public. However, from the following year, this organic, indigenous art movement centered in Kochi was packaged and revived as a continuity of the Portuguese New Year revelry held during the colonial days. The unspoken history of the grand event ‘The Beach festival 1985’ is an example of how an original idea of people or individuals could easily be manipulated and re-branded by dominant clichés and individuals. However, the same group, this time led by Ananda Surya was actively involved in the conducting of the annual Tree Festival, which was successfully organized for almost a decade.
It was a slightly different scenario in the multi-cultural Mattancherry – here, the long tradition of South Indian celebrative music and theatre performances somehow sustained the changing colonial and post colonial political scenario. It was packed with people and activities. In 1988, Studio Zen, a collective initiated by Abul Kalam Azad, was set-up in Culvethy, near the Mattancherry-Fort Cochin border. Active members from the Beach Festival/Tree Festival, such as Nirmal John Augustine, Anand Scaria, Ebby, Chicku, Anoop Scaria had joined hands in this initiative. The works of Chicku, Venu, Kaladharan were displayed in this vintage warehouse that was converted to a photo-art studio.
In 1996, Shihab started Dravidia, Kochi’s first commercial gallery continuing the new trend of converting old warehouse/abandoned buildings. Following suit, Kashi Art Café was founded in 1997 in Fort cochin. In 2000, Abul Kalam Azad returned to Mattancherry after a brief stint in Delhi, and setup the Mayalokam studio in Mattancherry. In the year 2001, Abul joined hands with Ananda Surya, Gayathri Gamuz and Emma Burke-Gnaffey, and Mayalokam Studio started functioning as a collective. The nascent art scene in Kochi began taking place and many other artists from the locality started getting involved. In the year 2001, Encounter, Kochi’s first contemporary art festival was organized by ICaC (India Contemporary art Council), an unregistered body led by Mayalokam Art collective and Kashi Art Café. Many local/National artists, academicians, local people and organizations including Prof. Rajan Gurukkal, Dr. A.K. Ramakrishnan, KP.Sasi and S. Saratchandran, Gayatri Gamuz, Jose Manuel Val, Suresh Jayaram, Vivek Vilasini, Alexander Devasia, Bawa Chelladurai, CV Ramesh joined together to organize this event. Contemporary art exhibitions, film festivals, seminar on cultural ideology, ‘meet the artist’ events, and music concerts were organized in various venues as part of this fortnight long art festival. Kochi became a hub for artists and grabbed the attention of the national art scene. Buyers started visiting and many artists started to settle down here. It was during this time that a bridge between Mumbai art world and Kochi art world started forming.
In the mean time, Dravidia was also actively involved and continued to influence the local art scene, as part of the collective as well as individually with its unique approach. After ‘Remembering Bhupen’ a group show featuring artists including Abul Kalam Azad, Bose Krishnamachari, Mohandas NN, Nijeena Neelambaram, Prabhakaran K, Pradeepkumar KP, Premjee TP, Radha R, Rajan MK, Rimzon NN, Valson Koorma Kolleri, Zakkir Hussain and many others, Kashi Art Café was shifted to Mattancherry (2004). Bose Krishnamachari started associating with Kashi in an active way and started curating shows. By 2005, the local scenario started changing. Coupled with the dullness in the art market and other survival challenges, the regional movements that had amassed local support suffered – and the government or other cultural bodies didn’t really extend a supportive hand. Mayalokam Art Collective was officially dissolved in 2005 and Abul continued his art practice of documenting the local micro history, operating from the same building at the busy Mattancherry bazaar roads. Even though individual artists studio practice continued for another few years, the collective art movements lost its momentum. Owing to a variety of reasons Mayalokam Studio closed its doors in the year 2010. The free music festival that was organized here for almost ten years was done for. It was around the same time the ground work for Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) was being laid – with the support of the Kerala government. In 2012, the first KMB opened its doors, around the same time Dravidia that had by then moved to its own place, and after conducting about 100 shows, a large number of music/theatre performances and artist gatherings, also closed down. Just before the first edition of KMB, Kashi Art Café was sold and bought by hotelier Edgar Pinto.
Six years later, Kochi is again creating a buzz in the art world, with the return of Dravidia and the launch of Uru. They bring along with them a new hope for the artists, as hidden within its wings are the possible news of a renewal of the long awaited art market. This is a visibly tough time for artists, especially for the full timers – the amateurs, part timers and the likes somehow survive the crisis with the perks received from other sources. Many galleries have closed their doors for the time being or forever – only time will tell what their future holds; and, the few surviving/successful galleries are reluctant to extend a supporting hand to the artists during their difficult times. It is a known fact that many galleries came springing in Kochi after the success of KMB – and disappeared with the same velocity, causing further damages to the artists or their works. But Dravidia, with its decade long history of involvement in the local scenario and URU which brings with it the success of the KMB, are worth a second look.
While the premiere show of Dravidia, “Kalayanam” was a gathering of sorts – of most of the artists who had previously exhibited there, many of the works in URU’s ‘Mattancherry’ were photo-based. In a time when Photography is in the process of rendering itself free from the domain of commissioned illustrative works and is reaching its true potential as a new medium of self expression – this attempt to commission photographers with the sole purpose of curating a show is like killing the soul of this medium. Both Dravidia and URU try to position themselves as a cultural “public” initiative – a platform for artists, and they proclaim that profit is secondary. If both these huge establishments intend to position themselves as altruistic and service oriented, then how will they manage the resources for their huge premises remains an unanswered question as of now. When KMB, a gigantic public art activity supported by government is already functioning in a successful manner, drawing several hundreds and thousands of art enthusiasts/collectors and showcasing local, national and international artists, the need for a public centered “private” initiatives such as this causes some eyebrows to be raised. Will URU, like KMB, sweep the entire “high-art” market scenario? The chances are high, with the same artists exhibiting in KMB and then at URU or Vice Versa in the future – forming a closed knit of certain artists – that handicaps the other local initiatives and artists. Will Dravidia and other such galleries/initiatives survive this time?