Kalkatta-wallah: Narrative of belonging from the fringe of a metropolis

An Interview with novelist  Kunal Basu
(
Question and Answer Format)

 Novelist Kunal Basu, the author of “Kalkatta”, has captured the quixotic world of the gigolos in the underside of the metropolis. His protagonist, Jamshed Alam is a Bihari Muslim migrant to the city, who has returned to the land of his ancestors as a refugee from Bangladesh to become a Kalkatta Wallah on Zakariah Street. “Jami” in a outsider-insider. Basu describes the book as his first contemporary English novel set in the city, departure from his earlier works “The Opium Clerk”, “The Miniaturist” and The Curse (and Cure) of the Yellow Emperor (two-part series). On a book tour of the metropolis, also his home, he took time out to speak to Madhusree Chatterjee, in his South Kolkata residence. Excerpts from the interview:    

 Q Why did you name your latest fiction, “Kalkatta” — and not Kolkata?

 A …Because this city has several names. The antiquated name is Kalikata, the Anglicised name is Calcutta. The Bengalis refer to it as Kolkata. For the large non-Bengali population of the city, it is “Kalkatta”. The title itself is a clear hint that the novel has been written from the periphery of the city for the centre of the city. I have tried to explore what is the centre, what is the periphery —the different worlds that inhabit Koolutala and Chitpore in context of the Hindi-speaking migrants to the city. Kalkatta is the true melting pot where different cultures clash and co-exist.

Q The novel uses “the refugee” as its narrative centre-stage. The protagonist of your story Jamshed Alam is a Bihari Muslim, who migrated to Bangladesh as refugee and returns to the land of his ancestors as a refugee to become a true “Kalkatta-wallah”. Why did you choose the refugee and such a complex migration route to narrate your story?

A. This pertains to the collective amnesia of the sub-continent. A lot of academic study has been done about it but nothing has been written in fiction. The story is about refugees from three generations. They become refugees in Bangladesh and then travel back to India (from a refugee camp) to become refugees in the land of their ancestors. The back story is about Bangladesh and the displacement of millions during the Partition not caused by one tragic event but a succession of tragedies which makes it more poignant and complex. Our point of journey in the story stops where “Kalkatta” is made — for the large numbers in the city who are struggling to make this city their own, but cannot. This is a story which explores the interplay between the notion of the insider and outsider — who is the outsider and who is the insider.
In Chapter 3 of the novel, protagonist Jami meets Mandira, two beings from different planets. To my mind Kolkata is like a universe and we inhabit different planets. You are from Pluto because you are from Rajarhat, I am from Venus because I live in South Kolkata. The distance between Keyatala and Koolutala is the distance between Earth and Mars.

Q Where does it place your protagonist Jami?

A. Jamshed (known as Jami) is both. His profession — of a gigolo — makes him an insider. When he is in the posh Alipore neighbourhood servicing clients or in a five-star hotel in the city, he is an insider. But when he is out of his work environments and (professional) habitats, he is an outsider. He is an outsider, who is an insider. When he is in (leading lady) Mandira’s home at a gathering of poets (sic you must not forget he is a gigolo by profession with free social access), one of the guests walks up to him to enquire where he is from. Jami says he is from Bangladesh. The poet (guest) says he is from East Pakistan. That dredges up the entire notion of who is a “Ghoti”, who is the “Bangal (from Bangladesh) and who is the “Bangali (Bengalee). All of us refugees from one part of the world or the other?

Q Can “refugees” be defined, if you consider Kolkata as a microcosm?

A. It is very difficult to distinguish between the “refugee” and the “exiled”. A refugee is a product of physical alienation. An “exile” is influenced by psychological dislocation — all of us who live in Kolkata are in exile largely because of complex political, economic and sociological reasons – it does not let the city have a heart, dividing the population is into small tribes and small villages. Burrabazar is the largest trading areas in South-east Asia while the Writers’is peopled by Bengali clerks, who are complete outsiders. Nothing in culture, politics and social life bring together people in different planets… as in the city. Khidderpore and Metiaburz have a lot of Bangladeshis — but Bengali speaking Bangladeshi. Zakariah Street has Hindi-speaking Muslim migrants… All this makes the city interesting as a writer. Large metropolises cannot have an unifying force— the only unifying force is when there is a bombing. Ask people from the Pali Hills and Dharavi in Mumbai — do they share the same soul? The city has always been represented by one soul – in fictions and films — the soul of the Bengali intelligentsia.

Q. Migration is an epochal social phenomenon of our time. How do you analyse the cross-cultural and geographical movements in the perspective of your novel?

A. Migration can be voluntary and involuntary by nature. The migration that we are seeing now is involuntary — disruptions of life by external factors such as wars, conflicts, social instability, and politics in contrast to people who are going to seek their fortunes from Kolkata to New Delhi to New York. I have never been excited by diaspora- the NRI (non-Resident Indian) factor has never appealed to me because the displacement and the fractures in the society are petty cultural clashes. Part of the Bengali society is in love with NRIs— when we were growing up the idea of relatives residing in “Videsh (foreign land) was not very prevalent. Now, every family has someone living abroad. They come laden with gifts. There is a great aura surrounding the NRI. The concepts are “Bengali misti (sweets), deshe phera”. Involuntary migration — what you are seeing now is involuntary migration. I live in Europe — and migration to the continent has been largescale (together with the consequences). I was near the Bataclan (in Paris) on 13/11 , I had passéd by the Le Rupublic before the explosions. I was in Dhaka a day before two (famous) political war criminals were hanged. We are living in troubled times which make the stories of the people more poignant. As an author I wanted to engage with real stuff, the real crisis of humanity and the real splendor of the crisis. Jami is a product of the involuntary migration.

Q Do you think cities have been painted with a tilt or bias (in favour of elites) across popular cultures?

A. The poor and the marginalized have been edited out of contemporary Indian cinema and literature. New writers, publishers and film-makers are realising that we, the reading public, want to read about people like us — digitally savvy, smart and professionally adroit people. Question Mark: Do they (the other half) exist? Pimps, prostitutes, gigolos — the vast majority of the underbelly with legitimate jobs and the whole host of other professions (not in the mainstream). Do we the stable and “respectable” segment of Kolkata are aware that they are a reality. Nearly 70 per cent of the population is Bengali intelligentsia — our air time is more than anybody else. Durga Puja is more widely covered than Chaat Puja — to what extent have we been able to accept people who are not like us? As Jamshed’s Ammi (mother) tells him in the novel about the “rules of a Kalkatta-wallah”.

 Q What are the rules of becoming a ‘Kalkatta wallah’? Is it about identities?

