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India launches first Biennale in Fort Cochin

Liz Cleere reports from the front line of India's contemporary art scene at the country's first ever major art international exhibition in Kochi, Kerala

Shadowy shot of Subodh Gupta's masterpiece (Charlotte Chalker)

Dylan Martorell's installation is in a small, dark room. Hanging from the ceiling are colourful objects, the kinds of everyday bits and pieces you see all over India: copper pots, empty bottles, plastic bags, temple dishes. Thin electric cables and fairy lights are woven between them. A hand written note by the door says: “Take off your shoes, go in and touch the objects. Only four people at a time.”  So I went into the makeshift grotto and patted a hanging bottle; it played a musical note. I tapped a pot next to it and a peel of bells rang out. Then I was off, touching everything I could reach, composing my own symphony as I went. A group gathered round the small entrance, as interested in me as the exhibit.

“Looks like you are having a great time,” said a middle aged Indian man, as he took off his shoes and joined me. Encouraged by his entrance, others crowded in behind him. With their shoes on.

"Only four at a time," I shouted as I left the now full room, “and take off your shoes!”

India's first Biennale opened at 12pm on 12 December 2012 in Fort Cochin, Kerala. At the inauguration ceremony, Jose Dominic, one of the trustees, talked of the impact the event would have on tourism.

“Modern Kerala representing modern art. Modern Kerala moving forward from simply the backwaters for which it is famous,” he said, adding that there was now a “new tourist opportunity here in Kerala with modern art reaching everybody around the world.”

If the buzz that rang round the streets of Fort Cochin on the first day is any indicator, the organisers may have a hit on their hands. When they weren't filing past exhibits, tourists and art lovers filled the restaurants and hotels, while locals mingled with the cognoscenti, enjoying the free access to all venues.

In the evening, thousands filled the Parade Ground to watch the opening ceremony. They were entertained by Panchavadyam temple musicians, who beat a consistent and noisy rhythm on rows of drums. Then the mood was softened by the gentle singing of Kaikotti Pattu singers. Kerala's Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, and the ministers for tourism and culture gave speeches, parts of which were in Malayalan, Kerala's language, leaving overseas visitors and Indians from the north equally perplexed. The long day finished with an explosive performance from British born M.I.A whose use of the Panchavadyam drummers in one of her songs endeared her forever to her audience.

Before singing 'Paper planes', the song from Slumdog Millionaire which put her on the map, Mathangi asked John Abraham to join her on stage. He launched one of the free fluro helicopters which had been distributed among the crowd, and the audience went berserk, captivated by the Bollywood superstar. As the song began everyone flicked their paper helicopters upwards, surprising the fruit bats trudging across the night sky in search of their daily dinner.

Over the past year, the clean-up operation in Fort Cochin has been at fever pitch. Walls covered in peeling posters of political candidates, good only for goats to chew on, have been revitalised. Mould has been scrubbed away and been replaced by murals, artist graffiti and bold colours. Many of the sea-facing 18th and 19th century buildings have been renovated and turned into spaces for displaying art.

In the mid 1800s, Aspinwall's warehouse, the Biennale's centrepiece, used to trade in coconut, spices, tea, coffee and rubber. Its high ceilings, wooden floors, expansive walls and wide-open exteriors are a dream for any artist today. Joseph Semah's 72 copper plates (representing 72 privileges) are wedged in rows along a wooden work table which dominates the whole of one of the second storey warehouses.

Many of the artists have been inspired by the local environment. Clifford Charles has turned a utility building within the Aspinwall's complex into a light-filled installation, “5 Cloud Rooms”, celebrating the colours of Kerala. Amar Kanwar's agriculture-inspired work, in a darkened room made bearable in the heat with industrial ceiling fans, displays 266 varieties of indigenous, organic rice seeds along the back wall.

I walked along dirt tracks and over crumbling walls, into a vaulted warehouse, where the hull of a traditional Indian wooden fishing boat forms the basis of Subodh Gupta's site-specific installation. The enormous boat is presented at an angle, its stern held high by wooden posts, giving the impression that it is being tossed by a wave. Inside, the open boat's compartments are crammed with everyday possessions: aluminium kettles, bicycles, buckets, furniture, textiles, cooking pots, copper-ware, timber.

The sign on the wall beside the artwork tells us that a “shred of earth as minuscule as a tiny piece of hay is all a man can cling onto when the ravages of nature leave him with no other choice.” The long statement goes on to explain that the artist has contained “the entire existence of a person, his basic needs, the entire worth of his material possessions bundled and thrust into the vessel upon which he has set sail...”. There was nothing to bang and it was silent, but it pulled me in. I wanted to get in that boat and have a rummage, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the visitors do exactly that over the coming months.

Across the water in Ernakulam, the impressive Durbar Hall has been renovated and transformed into an exhibition space of international standards. But it is the charming colonial buildings of Fort Cochin which make the event unique and keep bringing the visitor back. Their bargain facelifts have left much of the old dilapidated charm still intact. Emerging from a group of warehouses at Aspinwall's, I arrived on the water frontage, where a smart, white-tented restaurant served food on newly cropped grass. I took a few minutes to gaze across Lake Vembanad before picking my way back into the complex along a dirt path. It took me past a dumping ground of building debris and rubbish where a man relieved himself against the wall.

Tate Modern it ain't, but this is India and the rules are different. Dylan Martorell has it right: in India visitors are going to interact with the exhibits, so invite them in.

The Biennale runs from 12 December 2012 to 13 March 2013 with a programme of live performances, lectures, films and cultural events throughout the three months. Find out more online: http://kochimuzirisbiennale.org

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