People say it’s the best biennale in the world: Kochi Biennale Foundation president

As the founding president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, he spearheaded a revolution in the country’s art scene.

Published: 21st April 2023 08:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st April 2023 07:43 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

KOCHI: Bose Krishnmachari is among the most influential Indian artists of this era. As the founding president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, he spearheaded a revolution in the country’s art scene. Having just wrapped up the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Bose joins TNIE for a freewheeling session of Celebrity Dialogues.  Edited excerpts from the interaction

It was not a smooth start for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022-2023, which was being held after a two-year gap. What actually happened?
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022-2023 was conceived in 2019. Work began right away, and research for artworks began in 32 countries. By March 2020, all the research work was completed. However, it was then that the Covid-19 situation peaked. So, in September 2020, the foundation decided to cancel the Biennale.
As for the things that led to the more recent issues, I would say the communication gap between the curatorial team and the foundation caused a lot of harm. I talked about it with Shubigi [Rao]. Another problem was the delay in getting to the main venue.  

Can you cite the budget that was arrived at for the conduct of the Biennale?
Initial estimate was a little over Rs 30 crore. But since that was an unrealisable amount, we discussed it with the curator and told her to think differently. The budget was brought down to Rs 23.34 crore. The curator decided to bring 40 per cent digital work. We were helped by sponsors like Tata Trust, TNQ, BMW, LuLu Finserv, Faizal & Shabana Foundation, Air India / Air India Express.

Who selects the curator? 
A seven-member committee, with two from KBF.

What caused a delay in opening the main venue, Aspinwall House?
Normally, the work on site starts in July. Artists visit the space, then hold discussions with the curator to make changes or alterations. But this time, not much travel happened, artists visited only a few weeks before the opening. Also, Aspinwall House had been out of bounds. Shubigi had ideated everything based on Aspinwall House. 

Whom do you blame for the sale deal of Aspinwall House going bad?
The bureaucrats. Bureaucratic apathy derailed the entire process and worked towards antagonising the DLF board. Long-stretched process of bureaucracy was upsetting. It was a property that could have been bought for Rs 65 crore, which is the going price in the area, but the company hiked the price to Rs 85 crore and placed a condition that deal needs to happen by March. All the problems began from there.

How has been the overall support?
More than people in Kerala, people from outside the state, like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru… have helped out. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale gets the attention of the world, too. So the patrons are consistently supporting us. New people here are also offering help.

In 2005, around 300 people, art lovers, in Delhi, along with artists like Vivan Sundaram, Ranbir Kaleka, and writer and historian Geeta Kapoor had tried to start a biennale. The then-state government didn't support it and the project didn't take off. This is the only successful art biennale in the country. So that confidence is there.

After this Biennale, has the debt burden increased?
I would say that we are in debt of nearly Rs 9 crore. Of this, Rs 4.5 crore is a bank guarantee, and this can be written to a third-party patron willing to support us.

The government had committed Rs 7 crore for the Biennale, of which we have received Rs 4.2 crore – Rs 3 crore in November, and Rs 1.2 crore on a later date. The remaining Rs 2.8 crore is yet to come.

I would like to say the bureaucracy is terrible. It still has that British colonial hangover. I guess if some ignorant person says 'enthina Biennale? (why do a Biennale?)’, that's it!

Do you think the government should have bought Aspinwall House for Rs 65 crore?
Yes. But the government couldn't do it in that year, as it wasn't part of the budget. Kerala is not like any other state (chuckles). Anyway, the government had decided that it could buy it for Rs 65 crore, it's on the minutes.

Once you had mentioned the Bilbao effect of Spain is visible in Kochi. Has it helped Kerala in any way?
Now, the people of Kochi cannot imagine a time without the Biennale. That place is empty otherwise.

The Bilbao effect is because of the museum (Guggenheim Museum). We can all plan something like that. If the government buys the property, definitely we can do a biennale, like the one in Venice. We can convert Aspinwall House into a cultural centre. There can be art residencies... many possibilities.

Has the art scene taken off in Kerala?
Well, Biennale has brought so much wealth into the state. The hotels would all be full during the time of the Biennale. How many private jets land here? It all contributes to the state's economy.

Can you give a brief timeline of your journey?
I left here on a Jayanti Janata train, and I remember it even now. Then I started living in a chawl [in Mumbai], with 10 others in a room. And then got the highest score in the college. As far as I know, it is still the highest score at Mumbai University till now.

Whoever gets a gold medal can teach at the university. So I taught there, at the J. J. School of Arts for a year. And then during an exhibition of an artist, I critiqued the institution's structural and institutional failures, which got published in the press. It was an interview during an event Artists Against Communalism organised by Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust. So I was rusticated from college. 

But, thankfully, I had a lot of friends, be it in the film world, consultants or fellow artists. There have been a lot of people who have taken care of me.