A The city has multiple identities — not to mould together as one but to find accommodation. How many of us from South Kolkata go to Zakariah Street — but only during (the Ramzan or Eid) to taste “Haalim”. They (the residents of Zakariah Street as the novel depicts them) should not be cast away, but treated with understanding — in that sense Delhi and Mumbai do not have these convergences. When Jami begins to befriend Mandira (his colleague in a travel agency), she asks him, “Why didn’t you speak to me”. To which Jami replies, “… Girls like you don’t like boys like me”. Mandira a member of the Bengali intelligentsia. Jami learns to be a ‘Kakatta Wallah’ as he grows up — moving into the profession.

Q What was the triggers for the novel?

 A The triggers for the book was not the grand idea — my agents said when will you write an Indian novel. I wouldn’t say I wanted to write about Partition (as an essentially Indian novel would mean). The idea had been germinating in my mind after I completed writing the “Yellow Emperor’s Cure” in 2012-2013. I had time to creatively about my next book. I wanted to investigate the world of Zakariah Street, the world of gigolos — one can create agreements between the different worlds. The story gradually began to take shape in my mind. I needed to be out and about on the streets. I avoid travelling by car when I am in the city of Kolkata (he straddles Oxford University, where he is employed as a reader, and India) and I go out with Sushmita (wife) routinely to shop for food. I grew up in a middle class family I took a bus… I would see young well dressed men on motorcycles sitting outside five-star hotels and wonder who they were? I was curious. Out of these, ruminations came the story.

Q How did you stumble upon the tribe- of gigolos? They are difficult to locate in cities like Kolkata?

 A.I had to pursue and find them. This was a hard challenge – how I was going to find gigolos? I needed to know their lives — what do they think if life, how do they react afterwards, their profession — the totality of their lives. I went to noted Bengali writer (late) Sunil Gangopadhyay (he was alive then). Being a writer, Sunil ‘da’ realised I was in trouble. He put me on to a senior police officer Gautam Mohan Chakrabarty in Lal Bazar saying, “Eta kono criminal case na, (this is not a criminal case) help him. I went to his office in Lal Bazar – nobody even did a body check on me. How can I help you, Mr Basu, he asked? I am looking for a few gigolos, I replied. To his credit, he did not even bat an eyelid and explained that male prostitution unlike conventional prostitution was not brothel-based. It flourished by word of mouth and telephonic messages. Mr Chakrabarty put me on to a woman police officer from the anti-trafficking squad, who helped me track them down with the help of non-profit organisations, which work among them. I virtually lived with them for two years. I grew so close to them that on 15/1 (this new Year of 2015), the first greeting I received on my phone was from a gigolo- “dada Bhalo Thakben (brother, keep well). I inhabited their world, drank their tea, went to their dodgy bars and generally hung out with them.

They introduced me as their older brother, a friend. It was like no other world I have ever entered. Jami is not modelled on any one of them — his character has been drawn from aspects and elements of several people. Almost all of them are loyal to their families, love their wives and are suspicious of the media. They have regular concerns – they are real human beings. I invited several of them for book launch in Kolkata. I have finished my first full-length Bengali novel, it should be published in 2016.

Interviewed by Madhusree Chatterjee

In-charge Foreign Affairs, Editorial Consultant, The Statesman, News Coordinator, Asia News Network (The Statesman, India)

Colour collage: Mythology in canvas of realistic fantasia

An interview with noted contemporary artist Jayasri Burman 

Noted contemporary artist Jayasri Burman interprets Indian spirituality and mythology on her canvas with the woman as the centre of her creative mosaic. Born in 1960, Jayashri, wife of fellow practitioner of contemporary art Paresh Maity and the niece of Shakti Burman, has carved her space in the national and international mainstream as sculptor and painter, who combines popular folk techniques with the nuances of graphic print making to portray the divine feminine in her own world of magic fantasia, where human morph as mermaids, animals transform into birds and heavens come down to earth. Her messages are subtle.  Her canvases have a happy carnival feel to them, essentially Indian and colourful.
Deriving her inspiration from legends, miniatures, folklores and nature, she has created an oeuvre of unique art that is neo-realistic in its use of mixed media and history. Burman took time out to speak to Madhusree Chatterjee during the recent launch of her artistic biography “Antar Yatra” and a retrospective exhibition spanning her creative years from 1996 to 2015. Excerpts:     

Q Women — goddesses and aspect of the divine feminine — are the mainstay of your aesthetic iconography. Why does women play such an important role in your art?    

 I am a girl and the kind of people I mingle and interact with are women, My gallerists are women, friends are women, I grew up among women as a child` at home and my identity is that of a woman. The people or rather the sex, which surround you are those you know the best — and hence, I understand women. I am a Kolkata girl. I was born to a traditional family which subscribed to Indian spiritual sensitivities like the Durga Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Swarasati Puja and the “bratakatha” — ritual chantings. I invoke Mata Chandi — an avatar of divine feminine or the shakti — with chants everyday. The woman embodies the power of creativity and glory for me, as an artist, resplendent in all her finery like the mythological figures and the pantheon deities. This is how I like to visualize the notion of womanhood — larger than life and empowered.

Man or the male figure is secondary imagery on you canvas. Is it deliberate?  The “purush” or the man is always at a distance in my art — stoic on the periphery of the canvas powering the woman at the forefront with his silent strength. The birth of man is from the womb of a woman. How can a woman make headway without the man. They have to exist in harmony balancing the male and female energies of the universe. The womanhood of a woman is made possible by the presence of the “purush (man)” next to her. I deify the woman with the emblem of the man in the backdrop.

Q How has your childhood influenced the oeuvre of your art — so deeply grounded in Indian mythology, culture and the spiritual pantheon?

 Childhood has been integral my evolution as an artist — colouring my oeuvre with a deep Indian-ness. Every morning, at 5 am, my father would nudge awake saying, “Jaya Otho (Jaya, wake up). He would carry me in his arms to wash-basin. As I brushed my teeth, he chanted the “gayatri mantra (the hymn of the goddess…. Jaba kusuma sankachana… his voice filled my mindscape and still rings in my ears. I loved the sounds of his chantings. Sometime he sang: “Phire, Phire Chalo… Apono Ghare (Return home)… a love ditty by Rami Chandidas (a Bengali poet of the 15th century who composed lyrics celebrating the love of Radha-Krishna). On days, he would break into boisterous strains of popular folk… “Sohag Chand Bodhoni Dhoni Nacho to Dekhi (pretty damsel, dance) or the plaintive notes of Ranbindra Sangeet. My father’s songs and spirituality were my earliest inspirations. Before training as an artist, I had to orient my mind. My father helped me craft the perfect artistic state of mind to chase art as a vocation. On his part, my art was his sole recreation — the sheer experience of viewing it gave him the greatest joy.

