INTIMATIONS, OF A REVOLUTION
By: K.G. SREENIVAS Dated: March 22, 2015
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is central to the modernising project of Kerala, its society, culture, and civilisation, says noted Malayalam writer, critic, and thinker PAUL ZACHARIAH. “For the last 25-30 years society and politics have been driven back into antiquarian, obscurantist, fundamentalist roots... in a situation like this, here is something that is opening up a new world — it holds a lot of promise for Kerala,” says Zachariah.
Paul Zacharia, the eminent Malayalam fiction writer and essayist, is an iconoclast. His writing has broken new ground in style and theme and is characterised by radical narrative techniques. Sparse, unsentimental, and uncompromising, his writing has consistently taken on reactionary and retrogressive forces with gumption. One of the most important living Indian writers today, Zacharia's works have been translated into English and other languages. The Library of Congress has 13 of his works in their collection. Zachariah was on a tour of the Biennale a second time in the last two months.
What have you been thinking...
I have been to the first biennale too and this second edition impresses me even more. In fact, I have supported the idea of the biennale from inception. The first Kochi-Muziris Biennale became a turning point as far as Kerala society, its culture, civilisation, and modernity was concerned. The second edition is, to my mind, a milestone as far as the larger Indian context is concerned because there is nothing comparable to such an expo in the Indian art situation today. With Kochi being situated where it is — at the far end of the Indian subcontinent — messages from works of art are crossing the frontiers, crossing into the future, and exploring all kinds of possibilities, and,increasingly, mediated by technology.Beyond the brush and the paint, this biennale (and the last one too) has taken the entire idea of art forward, gathering material from all over the world. I am really proud of all that the two young men — Bose and Riyas and indeed their team — have achieved against all odds. They faced tremendous opposition from the traditionalists, religious fundamentalists, obscurantists, and the anti-modern crowd.Why even the lumpen political parties and the media had opposed it!Today, the Biennale is very important for Kerala and even more important for India.
So this change in aesthetics is revolutionary, something that people of Kerala haven’t experienced yet. Two years from now, it will lead to a sensibility change both in artists and ordinary people...
What, to your mind, are the aesthetics of that transformative change?
This aesthetics is something that we cannot define, but it is an aesthetics that is going to cut across all intellectual, casteist, and religious rubbish. Even in the realm of art, particularly in Kerala, revivalism has been reigning supreme —you recreate something from the past and it becomes glorious! In fact, some artist groups in Kerala have been fighting the Biennale tooth and nail because they thought this was going against the mode of revivalism they were creating. Modernity keeps evolving, so the modernity of 2000 is not the modernity of 2014.Here is modernity gathered from all over the world and aesthetics from people we have never heard of before — from Vietnam to Africa to Latin America. This aesthetics, in that sense, cannot be defined in Indian or Keralan terms — but it is distinctly perceivable. I see lots of housewives, families, children, and people from very conservative Muslim families wearing burka — they are all here to witness the biennale. And I don’t think they will go home and forget about it. So this change in aesthetics is revolutionary, something that people of Kerala haven’t experienced yet. Two years from now, it will lead to a sensibility change both in artists and ordinary people...
So there has been a lot of technological intervention in art... Is technology pushing the frontiers of art?
I think technology is helping people achieve results they wouldn’t have been able to in the traditional mode... You are breaking the barriers of viewing and listening. Some of the things I saw here today have broken those barriers only through technology. Some of these standalone pieces, through technology, create extraordinary illusions that take us beyond normal means of perception into another world. (That will remain with me as a writer.) It, basically, in a very substantive fashion alters the capability of my brain to arrive at a new kind of recognition. So what technology does is to take you further into a (new) realm of understanding and cognitive ability. Once the brain gets into that mode, I don’t think the brain will easily forget that. So I am altered... I am altered forever... I am sure all people who have seen it all have changed. It is amazing.
To turn around the question: What is Kochi doing to the Biennale?
Kochi is an amazing place... I have lived all my life in Kerala, yet I haven’t explored Kochi much... So this time I relaxed and walked around. Kochi has an ambience of history, faith, and cultures from all over the world. It has had a colonial history. It has a history of the deprived classes, the fisherfolk, and others who have suffered and have been mired in poverty... It has a mixed history of all kinds of people in an island... It is an island formation and that makes it all the more poignant. The Kochi people have a lot of blood mixture and were treated as coming of a mixed breed/stock. Mainlanders used to look down upon the islanders. Kochi has been a centre of the spice trade, dating back to some 2000 years. All that lingers here...This morning as I walked around I saw amazingly beautiful homes, compounds... It is filled with history. I haven’t seen any other large locale such as Kochi involving large populations where history fills the place. So in that sense, the biennale is in the right place. This may not be a glamorous place, but it is a place full of feeling.
From a cultural politics perspective, do you think the Biennale is significant to the modernising project of Kerala in particular and India at large?
I think so. I haven’t seen any other project such as this. You have art exhibitions in Bombay and elsewhere which are quite important.You have literature festivals too — in fact, every little town has a literary festival now. I am aware of what these festivals have done for literature in India — it has helped make literature a talking point, it has helped sell more books, it has taken writers, who would otherwise be not very accessible, to the average reader and has taken them closer and put them in front of the readers. These festivals have done a marvellous job.Of course, I might criticise their artificiality and performative nature. But the roots run deeper here at the biennale. It isn’t like entering a seminar, saying your bit, and leaving for the day... Here the works of art find a home for more than three months and I know of people who have been returning to this place to see them all over again. To that extent it is a rejuvenating project.
Kochi is filled with history. I haven’t seen any other large locale such as Kochi involving large populations where history fills the place. So in that sense, the biennale is in the right place. This may not be a glamorous place, but it is a place full of feeling.
In Kerala, there is a tremendous slump in understanding modernity. You know progressiveness is measured in terms of money, or the employment of money in buildings and tourism projects. For the last 25-30 years society and politics have been driven back by a lot of forces into antiquarian, obscurantist, fundamentalist roots, with almost every form of superstition and idiotic forms of worship taking centrestage. And politics has degenerated to such an extent that you cannot recognise it as politics anymore...
In a situation like this, the Biennale becomes significant because this could be the starting point — I am not saying that an art movement can transform a whole society but the very fact that it has found a place here even after the attacks made on it by all those people I mentioned brings hope to Kerala society. It is in a dire situation in terms of political degeneration and obscurantist preoccupations. Caste and religion have become central to any discourse in Kerala whether it is Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam. And political parties, including the revolutionaries and the Communists, have become rotten organisations ruling over people unashamedly.But that’s another story. Yet what I am saying is that in a situation like this, here is something that is opening up a new world — it holds a lot of promise for Kerala.