Barriers that embrace: from Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016-17

Musings from my first Kochi Biennale wanderings.

Something as simple as the slow splash of waves against your ferry can meander off into an absent-minded gleeful smile when you are taking in the experience as an outsider, unlike the routine commuters – more familiar, more purposeful. But its when you step out at Fort Kochi that you’ll be surprised how easily you slip into feeling at home.

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Kochi beckons not only artists, writers, connoiseurs, students, tourists and thousands of visitors with open arms during the biennale season, but also fresh ideas that adorn her alongside the wall art from previous years that are lovingly treasures. She flanks you with colourful surprises throughout her humble streets and before you know it she has left you busy absorbing lines, forms and colours, an act of immersing you into art long before you arrive at a venue housing an exhibit. So, the more you trudge past the tree-sheltered boulevards abuzz with charming little cafes, shops, carts, hawkers, pazham pori, birds, goats and cattle; the more she lets you encounter new visuals and , perhaps, have you mentally reorder your list of favourite works all over again, tugging you to experience beyond the prevailing humidity. For the art here feels so raw, and real, unlike my fake silk scarf tied to my bag.

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You will then spot the ubiquitous RGB shades, typeforms made of strokes, and (as our auto driver described it) the windmill-ish icon: the official visual identity of the event, where spaces in Kochi welcome you to the venues you originally intended to begin your art encounters at. You will also find mildly faded hues on some wall sections with peeling paint patches from the previous few events – and between these avatars of fresh and faded visual identity lie visual and textual content to be dissected. (Anyone else who’s a fan of the old-school handpainted type? Surely lots more to love about Kochi with this edition!) What is incredible is this entire mix of elements from the event’s identity coupled with visuals and text forming a strikingly distinct and cohesive visual identity in itself, and seems to function like a lot like a compass at a certain level by letting you navigate into the heart of the place based on how densely populated the bylanes are with them.

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But there is more to the visuals that the walls of Kochi envelopes you with, both at exhibit venues and the surrounding hotels, restaurants and other spaces, beautifully overlapping with the hustling bustling daily life. Which is how she invites to you experiment with how you can document wall art, standing as testimony to the indefinite temporary presence of parked vehicles to people to cattle and birds. So, with the range of photographs that attempt to document the same can often accomplish more than just that – you can always, perhaps, spot the same piece of wall art, but never the same photograph. Can this also serve as a distinct visual identity throughout Fort Kochi, that outlives both the timeframe and the context of the biennale; merging into the thriving life and vigour her streets are alive with? For she has metamorphosed herself into an experience for you so selflessly, while she transcends containing art. You feel, she becomes.

 

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A date with Jonathan Koshy

No mushy candle-light dinners here, as the weekend swooshed between pages of my freshly autographed copy of the book. Commonwealth Prize nominated author and 6-times Pushcart Prize nominee Murzban Shroff launched ‘Waiting for Jonathan Koshy’ (published by Independent Thinkers, INR 295, 186 pages) at a private gathering with the lively Sumeet Shetty, President of Literati, India’s largest corporate book club hosting it at the British Council Library on October 1, 2016.

 

‘Waiting for Jonathan Koshy’ by the ad-man turned writer is the second book in his trilogy of writings set in Bombay. ‘Breathless in Bombay’- the first in the series, was subjected to court cases on the mistaken context of one of its regional lanuistic terms, and ironically, the book won many prestigious accolades abroad at the same time. Sensing these contradictory facets, Murzban weaves a larger than life personality dwelling in discrepancies in this character-driven piece. Explored through the eyes of his closest friends Anwar, Prashant, Dhruv and Gussy, we experience Jonathan’s audacious, outrageous and yet vulnerable presence.

 

The narrative brims with Bandra’s heavily contradictory essence, sheltering vastly different faiths and economies as an aggregation that is intensely shocking, witty, idiotic, right and wrong, all at once. There is a lively description of Anwar’s residence in Pali Hill, the default adda for scores of explorations and journeys, where friends create memories out of their own free will. Jonathan jokes,”104 Pali Hill is like Hotel California. You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.”