Your art is figurative and free flowing. Your figures float in water worlds, vacuums in space and in mesh of complex cross-hatch textures which you employ with pen and ink. They morph, flux and take on fantastic forms — like the magical world of fantasia that is so neo-realistic. You refused to be tied down by black-and-white social realism? Where do this free flowing kinetics and fantastic forms come from?

The free flow of forms can be traced to my free spirit— a facet I discovered in childhood. My mother took me to the dance school. I left it in three days because they were teaching me footwork when everyone around me was dancing. I wanted to dance like a bird in motion— without the fetters of grammar and taal (beats). I wanted my body to move freely. My father told my music teacher to leave because I wanted to sing the way I liked — I did not want to be trapped in the formats of formal training. But later, he admitted that I was one of the best dancers he had come across and a musician as well. This craving for freedom seeped into my art later — the free soul, the free spirit and free movement. It was fostered the free flow of imagination and thoughts.

The element of fantasy in my art comes from my “unconscious”. I used to sleep on one side and sing my own songs softly, lulling myself to sleep. The songs were accompanied by fantasies — from deep inside my unconscious, Something that was “ajana (unknown)”. It translated into the world of magical beings on my canvas. Often when I a in Delhi, I long to fly like a bird to my ancestral home on Bangur Avenue in Kolkata — perch on the roof and chat with my friends. The feeling was like a current. This longing for physical freedom and impossible feats and the unrequited wants flowed into my art as fantastic shapes, divine beings, strange wild creatures, mountains, trees and water in bright surreal colours and lines.

Q An element of Ravi Verma’s oleographs and your uncle Shakti Burman’s eye for details are apparent in your compositions. Do they inspire you? Who are other artists and movements that you imbibe in your work?    

A canvas “Narayani” (a large composition in pen, ink and watercolour on archival paper measuring

82X52 inches depicting goddess Lakshmi seated on throne of lotus, surrounded by a quaint crowd of celestial beings, birds, elephants and mermaids in a large pool of water) is dedicated to Raja Ravi Verma. I thought about him when I drew it. His icons fires our imagination. Chottokaku (her uncle artist Shakti Burman)works in details. People often highlight this similarity because it is easy to identify my work with his because he is my uncle. May be, I have inherited his eye for details and the fact that we are a very family oriented, loving and caring clan. My grandmother was an accomplished “kantha” embroiderer and was even awarded for her work. My paternal aunt made collages and wooden dolls with mixed medium — cotton, textiles, home made dyes. I inherited their knack for the arts – it flows in my genes.

The movements in my oeuvre are drawn from various sources. I have been influenced by wall paintings of Rajasthan, the miniatures, medieval Bengal art, patachitra (scroll paintings), different genres of spiritual paintings and all forms of folk art. When I first encountered early Christian and Byzantine art in course of my travel in St Petersburg, I was mesmerized by the iconic proportions of their paintings and the way the practitioners of spiritual art depicted their deities — the Christian pantheon. I wanted to create huge iconic works — with intricate detailing and emulate the “holistic” approach to the compositions. Beside these, I trained in Paris for a year (1984-1985). Soon after I returned from Paris, my works were distinctive in their French impressionist manifest with thick impasto compositions and western practices. The two years that I spent in Shantiniketan at Kala Bhavan were my formative period. It bequeathed to me a love for outdoor compositions, sculptures — and were the lifeline for my early pen and ink sketches. My first class with my first teacher, artist Sanat Kar, pushed me to the road of freedom, which I have traveled for the last three decades. His words, “you have flowers and leaves, interpret them in your imagination” have been the cornerstone of my artistic odyssey.

Q How would you describe your progression and evolution as an artist — from your early years to what you are today. Has your art changed with time? What are the watersheds in your life?

 As a child, I drew at random— mountains, water, bunds, trees, birds… Two of earliest paintings — one depicting a sea of human heads and colourful new clothes during Durga Utsav and other of the hills surrounding the Kamakhaya temple in Guwahati — won me awards as a student of class VI. I was encouraged. Later, I went to Shantiniketan to study fine arts — but I could not complete the course as my parents arranged a match for me. But I had vowed to be an artists and did not give up my creative thoughts. Even after my wedding, I continued to work till 1984, when I went to study at a salon in Paris under the guidance of Monsieur Ceizerzi. It was a very productive and learning spell in my life. His wife could speak English and I had a beautiful time learning a lot of things, When I returned to Kolkata in 1985, I joined the Society of Contemporary Artists’ Group to work in graphics at their studio.

That was my real education through encounters and interactions because the group was made of the biggest in Bengal’s contemporary art like Ganesh Haloi, Ganesh Pyne, Amitabha Banerjee, Shyamal Duttaray and several others. They allowed to me work in their studio. The art camps that I attended with eminent artists gave new perspectives to hone my oeuvre. The watershed in my life was 1996. My marriage fell apart and I came out to New Delhi with my son. It was a new responsibility — I knew I had to take care of my son. I put him in Mayo College. My father, however, was a pillar of support. He was a successful businessman and stood by me. He taught me that I had to live and earn my sustenance with dignity.

The horizons of my art broadened in New Delhi. I dipped into the free flow of my desires and creative expression — and began to travel across the terrain as conflicting as the Himalayas, the jungles of Kumaon, Rajasthan and Orissa. I assimilated ideas and influences from my interactions with people, cultures, folk traditions and societies. I began to use water colour for my outdoor series — a continuation of my days an undergraduate in Shantiniketan when I spent days at tribal Santhali villages (like Goalprara) sketching people and nature, Thereon, I began to explore the world. But I will never forget 1996 because it was the most important year of my life. Between 1996-1997, I learnt all that I could not in Shantiniketan. I finally received my due.

My work, over the years, has grown bigger because of the accessibility of larger drawing material —large format drawing boards and paper were not available in our childhood. Sometime ago, after a period of ill-health in Mumbai, I realised that my practise was changing — developing a tendency to abstraction and symbolisms.

Q When did you begin to sculpt?

 I have been sculpting since my early years in Shantiniketan. But somehow, my mother insisted that I continue to paint because I had to marry. She felt it was difficult for a woman to sculpt with stone, metal and wood because of the tough nature of the medium — and it required space, resources and techniques. But I always wanted to do something difficult. I turned to bronze as my sculpting medium seriously much later — but I depend on the technicians for the finish. I don’t know much about casting. But the highlight of an exhibition currently on show at the Birla Academy in South Kolkata is a set of 14 bronze sculptures of women in different “rasa” or mood. I want to work with stone.

