India readies itself for its first ever biennale

As an emerging economy, India is transitioning fast; modernising in ways that were inconceivable when it gained independence in 1947, so unsure was it of its identity without the British. Though vestiges of those tumultuous times remain, India has, like China, found its place in a global world.
Little is known of its arts scene. While it has always had a rich, vivid and colourful history of cinema, which has had a wide reach courtesy of its former inhabitants settling abroad, fine art hasn’t quite had the same reach.
It’s understandable. Art has historically remained on the fringes of popular culture, for all sorts of reasons like religious subordination and the fact that it often warrants some form of intellectual engagement. As such, Indian art, particularly niche in the wider art world – which is to say western hegemony – has always had a limited audience.
Until now that is. Everyone can feel subtle changes taking place in the old order of things, the once static cogs of art orthodoxy slowly beginning to creak into being. Slight shifts of thought, nothing too dramatic, eyes cast on the horizon, watching as Asia rises triumphantly with the morning sun.
It’s not breathing new life into art, the creative and philosophical trade – and market – doesn’t need it, it never will. The changes, as reflected in India’s upcoming inaugural biennale later this year, illuminate the emergence of something different.
In December, the world’s largest democracy will host the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a three-month festival celebrating and showcasing the very best in Indian contemporary art.
It comes on the back of significant activity from the subcontinent’s art cognoscenti in recent years, the highlights of which have been the growing presence of the India Art Fair (2012’s expo attracted 85,000 visitors) and the country’s inaugural participation in last year’s Venice Biennale. Those who need to know about India have been given a taste of what the country can offer artistically.
According to Geeta Kapur, an art critic and curator, the biennale is intrinsically essential to the way the country sees itself because it has “failed to construct a museum structure of any significance”. It can be taken to be viewed as a “commodity”, both in terms of its affectation on people spiritually and intellectually, and as a tangible investment that can be bought.
“What we are lacking is a strongly conceptualised biennale which has the advantage of creating long-term infrastructures for the space which it occupies, in this case Cochin; and which also allows, through that infrastructure, longer educational and developmental programmes for that region,” she expanded.
“This can only happen if the organisation is committed to curating, elaborating and extrapolating on what the contemporary is, what the possibility of a contemporary intervention from a particular region and place can be. We hope the Kochi-Muziris Biennale will attempt to develop such a concept, at once regional and cosmopolitan, and inaugurate a related programme.”
What Ms Kapur’s comments reveal is a re-energised commitment to boosting the perception, understanding and importance of art. This alone makes it seismic. Co-curated by Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Kom, Kochi-Muziris will help achieve this through fostering a national discourse on contemporary art, which will be further extended across the globe as interest spreads.
Speaking to Frieze recently, Mr Krishnamachari said that the country was on the precipice of a cultural revolution, which must be seized upon enthusiastically.
As new forms of expression flourish from periphery, India must invest in an ecosystem that nurtures the development of a national contemporary art platform,” he said.
“The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is central to that development. The purpose of the biennale is to serve as a catalyst for contemporary artistic expression in India; elevating contemporary art to a position of undisputed social and economic value and establishing a point of access for artistic engagement in this country.”
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which is being supported by the state of Kerala and the national government, marks a new dawn in India’s history. It will be a success, both domestically and internationally, though, at first, many people will be unsure what to make of it or understand completely the impact it will have.
That will emerge with each passing biennale, ameliorated through the wisdom of learning, buoyed by the growing influence and power of India. And with it, the forgotten words of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century French writer Romain Rolland will be known to the world:
“If there is one place on the face of the earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India… it renews itself tirelessly, showing no signs of decay.”