Then I went to London for higher education. In 1996, I received an award that allowed me to travel extensively through the US. That changed my life. During my journey, I was able to meet stalwarts of the art world, visit their studios, and spend time with them.

That quintessential Malayali inquisitiveness certainly helped. It helped me travel all over the world. 

What were your plans before the Biennale?
Well, I wanted to start a museum. I have a good personal collection of art. I bought a plot in Aluva to build the museum. Now it's just lying empty. I heard that the wall around the land was destroyed in the flood. Until now I haven't repaired it. No time.

Then the Biennale started, and the murmurs, too. People started saying why these two people came from outside and started this. We started hearing comments like 'puttadichu theerthu (splurged away)'.

How did you feel about so many allegations?
I was initially shocked. Those days, I used to shiver when someone said 'kallan' (thief). 

There is much negative news, and that pains me. To organise things, of course, you need money. Even CAG audits our finances.

You feel let down?
Many people have told me you can't do a Biennale in Kerala. If a cultural project fails in Kerala, then nothing will come to the state. That is why we have taken up that challenge.

There is only one regret: I don't get enough time to spend with my family. I am a terrible father and husband. 

Constructive criticism is welcome. But when friends do it hurts. The one that came when the Biennale was about to start last year, was a huge blow. The letter [a critical one by a group of artists] was written to the CM in August, and the news came in December.  

You had promised a revamp of the board…
Yes. We will clear all the obligations. That is going on. The revamp is happening.

Arun Kumar, who was Barack Obama's financial advisor, has joined us as an advisor. Kiran Nadar has joined the board as an advisor. Mariam Ram, too, supports us.

What next for the Kochi Biennale?
We have ideas. Let's first stand straight and clean out. 

Your estimates say 10 lakh people visited the Biennale…
Maybe more than that. This number is mostly calculated from the number of tickets sold. Bureaucrats, political figures, many local people, and some schools got free entry. Also, the ticket is only for the main venue Asoinwall House. The other 15 venues, including performances, had a lot of footfall. 

How was the ticket revenue?
Maybe around Rs 2 crore-plus. Around Rs Rs 35 lakh will go as tax….

Your views on Riyaz Komu…
I don’t want to talk about that. Some things are in the past.

Will he come back to KBF?
That is his wish. When the internal complaints committee cleared him, we gave him a letter telling him he can come back. 

He launched a parallel show during the Biennale…
I don’t know.

Which has been your favourite edition so far?
Every edition is important. I believe that by working with artists and the community, that solidarity happened during the first edition. Around 70 per cent of artworks were produced on-site. I won't say favourite… there was a different energy. But this edition, there was a distance between the curatorial team and myself.

Your take on NFT?
I don’t know. I am not a big fan of it, nor am I an expert.

Who will be the next curator?
That won’t come out now. We have to finish all the obligations first. Restructure comes then.

Will you look for other venues?
Biennale can be held anywhere. But that space (Aspinwall House) has a magical thing. It is the best location in Kochi. But you can do simultaneous shows in Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode… like satellite exhibitions. 

Do you think the bureaucrats are disconnected from the art world?
The most disappointing incident is that I walked a lot on the premises of the secretariat to get funds sanctioned. Long stretched process in bureaucracy was upsetting.

Are people yet to catch up with the world when it comes to art?
Never misunderstand that the common man does not understand art. They really enjoy it, that's why Kochi is Kochi. I see professionals in Venice, Liverpool, etc. What I see here is people from different walks of life gather in our gallery, and this is rare to find in other parts of the world. I remember the Hayward Gallery's chief saying that this place can't be replicated anywhere else in this world. 

How would you rank Kochi Biennale in the global scenario?
People say it is the top one. I would like to believe that it is number one. A person from Museum Of Modern Art said it is the best Biennale. There are 300-plus biennales around the world. The expense of the Kochi Biennale, when compared with the others, is less. In 10 years time, we have reached a certain position. Biennale is also one of the reasons why Nat Geo and other popular publications ranked Kochi in their top 10 lists. 

Think of Biennale, and your face pops up. Biennale is now synonymous with Bose Krishnamachari. Do you feel the pressure?
Well, I see Biennale as the face of Kerala. For me, it's the people's show. There were attempts to introduce the initiative in other states, but, unfortunately, the projects couldn't be pulled off or made sustainable. Kochi Biennale goes for about four months. It's because our motive is education through art. Aesthetics is one thing that cannot be taught, but it sure can be imbibed and we are just providing a space for the same cause. 

TNIE team:Rajesh Abraham, Manoj Viswanathan, Rajesh Ravi, Anu Kuruvila, Anilkumar T, Krishna P S, Mahima Anna Jacob, Asif Baiju (video), Nishad T Ummer (photos)

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