Q What do you think about commercialization of art?

 I don’t want to speak of commerialisation if art. My buyers acquire my works out of love — not with the objective of investment. My buyers — like Sachin Tendulkar, London’s Stella Art Foundation, Lata Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Ambani — are all educated, aesthetically refined and successful in their own fields. They appreciate my work, my interpretation of myths and spirituality and creativity. Therein lies my success.

Madhusree Chatterjee
The Statesman

 

 

              

                                                    

 

            

                      

 

Cinema-Literature: Not slaves, but mates in happy co-existence

By Madhusree Chatterjee
Kolkata, Oct 2015

Cinema and literature are indelibly threaded into the fabric of fine arts in a book-oriented country like India, where the written word and its visual manifest is as old as civilization itself— beginning with the first alphabet which were etched on to the walls of the caves of pre-history dotting ancient river valleys like the Narmada and the Indus.

First the art, then the fine print or literature and finally cinema — a nascent 150-year-old aesthetic oeuvre that drew its initial vital fluids from the treasure chests of literature. Though cinema is increasingly being espoused as an independent medium of work, the essence of the images in the talkie cinema is the word – the narrative which propels the action.

Story-telling or “katha”, the narrative wordplay which forms the core of Indian literary aesthetics, rendered itself into moving images on the screen in the late 19th century influenced by the emerging European traditions of cinematic arts. It refined into a full-length feature film in 1913.

Over the last century and a half, the word has travelled to and fro from the books to the screen with ease, changing in shape and colour.

The jacket of book has a bigger brand recall as a work of saleable mass fiction if the “announcement of its cinematic avatar” is made in bold letters above the title, says veteran Bengali actor, author and screen persona Barun Chanda, best remembered for his screen portrayal in Satyajit Ray’s “Seemabaddha” Chanda was moderating a discussion on “Cinema’s Literature “ or “Literature’s Cinema” at a festival of Bengali literature in Kolkata .

Chanda’s comment comes out of a synergy that pervades the interface between the reader, the fine print and the imagery of the literary interpretation in the mind space. This interpretation of imagery, when collated in visual sequences, becomes the heartbeat of cinema drawn from literature.

For young Boston-based India filmmaker of Kashmiri origin Amitav Kaul, literature is the core of his debut venture, “The Interpreter of Maladies” by Pulitzer-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri. The filmmaker, who has built a series of nine scripts around the collection of stories, says all artists would have been writers had cinema not become the soul of the 20th century. The cinema is barely 150 years old whereas books have existed since the written word came into being. “It is a symbolic relationship between books to film and films to books.”

“Jhumpa Lahiri represents the globe. She has won the Pulitzer prize and has been translated in 30 countries. Moreover, she is a Bengali,” Kaul said. The fact that the “Interpreter of Maladies” is universal in its treatment of dislocation and diaspora gives it cinematic potential that transcends its Bengali identity.

“To make it into a movie is a difficult task because millions of people have read the book which means the movie will be viewed by millions. The book is so popular, it is about meeting the expectations of the readership and to see if we can go beyond that.” Kaul said. The book’s appeal in the director’s mindscape lies in the fact that it is about dislocation — tales of natives who have adopted new homelands. “We left Kashmir for United States long ago,” Kaul said of his personal history.

Identification apart, this interpolation of literature as a genre of story-telling into a visual space has been spurred by new oeuvres of mass reading like comic book, pictorial novels and video game. If a book has a “big readership” a filmmaker can bank on the book to carry the movie forward.

“The Twilight series (Twilight novels by Stephanie Meyers) — for example has a wide audience because the books are best-selling mass fiction. The story becomes the star in this case. A director does not require a top-notch cast to shoulder his film. Transcreation of the work of literature into a script and subsequently into a movie does the work,” Kaul explained.

How does cinema influence writing? One of the best illustrative example is the “Star Wars” — the cult science fiction that spawned a legion of sci-fi comic books featuring aliens and space-age battles. Movies are being transcribed into serial picture books and the script is gradually acquiring the status of literature like Ingmar Bergman’s “Four Screen Plays”— “Smiles of a Summer Night”, “The Seventh Seal”, “Wild Strawberries” and “The Magician” — published in 1960, which gave him the credit of brilliant authorship. A filmmaker cannot narrate a story without a complementary script that combines cinematic pace with the narrative of literature to build a theme into a feature film. The medium, as many scholars of film studies say, twines the literary sensitivities of the script, the story, cinematic rendition, audience and the social contexts into one “complete” entity, inclusive of each other.

The history of world cinema is full of such instances.

The early black and white era of the 1930s – 1960s in Hollywood owes its mass popularity to writer-director like Alfred Hitchcock whose movies like “Rebecca” (based on a novel by Daphne Du’ Maurier), “The 39 Steps (based on a thriller by John Buchan), “The Birds” (Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier), “Rear Window” (from an anthology of short stories by Cornell Woolrich) and “Psycho” (Robert Bloch) were assembled from popular literature of the times. Cult classics like the “The Godfather”, “Gone With the Wind”, “Guns of Navaronne”, “Born Free”, “Where Eagles Dare”, “Farewell to Arms” to name a few from a long list that perhaps runs into hundreds reveals the timeless draw of literature into the screen.

One of the reasons why cinema is dependent on literature is the fact that growing industry is in perpetual need of narratives — and literature provides a ready-made resource pool.

Closer home, the multi-million dollar Hindi and regional cinema industry has fallen back on the rich vernacular literature to build their narratives because the stories are tailored to meet the sensitivities of an indigenous audience bred on popular literature. “There is an aesthetic exchange,” Kaul said.

The early wave of Hindi cinema, which used modern literature as its narrative mosaic flaunt classics like “The Guide (based on a novel by R.K.Narayan)”, “Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam (based on a Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra), Tere Mere Sapne (based on The Citadel by A.J. Cronin), “Devdas”, “Parineeta” and “Biraj Bahu” (based on a novels by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay) – and several more that played to the intellectual needs of a middle-class educated audience of a nascent sovereign India which evolved out of years of repression by an alien British culture to nurture fierce self-determination and nationalistic identity.

The neo-Indian literary and aesthetic identity — which became the bulwark of modern Indian cinema — was made of five cardinal strands — a powerful and climactic story-telling, melodrama, elements of action, entertainment and an “Indianness”, almost bordering on house pride.