 

Jonathan is in murky waters of his turbulent personal life from a broken family. He manages to help friends, acquaintances, prostitutes, their kids and many who he encounters on the way; everyone except himself. For instance, he convinces the madam of the brothel to allow for a small party for Shabnum, the prostitute who had broken down to him, for a memorable birthday surprise. Trysts with Kavita Desai heading Manshakti, a non-profit organization counseling prostitutes and their children, inspires Jonathan to volunteer for constructive and meaningful work to uplift the boys there. He is conscious of a sense of responsibility dawning on him, devoting his time in teaching them to remain updated with recent happenings from news, sports and history channels on TV, engaging them in debates, imparting basic knowledge on Word, Excel and the internet, and everyone’s favourite – his drama classes.

 

There are entertaining instances that can leave you smiling baffled, like when Jonathan turns into a fictitious Prem Kotiyal, son of a shipping tycoon from London, a non-resident Indian who was a life member at the club, paving the way to getting himself and his friends live it up by the luxury poolside of “The Palms”, a club patronized by the upper crust of Bandra. Or when he feigns being a journalist working on a tip off to report the drug-ridden rave party that the cops had just bust into, covering up for being part of it in the first place. Add to this his exile from home, his distraught family, an inconsolable actress, two henchmen, from a politician and a multitude of interesting characters and situations.

 

On varied perception of people, Jonathan says, ‘This country is an original wonderland. It never fails to amaze me.’ For the creatives that he conceptualized using the visual of a snake in their HIV awareness campaign, the sponsors were impressed with it being a universal concept that instilled fear and encouraged people to take action. However, when the symbol was launched, people came up and prayed to it with folded hands and lowered heads, the context being that locals in India worshipped the snake, and had turned it into a symbol of their devotion. There seems to be a parallel to the people he meets, and the community at large itself, as in his words – ‘India is a woman, a puzzling, enigmatic woman. Try as you might, you can never figure her out. You can love her, yes, or feel frustrated by her, but you can never fully understand her.’

 

Personal demons that constantly catch up with him leave him with sticky decisions that are reflected upon later, like backing off from his otherwise great relationship with Ruchita wondering if he took the right decision leaving her when she had got pregnant. His strong feeling of burdening himself being in a serious commitment lead him to leaving the hapless girl left out quite suddenly. What brings the book together beautifully are the importance of all the minuscule acts of great love and care in our relationships that are otherwise taken for granted, like the stance taken by his mother Karuna Koshy after Priti uses her former husband Thampu Koshy for her professional benefit and then divorces him, leaving him shattered and suicidal. It lets Jonathan reflect on prostitutes he encounters, doing in the role of being mothers so that their kids can leave a better life, and people like Kavita, relentlessly fighting her hatred for a father who abandoned them, in working for the upliftment of the society in all the ways she can.

 

My takeaway from this reading is the witty and spirited attitude Jonathan rebounds adverse situations with, coupled with his dynamic sense of humour. And the journey, the passing, emphasizing redemption for those who persist till the end. Also on the ideation and effort behind the book itself, every land accommodates mindsets of all kinds of people, and that shouldn’t be a setback for any unbiased creative work, I think to myself as I await the third book.

Untended grave matters?

Would you either be an osteologist, a physical anthropologist, or a zooarcheologist (spellings and meanings checked, yes) or the like, if encountering skulls and bones are your everyday? Or you’re probably dead, in which case, it is some small comfort if you stop reading this right here.

But what initially seems an extraordinary obsession with the dark side in ‘Man and the Skull’, a series of narrative illustrations by Clyde D’ Mello and curated by Ravi Cavale, will leave you bewildered with its turbulent tints of emotions ranging from the routine to the repressed. And perhaps, you progress with viewing each of the pieces only to be hurtled back into a kaleidoscope of timelines known within a life cycle, spurred by Clyde’s illustrations in pen and ink and the occasional daub of colours, and writing; very raw and personalized in its fluidity and echoing the experiential journey of exploring the roots of coffin making by his grandfather.

Also, it seems fascinating that skeletal structures can be remnants for hundreds of years, long after the dead are buried, decayed and gone, remnants with no life of their own, and yet present as physical tangible entities, proof of the living. Can it be a representational dialogue between the states of life and death? And perhaps, what lies in between? Do they let you confront and shake off certain fears? And in the entire process, does it immortalize the very idea and question of the cycle of life and death itself?

Waking up to the horror of your own reality, and the realization of the dark truth of itself buried somewhere within is probably what will leave you shocked.

Or will it?

‘All are parallels, and yet there is nothing similar.’