KOCHI: One evening at Fort Kochi, recently, Sudarshan Shetty, one of India’s premier artists in installation art, was spending time with painters Bose Krishnamachari and Jyoti Basu. As they were talking about how Kochi could become a match for the world-famous Venice Biennale, a large, international ship sailed past.
“It was such a picturesque scene,” says Shetty. “It seemed like a preamble to a Biennale. There was this movement of people from abroad. Definitely, the Biennale will establish Kochi on the world stage.”
Shetty had come to Kochi to check out the various locations for the Biennale. So, he did go to the Muziris site in Kondungaloor, and all over Kochi. “The trip was fantastic, in terms of understanding the cosmopolitan nature of the city,” he says. “There is such a lot of history, what with all the cultures coming in - Christianity in the first century AD, the Arabian traders from the Middle East, followed by the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British.”
When he went to Jew Town, he felt he was being transported back to another world. “I had the same feeling when I went to Malayatoor, the place where St. Thomas arrived on his visit to Kerala in AD 52, and to the first Muslim mosque in India: the Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kodungaloor.”
Kochi is the most appropriate place for the Biennale. “If you look at the history, it was a place where liberalism was celebrated,” says Shetty. “Everybody was welcomed with open arms. The rulers allowed outsiders to do trade and there were cultural exchanges.”
Asked whether a major city like Mumbai or Delhi would have been appropriate, Shetty says, “In big cities, old buildings have been demolished, in the name of development. As a result, a lot of the history has been erased. But in Kochi, history is an ongoing reality.”
Shetty has been mulling over the type of installation art that he could make, which would be ideal for the setting. “I have been doing a lot of research,” he says. And in the course of it, Shetty has discovered something new.
“In Mangalore, I have been looking at old houses,” says the Mumbai-based Shetty, who belongs to the land-owning Bunt community in Karnataka. “Apparently, a lot of them were designed by Kerala craftsmen. That was very interesting for me. I will be taking ideas from our traditional architecture, and applying it to my own art. I am also going to look at local materials in Kochi.”
During his visit Shetty had a look at the refurbished Durbar Hall art gallery. “It is of an international class,” says Shetty, who has exhibited in London, New York, Milan, Oslo, Davos, Denmark, Japan and the Netherlands. “It has been remade beautifully, and the essential character of the building has been retained. I will give my right hand to exhibit there one day.”
The artist is aware of the controversies regarding the setting up of the Biennale, but says that he knows the people behind the project, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyaz Komu, for more than twenty years. “They are able people and have achieved a lot in their own fields,” says Shetty. “They have a lot of international exposure and the expertise to set up a biennale. Both of them belong to Kerala and that is an added advantage.”
What is also an advantage is the impact it will have on the people. “These initiatives will change the sensibility of the people,” says Shetty. “Kochi will become an art centre. In Baroda, just because an art school exists, there is a completely different way of viewing art among the ordinary people. In many middle-class homes I have seen paintings by well-known artists. A similar change will take place in Kochi once the international art exhibition comes up.”
In the Kochi Biennale, artists of international class will be showcasing their art every two years. “This will improve the standard of the local artists when they are exposed to international art,” says Shetty. “The fact that I could see a lot of world class art when I was young made a big difference to my artistic sensibility. I could understand how things were made and the processes behind it. The same will happen to the artists in Kochi.”