These traits which characterize post-Independence talkie cinema are shared by contemporary writing leading to a percolation across mediums. Writer Chetan Bhagat occupies a paradoxical place in the literature-cinema praxis. “His books are often unreadable, but as cinematic projects, they are box office successes,” actress Swastika Mukherjee pointed out. Movies like “Three Idiots”, “Two States” and “One Night@ The call Centre” based on Bhagat’s mass fiction novels illustrate the power of images over the written word. The story may convey the impression, but the cinema brings out the visual sequences.

“The standard rule is that since most Indians are avid cine-goers, they usually see a movie and then enquire about the book,” says diplomat-writer Vikas Swarup, whose mass fiction novel “Q and A” was made into Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” by Danny Boyle.

“It works that way in the film fraternity. Once people read the book, they get to know the inside story. But let us not forget that the shelf life of the movie is much less than that of the book. The book will be around much longer,” Swarup said.

One of the fallouts of the progressive cultural wave that an Independent India engendered was a parallel cinema movement inspired by the European new wave.

The dependence of cinema on literature can be traced back to the parallel cinema movement that began to take shape in the late 1940s to the 1960s under the guidance of pioneers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Buddhadeb Das Gupta, Chetan Anand and V.Shantaram. They took heavily from contemporary literature. Consequently, their films became a mirror to the Indian society and used by scholars to study the changing demography, socio-economics as well as the political temperament of the country.

One of the best example of the early art house movie to be inspired by social realism was Mrinal Sen’s “Calcutta ‘71” adapted from three short stories by Bengali writers Manik Bandopadhayay, Samaresh Basu and Prabodh Sanyal. It was enacted across three time-zones between 1940s to 1971 in three separate narratives to encapsulate a common socio-economic and political reality of a Bengal in morph from pre-Independence to the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

”I think cinema and literature are irrevocably linked because we respond to literature,” filmmaker Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury (Tony) said. He has made four films — two based on his own stories, one from a story by popular Bengali novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay and an adaptation of a short story by Samaresh Basu. the filmmaker said.

His movie, “Aparajita Tumi (Unvanquished You)— an adaptation of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s short story, “Dui Nari”, was born of a personal crisis at a time when was living in United States. It was reflective of a post-conceptual sensitivity that many youngsters living out of India was subjected to in the Eighties.

“I felt like I was living in a void. That affluence, that power and the American ambition brought about a nothingness. I had to retrace because I felt there was nothing after this. It was like living in a gap,” Tony recalled. It was around this time that Tony chanced upon Sunil Gangopadhyay’s short story about “two couples — and the voids in their lives”.

“I could relate to the story of two women who were in competition and their empty spaces. It was like Mario Puzo’s ‘Godfather’— a saga that we can all identify with, If you identify with a story, you have to make a movie of it. There are myriad possibilities,” the filmmaker explained.

Tony remembered watching Satyajit Ray’s “Charulata” first and then reading Rabindranath Tagore’s “Nasto Nir (The Broken Nest)’, a short story which inspired the movie. He did not find it anachronistic.

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore has been an inspiration for a legion of filmmakers — primarily for the maestro of Indian filmmaking Satyajit Ray, who adapted several of his short stories into cinematic classics. The dividing line between the story and the cinema remained on the edge because of the immense visual scope that the stories offered in terms of characters and landscapes.

The early lot of Tagore stories set in motion by Ray included milestones like “Teen Kanya (Three Women)”, “Kshudito Pashan (The Hungry Stones)” Ghare Baire The Home and the World).

“Cinema should not become a slave of literature because cinema has its own independent language.In my opinion, the most important exploration of literature into the cinematic vernacular has been the rendition of Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), a novel by Bibhuti Bushan Bandopadhyay because it stands on its as a screen benchmark,” said Suman Mukhopadhyay, who has adapted Rabindranath Tagore’s popular novella, “The Last Poem” as a screen play and movie in 2013.

“The movie is a talking thing and the literature is a reading thing,” Tony summed up. The two will always co-exist to enrich each other.

Destruction of history is new terror or petty theft

By Madhusree Chatterjee

New Delhi/Kolkata: Cultural appropriation and subversion of history have been traditional historical tools in the spread of religious terrorism. But theft of history and its sale in the international market reduces the lofty spirit of the ‘jihad’— the premise of which every stream of insurrection drawing from religious schools of consciousness is based.

A world minus cultural history is a world of itinerants — regressive in its ways of looking at human progression out of the arcane cave dwellings into the advanced realms of civilization nurtured by rich and diverse streams of living legacies and histories of culture.

The relentless march of the dreaded Islamic State militia or the ISIS (Daesh as it known in the western Asia and in many African and central Asian nations)  – which is reinstalling the Islamic caliphate, a relic of history from within the rubble of lost heritages — drives terror into the heart of every culturally rooted thinking man, who is increasingly looking upon the world as one globalised space having evolved out of clashes and confluences of disparate civilizations.

A set of video images released by the Islamic State throughout 2014-2015 shows the systematic destruction of ancient heritage sites like Nimrud, Mosul and Palmyra in Iraq and Syria respectively — in relentless and barbaric tranches that strives to drive home two points. First, the organisation like any other terror group wants to grab eyeballs in the international media and second, to churn out a psychosis of fear among the culturally-oriented neo-liberals in the Mesopotamian plains and elsewhere where the organisation is active to submit them to Wahabism — an orthodox interpretation of Islam that seeks to homogenize cultures in sync with the Spartan and rigid tenets of the hawkish brand of Islam espoused in the early years of the faith.

The faith, as the Wahabis say, prohibits idol worship, campaigns for the cause of the  “jihad” or the holy war, model Sharia lifestyles and territorial expansion in the name of a Caliphate built on the strength of religion, intimidation and mad craving for power and loot. Faith is relegated to the backseat in the frenzy of prosletysation and longing for power over a cowering humanity by acts of atrocity and gore. Beheading and execution like the Fascist and the Nazi death squads are the militia’s favourite devices of subjugation.  The outfit uses Wahabism as a tool to further its macabre designs — remove from its path every cultural legacy that is un-Islamic in origin.

Analysts say the outfit – that has established worldwide network with its “dedicated” hierarchy of zealous cadre, armies of western-educated adolescents and a tiered leadership – requires a “suitable” oasis of seclusion and dereliction in a no-man’s land to headquarter its agenda of terror. What can suit them better than Palmyra – the pearl of the desert — a rich oasis of palms nestled in the safety of the “past” and a rugged terrain in the Syrian dunes of wilderness. Palmyra provides the IS multi-pronged advantages — it renders them insulated from the “enlightening” influences of modern cultures, sanity and a steady flow of resources from the sale of historical memoirs. Palmyra is an ancient pre-Christian heritage site that bears testimony to a time when religion was defined by “divine rites” in abodes of timeless and invaluable beauty.

