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How Lokame Tharavadu in Alappuzha takes art beyond the urban elite

www.news9live.com | October 30, 2021
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What do we mean when we think of 'redefining' the arts? Does it only entail developing new pedagogical methodologies and practising new modes of art creation?

With the column Art & Us, News9 aims at demystifying the arts for the people in order to make them more inclusive and democratic. From attempts to create new art spaces, community-based and individual efforts/initiatives across the arts, to marginal artforms and marginalisation in the arts – the column strives to throw light on the arts in a more democratic sense and in turn, to discover and document the extraordinary within the ordinary.

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Seaside cities are unique – both culturally and geographically. Their quaint demeanour often misinterpreted as lack of ambition. The social and cultural lives of its residents pivot around the sea – an unending live spectacle that attracts onlookers in big numbers every day. It seems like the most natural thing to do if you live in close proximity to the ocean.

The same happens in Alappuzha (or Alleppey), known for its pristine backwaters, network of canals, its coir industries and historical trade connections with Europe and the Arab world. Before dusk sets in, several families, friends, young lovers, tourists, diverse cohorts of people descend on the beach to watch the waves engaged in a ritualistic dance of sorts. These groups exchange very little conversation while gazing at the waters. An octogenarian, after a long struggle with his mobile phone camera, politely sought the intervention of my friend for a family portrait. He immediately obliged.

Several also flock to the beach to see the ruins of an old abandoned sea bridge which imitates a sculptural installation of sorts. It was perhaps my first (accidental) encounter with art in Alappuzha where I had arrived to experience Lokame Tharavadu (The World is One Family – August 13 to November 30, 2021), one of the biggest exhibitions of contemporary art in India featuring artworks by 267 Malayali artists conceptualised by Kochi Biennale Foundation with the support of the Government of Kerala and curated by renowned artist, Bose Krishnamachari.

The ruins forming a line amongst the dancing waves is an instance of unintentional public art in a country that has successfully diminished such an art practice to ghastly statues of political leaders or general figures of public reverence.

In the last few months since the beginning of Lokame Tharavadu, people in this small seaside city have another spectacle to partake in (besides the sea) – an art exhibition spanning seven venues. The art however is not being shown in galleries or pre-determined art spaces as we usually understand them to be. Several warehouses, public buildings, factory spare house spaces are being used to showcase art. These venues have had to face minor adjustments to make them exhibition ready and bring this unique experience to Alappuzha and its people many of whom have not seen art on this scale before or perhaps any artwork transcending traditional nomenclatures of painting, sculpture and photography.

(Left) Art installation by Unnikrishnan C; (right) People inside the gallery space.

Where would they see this art in an otherwise small city that lacks art infrastructure one usually associates with bigger cities? Several of the participating artists are also from Alappuzha. The city thus discovers artists from their own location alongside contemporaries from the state and elsewhere. It is a joyous exposition to art through an endeavour intended to broaden the horizons of human imagination. I saw curious onlookers peeping through windows and entry gates at the exhibition sites wondering if the contents inside are for them? Every time such a curious onlooker enters the venue, a wall is successfully diminished. Art enriches from such an encounter. It is a step towards inclusivity.

There are several questions that endeavours like Lokame Tharavadu make us confront and rightly so. Who is art for? Who should have access to art? Where should it be shown? Since its inception, the Kochi Muziris Biennale has played a seminal role in raising these questions while turning godowns, storehouses, shops, dump yards and various non-normative art spaces into exhibition venues. These also help to ensure that art dialogues aren't restricted to a chosen few with access to normative art spaces like galleries and museums.

Normative art spaces often develop their own hierarchy endorsing an art vocabulary accessible to a select minority. Such is the bane of art writing which creates further ghettos when readers and onlookers find art texts couched in incomprehensible mumbo jumbo. What does someone without an education in the visual arts do in such a case? Not see art? Kochi Biennale Foundation took art to new spaces, non-hegemonic in character and more welcoming in several ways. They told us that every space is worthy of art. Every space has artistic potential. It's about how we see a space and what we do with it. Seeing is transformative after all.

Every time that I have visited the Kochi Biennale, I have been moved by the droves of people, from Ernakulum and other parts of the state who arrive in large numbers to see the art being shown. Every visitor brings their own perspective, a new way of seeing. It contributes to the larger discourse about how to see and respond to art but it can only happen when they have the exposure or the opportunity to witness art, and especially in a familiar context. We should embrace the plethora of opinions, views, disagreements which is integral to the purpose of art. I am constantly reminded of the numerous visitors looking perplexed at the paintings or installations on display trying to decipher the artworks. This helps to create a new audience for the arts or an awareness so to speak. In many ways, this is what contemporary art has to do – to make itself relevant to the lives of the people and energise their curiosity.

Painting installation by PS Jalaja

Thinking of the location of art is also significant here. Should one have to travel to Delhi or Mumbai to see art? It is in these cities that some of the biggest art institutions of the country are located. Art-trade also centres around these cosmopolitan centres. Needless to say that these institutions would also thrive around places where art buyers are located. While the commerce of art cannot be ignored, we also ought to think about its reach.

If art is primarily a city-centric enterprise, how do the vast majority who do not live in urban spaces access art? What if art could reach their locations instead?

Why can't we create new centres? At least music, theatre and film festivals are more broad-based in comparison.

Events like Lokame Tharavadu could potentially lead to large scale changes in the art ecosystem. This could inspire smaller art exhibitions held across rural locations in the country creating new audiences and also mentoring artists who may not have had any opportunity to showcase their art. Having said that, this can only happen with continued support from various government agencies. This can be further deciphered as a model involving effective government action with private support and active civic participation.

Artwork panels by Devi Seetharam (top) and Santhi EN (bottom)

 

Faces of people of Alleppey by Sunil Linus De

One of the highlights of the exhibition in Alappuzha is the number of local artists whose work is being shown. Besides, several other participating artists have painted local landscapes or people from the city. Others have captured slices of daily life as lived in locations across the state – both rural and urban. Art thereby offers an alternative living history of a culture and its people. When a first-time visitor walks into an exhibition like this, they also realise that art is not too far removed from their life and people like them could exist in art. This is further accentuated in a location like Alappuzha with its long history of various labour struggle movements. People are the core of this artistic endeavour. Where would art be without people?

At this juncture, I must share the story of Santhi E N whose work was discovered by the curator, Bose Krishnamachari. Santhi has been pursuing her painting practice quietly in her remote village in Thrissur. Her depictions of rural life instantly caught the attention of the curator and now her work stands alongside other eminent artists in the exhibition. She barely has a few shows to her credit. There are many such discoveries that initiatives like Lokame Tharavadu have augmented. Democracy and inclusion are big words. I do not wish to use them loosely but isn't that what all arts should aspire to achieve? This is a step in that direction and may there be many more.

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All photographs courtesy of the author.

-Prof. Kunal Ray, Assistant Professor – English Literature

(Source: https://www.news9live.com/art-culture/lokame-tharavadu-alappuzha-art-beyond-galleries-urban-elite-kochi-biennale-129905)