Gigi Scaria’s giant bell installation explores history, myth

Dated: December 15, 2014

Kochi, Dec 15: Viewed from a distance and without referencing local history or folklore, the giant metal bell on the placid seaside would appear like an installation that simply heralds the experimental spirit of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB).

‘Chronicle of the Shores Foretold’ is a performance-based work of sculpture linking histories and myths that artist Gigi Scaria has used to liberally interpret labour, religion, and maritime trade woven into the socio-cultural fabric of his native state.

As a Malayali based in Delhi for two decades, 41-year-old Scaria has made the small dock in a water-front venue of KMB’14, lending a real-time perspective to his artwork that is among the 100 main exhibits at the second edition of the Biennale.

Fixed in the backyard of Pepper House, an 18th-century Dutch-style complex, that had been a point of trade between India and foreign lands, the 2.5-tonne bell hoisted by bamboo poles finds its place today just furlongs opposite an International Container Trans-shipment Terminal that is hardly four years old.

Moulded and welded in Coimbatore of east-central Tamil Nadu, the bell, which is 13 feet tall and has a diameter of 16 feet at the base, has the Arabian Sea water springing out through a string of holes drilled into it. This, Scaria notes, is symbolic of the times that Kochi has passed through and seeks to build a narrative of the changes in its character in the wake of medieval invasions and new-age development.

The bell was installed on the eve of KMB’14, which began on December 12, by Mappila Khalasis from upstate Malabar. “They are one traditional community who have been largely unaffected by change of labour equations in the era we life in,” notes Scaria, who has a Masters in Fine Arts from Jamia Milia University in New Delhi. “I sought their help in installing my work to also highlight the value of labour in the present times defined by easy pleasure.”

Thus, Khalasis from the Beypore coast off the historical northern Kerala coastal city of Kozhikode erected the bell with a crane — making it a performance by septuagenarian dockworker Hameed A. N. A. and his team.

“We are a community of contemporary relevance,” points out Hameej, 77, noting that Khalasis were employed in the rescue operations of Kerala’s 1988 Peruman railway tragedy, where they brought up compartments that had sunk into the Ashtamudi Lake near Kollam after the train plunged off a bridge, killing 105 passengers.

Today, ‘Chronicles of the Shore Foretold’ stands against the backdrop of vibrant movements of the cranes at the container terminal in tiny Vallarpadam Island. The backdrop also looks busy with different kinds of ships and boats —both passenger and fishing — plying up and down the sea.

Scaria, a native of Kothanellore off the central Kerala district of Kottayam, notes that the “bell-sinking myth” associated with churches in the region has also contributed to his installation. “Even today, there is this belief that the bell emerges annually from the deep sea on the festival day, and tolls on its own,” he adds with a smile.

Much like that ring, his biennale installation (whose titled was inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Chronicles of a Death Foretold’) awakens dormant memories of a community — in fact, for people across the world.

CB

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