A Lebanese-French archaeologist Joanne Farchakh, says in The Independent, “The antiquities from Palmyra has been on sale in London. There are Syrian and Iraqi objects taken by ISIS that are still in Europe. The destruction hides the income of IS. It is selling these things before destroying the temples.” The video footages of the desecration are shocking – the organisation succeeds in its purpose to hit the culturally aware, thinking-world on its face.

In April, the outfit blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq and then Palmyra, where the militia had been making gradual inroads till it conquered the oasis virtually overnight in a civil coup, overrunning the streets. When it began to ravage Palmyra initially, the terror group strapped the Syrian soldiers to Roman pillars and placed explosives around them. After eliminating the armed resistance by Syrian forces, the militia unleashed bloodbaths on the streets of the oasis town. Last month, the organisation beheaded the former antiquities of the Palmyra museum- “incentivising” him for his lifetime of dedication to restoring the legacy of the great races of builders, who inhabited the region before the arrival of the prophet and Jesus Christ.

This mindless act of “neutralising” a key witness of un-Islamic history was followed by the destruction of the temple of Bal Shamim, an ancient Phoenician god of war and thunder — and the shrine of the Semitic deity of Bel – who lends Palmyra a place for itself in the spiritual map of West Asia as a pilgrimage hub and site of religious festivals. On Sept 4, the militia claimed that the outfit had destroyed all the old towers that canopied the UNESCO heritage town.

Around May, when the Syrian forces flanked off the initial wave of the Islamic militia attack, the terrorist group bathed the streets of Palmyra in blood, killing more than 400 people – mostly Muslims of Syrian origin. The objective of this massacre was grotesque than it seemed – not just a cultural relocation to impose the levelling writ of Islam as the group touted during the inauguration of its holocaust of history in April 2015, when it embarked on its mission of wiping out cultural lineages in an irrevocable subversion of history. It was the “sinister” and yet a “pedestrian”  element of petty artifact loot that tainted the militia’s intent of messianic purpose.

The militia is using archaeology and history to its advantage. According to Farchakh,  the Shah of Iran “used the ruins of Persepolis to falsify his family’s history” and Saddam Hussain had his initials embossed on the bricks of Babylon.

In October, 1971 when the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi celebrated 2500-anniversary of the Iranian monarchy, he had spent an estimated $ 100 million to establish his family’s royal status by building a tent city next to the ruins of Persepolis, where guests were treated like monarchs at the cost of the country’s exchequer. Iran erupted in protests and the media alleged that the “Shah”, who was of commoner blood – an army officer’s descendant — used the official coffers to stamp his acquired “royal” genes on the country. He had minted a new coin of oppression.

Such acts of blasphemy and acquisition in the name of radical causes are widespread across history — from the ancient Caliphate sultans, the slave kings of Egypt to the grand Mughals and the neo-imperialists and the cults. They have all used subversion of historical events to tell their own stories. It is this war of cultural appropriation that defines the new anatomy of 21st century terrorism or rather the “clash of civilization” in which one race of people – with allegiance to a particular stream of thought — seeks to decimate a weaker group, in most instances- peace loving civilians, who are ineffectual against the “jihadi” might or organised guerrilla warfare. It is strange, as one historian, points out that the “common” people who have no knowledge of the new and complex pedagogy of terror and even “interpretation of religions” should be caught in the crosshairs and tangible histories – archaeology – brave the bullets of hate and domination play. The masterminds shulk in the shadows, occasionally splashed in the media as having been downed by drones, airstrikes and resistance coalition of governments fighting the brigands. They often make a comeback with severe injuries in “diligently planned and worded videos” exhorting the indoctrinated cadre to carry on with the “jihad” or their individual missions of bloodshed.

The Taliban had ruled the plains and hills of Afghanistan on this violent appropriation of a historical culture with a stringent interpretation of Islam, the al-Qaeda razed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in a fit of ‘jihadi’ rage – blatant show of religious and indoctrinated muscle— in retaliation to the blunders committed by the western world in Iraq and elsewhere. Yemen, Libya and Syria are caudrons of this historical hate and sustained and protracted civil wars— with consequent upheavals of displacement and demographic transformations across Europe and the western world. In India, the Partition of the country came riding on partisan religions, Mohammed Ali Jinnah wanted a Islamic Pakistan – and Jawaharlal Nehru-Mahatma Gandhi wanted a secular India. The British rulers, wanted to deal a parting shot to the sub-continent’s cultural, social and political mosaic so that India remained with an “itch” on its shin for all ages to come contending with a hostile Pakistan and a belligerent Bangladesh.  In more recent memory, the riots in Gujarat rustled up this religious divide once again to derail the process of globalisation.  Sultan Mehamet fought the crusades, fired by the rage of a prosletysing Islam against an “emotionally-charged” Christianity.

But theft of history cannot be accounted in this lofty battle of spiritual or religious or political hegemonies. It takes back to the war in Iraq in 2003 when the national repositories of cultures were looted by rampaging mobs after the war. The National Museum in Baghdad officially reopened this year (2015) in February, 12 years after it was closed in the wake of the US invasion. The opening of the museum, as the British Broadcasting Corporation, reported was pre-poned as a “response to an Islamic State video showing statues being destroyed in the Iraqi heritage town of Mosul”. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider- al-Abadi described the acts of looting as barbaric. “These barbaric, criminal terrorists are trying to heritage of mankind and Iraq’s civilization,” he said.

Archaeologist Farchakh says “instead of building its power on archaeological objects, the outfit is building its power on the destruction of archeology. It is reversing a method- never ‘before’ in history and never ‘after’”. In a decade, Palmyra will be shorn of its collective historical memory and its new Caliphate rulers richer by billions of US dollars by selling the “oasis” of continuous past – rich and sought-after- like petty artifact thieves in the international markets bequeathing inheritances of loss and cultural emptiness to its posterity.

Where does it position the “jihad” of the Islamic State with its lurid lores of slave trade, torture, sexua’ excesses.  zenophobic massacres of innocents, unwarranted indoctrination of minors, kidnappings and misplaced ideology of a larger Islamic pre-eminence fuelled by petty greed like unchecked artifact smuggling. The Islamic State needs to take a serious look at its “jihad” of goals — and saner means to achieve them. Theft and blood do not pay in ideological wars of civilisation. We have a right to our pasts and roots.

