By Siloo Loam
I went for the Kochi – Muziris Biennale or as we Thani nadan mallus call it the ‘binnale’. The ‘Binnale’ is being held in the Fort Kochi area and the place is awash with tourists from all over India and the world. But the Binnale is for the well-heeled, dressed in designer rags with the right kind of attitude. We came with a lot of expectations and of course some curiosity, as to what the binnale actually means and what is involved in this four month long art experience.
We were at Aspinwall House by 10 am to get the tickets and it was very hot and sunny. The queue was already quite long. The lady ahead of us, from North India, bought tickets for herself and her kids, and then we asked about entry tickets for kids in Malayalam. The young man at the counter immediately interrogated us about the kids. He wanted to see our kids before giving us the option of free entry for the kids. My my, that irritated us. The woman just before us had managed to get tickets without being subjected to any sort of enquiry, and here we were, being subjected to an arrogant questioning by this young man, about our kids.
He would issue us tickets only after he had verified that we had children with us. Were we subjected to this kind of a reaction from a ticket vendor just because we happened to speak in Malayalam and not English? When we retorted angrily in English, our judgemental ticket vendor quietly handed over the tickets.
Our experience of the ‘binnale’ went for a toss with this snooty attitude displayed by one of the many, supposedly helpful, young volunteers recruited by the organisers to run this art show that has egalitarian aspirations and a political overtone to eliminate hierarchies and hegemonies.
But I personally felt that the ‘binnale’ also caters to an elitist crowd who purportedly are the connoisseur custodians of the art world and the artists themselves.
Aspinwall House and the Cabral Yard, main venues of the ‘binnale’ are reminiscent of Fort Kochi’s colonial past. Are they also symbolic of the Malayali’s pandering to a neo- colonial establishment that excludes people who do not fit the bill in their terms? Despite being fiercely egoistic, the malayali does bow down to consumerism and is often bowled over by people who are blessed with fair skin. The purpose of the ‘binnale’ to create a space for comradeship and reduce alienation seems far from possible in such a setting. We happen to be relatively fair-skinned and our rags more or less satisfy the accepted sartorial sense of the upper middle class, well – heeled consumer traveller with some exposure to trends and styles. But we spoke in Malayalam at the ticket counter at Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi. That justified the assumption that we were out to cheat the organisers and get in for free, because we ordinary mallus are cheapskates and have a tendency to fool the establishment and get in where we are not wanted.
The artists of the ‘binnale’ talk about ordinary lives and they aspire for accessibility, but the attitude of the organisers, especially its young volunteers needs a change. Most of them need an orientation in giving up their smug, snobbish attitude and their sense of entitlement in being part of something as big as the ‘binnale’.
The curator Anita Dube in her curatorial note says that “we must in all humility start to reject an existence in the service of capital”, which is something that is next to impossible in this highly consumer capitalist-driven world. But, when the ‘binnale’ sets such high goals, the least we, as ordinary viewers, expect is a little bit of humility from the organisers.