Madhusree Chatterjee
Senior Editor/The Statesman/Asia News Network (ANN)

Fall of the Asian old world: Indonesia battles conundrums

Jakarta, August 22, 2015

Asia bonds over the common political narrative of dilemma – as governments in chorus strive to take on the entrenched orders of corruption, complacency, uncertain political transformations and economic downslides — the latter having spread like a malaise devouring the continent’s traditional economies and trajectories of growth.
Indonesia is an interesting example of the Asian miasma that has allowed power equations to polarize between the Mandarin-speaking Oriental bloc and the Indian sub-continent in terms of political influence and diplomatic leverages in the Asia-Pacific region; without redressing the power imbalance by creating buffer cushions.
The Asian chaos, as many foreign affairs analysts like to identify, has been aggravated by the troika of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – three traditional centres of growth and power — which have been in the decline for more than several decades under the shadow of China, Japan, South Korea and even the Philippines to a certain measure. The recent bomb blasts in Thailand – on August 17 – is evidence enough that the traditional Asian economies are not in a position to withstand assaults on their socio-cultural and political bulwarks that spill directly into the fragile economic lifelines.  Indonesia, a populous archipelago of approximately 255 million people, is currently in the midst of a difficult metamorphosis from the complacency of the 1980s to an integration with the greater global sync of unified trade and tariff – and a homogenous brand of Asian modernism that takes into stride the traditional narratives as well. It is a difficult change given the vicious spiral of corruption, devaluation of the currency “rupiah”, economic downturn and the fear of a rerun of the 1998-1999 crash In an attempt to stave off an economic disaster Prime Minister Jokowi Widodo re-shuffled his Cabinet this month to bring aboard an odd half a dozen veterans from the cold. They have been tasked with rejuvenating the laggard economy – to turn it around with infusions of foreign funding.
The hopes of resuscitating the economy in the short term are misplaced for on August 12 alone, the Indonesian “rupiah” touched 13,788 against the dollar — which economic watchers declared as one of the weakest since the 1998 financial crisis. “The rupiah rate is already competitive, already undervalued, so there is no need for us to perform a deliberate currency depreciation,” senior deputy governor of Bank Indonesia Mirza Adityaswaran sent out in a text message. That was not enough. The country seemed poised on the precipice, commented a market insider about the crisis besetting the commercial counters in the capital city of Jakarta. The Jakarta Composite Index, the main price indicator in the Indonesian Stock Exchange, plunged by 3.1 per cent on Aug 12, a keel never seen since 2014. The Bank Indonesia’s foreign exchange reserves fell steadily in the past few months to touch $ 107.6 billion in July end. Sources said the crisis was precipitated by the fact that the bank had been aggressively pumping dollars to pull the dozing markets out of the red.
The streets of Jakarta narrate the story of the country’s lean cycle. Overpopulation and unchecked migration from the countryside and the smaller islands to Jakarta in search of new urban livelihoods – forsaking the traditional agriculture and the plantation jobs — has exerted tremendous pressure on the city’s infrastructures fraying civic amenities like housing, water, transport and jobs at the seams, pointed out a senior journalist from the Jakarta Post. “The migrants, who pour in by the hundreds every day, look for homes to live in the city,” she said. The consequence — shantytowns jostle for space with swanky highrises and glittering shopping arcades in the heart of the capital’s commercial district, which choke at the arteries with pollution and traffic jams caused by a sea of mortor-cylists — most of it made of a quaint two-wheeled public taxi service.
“The traditional population who inhabit the urban sprawls on the edge of the capital refuse to move to government housing complex because they like in smaller homes with land around them,” the journalist said. The mindset still reeked of a pastoral time-warp — of villages imposed within the city, she suggested.The shoppers’ arcades— like many other developing Asian countries — are virtually deserted. The motley groups of shoppers, who stalk the neon vestibules overlooking the high-end brand kiosks on either side, are mostly tourists and youngsters, the latter inclined to hanging out in the malls during the day-time. Business transacted is not commensurate to the wares on display and belie the “projected market movement” prophecies. The haunting memories of the 2005 Bali bombings and 2009 Ritz Carlton/Marriot Hotel bombings in Jakarta still arrest the psyche of the nation – impeding the free flow of outsiders and the leashing the natural joie d’vivre of holiday resorts like Bali and Java.
The disparity between the “marginalized” classes and the moneyed lot is glaring – a legacy of the founder Sukarno’s fledgling years of totalitarian regime that was perpetuated by incumbent Suharto – and now Jokowi.
Tourism, contrary to the impression of a slump, has logged northward shift in the last two years since 2013, divulge statistics. A total number of foreign tourist arrivals to Indonesia in 2014 stood at 9.44 million, up 7.19 per cent from the preceding year, says Indonesian Investment. But the economy does not reflect the bounties wrought by the high tourist inflow — despite the fact that weakened “rupiah” against the dollar draw more foreign tourists, who find the destination cost-effective.
If media projections are to be lent credence, the export market has hit a new high with large shipments to China. The country claims that it ranks 16th among the G-20 nations, but “performs badly in business deals, competitiveness and personal per capita income”.
The country’s paradoxes result from poor political will to set the balance right — and from the fact that ASEAN has yet to evolve as a powerful economic community like the European Union with a common currency and provisions for neighbourly charities to bail out weak economies. Religion adds to the despondency with schisms between the Muslims, Christians and Buddhists becoming perceptible in the last decade with protests and allegations of persecutions of religious sects. The country is run by a network of powerful business conglomerates, who rinse the economy to “maximize” gains.
Add to this forlorn scenario, corruption — Indonesia’s bane since its transition to Independence from a European colony 70 years ago. “Money is in the hands of the ruling Sukarno and Suharto clans even now,” the journalist from Jakarta Post pointed out at a lavish dinner in “Vin+”— a fashionable night spot in the capital’s Senayan City Mall, frequented by the capital’s well-heeled. Jokowi has a complex assignment on hand— to put the currency back on track and tackle institutionalized corruption, she added on a lighter vein.
Corruption is endemic to every level of the society despite measures to check social “wrong-doings”. In 2003, the Indonesian government set up a special anti-corruption agency, Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), despite the presence of the National Police and the Attorney General’s office— to try cases of graft. But the numbers of reported corruption overwhelm even the commission, whose performance has slowed down considerably.It calls for a change, is the refrain of the young Indonesians. Former KPK chairman Tauficqurachman Ruki was of the opinion that “successful eradication of corruption in the country rested on strong and lasting commitment from the President and the chief justice.”
“One way to achieve the target (eradicating corruption)is through a thorough review of the political system— the party, state administration and the election system – the legal and the economic system. But the key remains the availability of strong and committed state leaders to lead and guide the process,” Ruki said.
Jokowi’s ministerial reshuffle is definitely an effort — or at best a semblance of positive engagement with the pressing economic and social concerns that Indonesia is battling at the moment.

—Madhusree Chatterjee
Senior Editor/The Statesman/Asia News Network

Asean in search of greater engagement with India

Jakarta, 14 Aug, 2015

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is looking to intensify trade ties with India to double the volume in another decade as a carry-over from the Delhi Dialogue V that had set out negotiate greater cooperation in business and security, an ASEAN deputy secretary general told the Asian News Network media at a briefing in the Indonesian capital on August 14.

The official said the trade between the 10 ASEAN members and India stood approximately at 200 million US dollars, which “was a pittance given the scale of economic growth and the solidarity of the ASEAN bloc with India which had strengthened over the decades”. India is a dialogue partner of ASEAN with special trade agreement and cooperation initiatives in the spheres of regional security, maritime affairs, people to people contact, peace building and socio-cultural development.

“We can intensify and enhance relationship between India and ASEAN. The association wants to engage with the Indian chambers of commerce and industry,” deputy secretary general of ASEAN AKP Mochtan said.

The fact that India is serious about its engagement with ASEAN is evident from the fact that the country has two ambassadors to the association, including a permanent resident envoy, Suresh K. Reddy. India has also set up a separate ASEAN office six months ago, the official said. But the initiatives have not yet yielded any tangible gains despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “look east” commitment at the ASEAN summit in 2014. .

ASEAN’s eagerness for enhanced engagement in trade and regional security with India assumes significance in the light of a code of conduct that the 10-member bloc is drawing up to ensure stability in the disputed South China Sea region and in countering the growing threat of terror and unchecked migration of the boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia, Thailand and beyond, the official said, adding that India’s support and cooperation were needed to maintain stability in the south-east Asian region.

“When it comes to the issue of the South China Sea, we are looking at the issue of stability and security of the region – and the overlapping claims. China is perceived to be provocative and there is some concern about it. That is why Asean is vocal about the issue – for the dispute relates to the stability of the region and applies to all the member states. The stand-off needs diplomatic solutions and we have several mechanisms to address it. We are in the process of drafting a CoC – code of conduct. It is another mechanism,” the ASEAN official said.

At the ASEAN regional forum meeting in Ufa in July 2015 , together with the BRICS and the SCO summit, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi pledged to engage more seriously with ASEAN in peace-building and regional security concerns.

The ASEAN official recalled Modi’s pledge saying, the 10-member south east Asian nation’s association wanted to broaden “cooperation with India to include collaborations in culture and soft power as well” for better understanding.

At a meeting of the member nations this week, the association decided to bid for the 2034 World Cup provided FIFA cleared the formalities. “We are looking at the feasibility of the prospect and carrying out an assessment of the infrastructure. The bid has to be in place in 2019,” the officer said. But before that “ASEAN will institute a super football league in the region”.

Madhusree Chatterjee
The Statesman(Kolkata)/Asia News Network .

Kochi biennale 2016 reaffirms pledge to hold aloft rainbow aesthetics

Kochi, Aug 8:

The narrative and aesthetics of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) 2016 may evolve to include the global sensitivities in contemporary art, but the core spirit of the country’s lone art biennale invoking Kochi’s latent cosmopolitan spirit and multicultural history will remain unchanged.
Three weeks after the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) announced its curator for the upcoming (2016) edition biennale, speakers at a panel discussion in Mumbai shared their vision of the exposition in the context of India acquiring legitimacy as a exhibition and innovation destination on the global amps of art capitals on par with countries like Shanghai, Singapore, China, Hong Kong  and Dubai in Asia— not to mention the western meccas like Venice, Basel, Miami and Berlin.
Friday’s discussion began on a nostalgic note with co-curators Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu walking down the memory lane of the biennale in 2012 — when the Kerala government opened the ancient Jewish settlement at Fort Kochi and the port city of Muziris to facilitate an ambitious medley of art and heritage. The concept was more site-specific rather than exhibitions of art curated in closed  spaces. The result was a integrated panorama of visual aesthetics that accounted for the history of the venue, its regeneration for sustainable use and economic triggers which helped ramp up tourism in the sea-resort by drawing new segments of cultural tourists. Government statistics  cited the total number of footfalls logged more than 900,000 across the two biennales.
The founder-curators were joined in their reminiscences by two eminent artists and curators Jitish Kallat and Sudarshan Shetty— for 2014 and 2016 respectively —  who  expounded about the continuum of the biennale – and how it has retained the “quality of being in the opposition”.
“Since then, the effort has been to strengthen contemporary art infrastructure and to broaden public access to art in India,” Shetty told a packed gathering at the National Gallery of Modern Art. “We have also been engaged in exchange programmes and residencies by bringing many collaborations.”
Komu pointed out that the biennale has been a strong platform that introduces contemporary international visual art theory and practice to India, showcase and debates on new Indian and international aesthetics besides art experiences so as to enable a dialogue among artists, curators and the people.Reaffirming the biennale’s original mission as a “People’s Biennale” to create a new language of cosmopolitanism and modernity rooted in the lived and living experience of Kochi as an old trading port, he said the coastal city has for more than six centuries been a crucible of numerous communal identities — each assimilating from the other and overlapping at the same time to become the first “true” melting pot of the west and the Orient.
“Kochi is among the few cities in India where pre-colonial traditions of cultural pluralism continue to flourish. These traditions pre-date the post-Enlightenment ideas of cultural pluralism, globalisation and multiculturalism,” Jitish Kallat, the curator of the 2014 biennale, pointed out. In fact, the notion of rainbow as a culture of synthesis can be traced to Muziris, the ancient city that was buried under layers of mud and mythology after a massive flood in the 14th century wiping out the landing boards of the first wave of the Jewish settlers, the early Christians and East India Company imperialists.
Jitish Kallat said the biennale has been a success story in India—more so considering that it is only two editions old. Kallat pointed out that the KMB’14 that he had curated was “not just about Kochi but from Kochi”, adding how he had included his “deep interest in cosmology to the curatorial note”. Indeed, “the biennale’s fragility has been its strength”.
Shetty, who has just initiated conversations with potential artists for 2016 edition, said detailed research and conversations are underway with people from different disciplines in an attempt to bridge tradition and contemporaneity— suggesting that even in 2016, Kochi will carry on with its core spirit of supporting local heritage with cultural interfaces across demographies, races, social realities and histories that make the soul of post-modern art.
Kochi has finally found its place on the art trails of the global cognoscenti- the curators refrained.           .