Around 2,000 years ago, Muziris was one of India’s most important trading ports. According to the Akananuru, a collection of Tamil poetry from the period, it was “the city where the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Yavanas [Westerners], stir white foam on the Periyar, river of Kerala, arriving with gold and departing with pepper.”
Another poem speaks of Muziris (also known as Muciripattanam or Muciri) as “the city where liquor abounds”, which “bestows wealth to its visitors indiscriminately” with “gold deliveries, carried by the ocean-going ships and brought to the river bank by local boats”.
The Roman author Pliny, in his Natural History, called Muziris “the first emporium of India”. The city appears prominently on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a fifth-century map of the world as seen from Rome. But from thereon, the story of this great Indian port becomes hazy. As reports of its location grow more sporadic, it literally drops off the map.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to invoke the latent cosmopolitan spirit of the modern metropolis of Kochi and its mythical past, Muziris, and create a platform that will introduce contemporary international visual art theory and practice to India, showcase and debate new Indian and international aesthetics and art experiences and enable a dialogue among artists, curators, and the public.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to create a new language of cosmopolitanism and modernity that is rooted in the lived and living experience of this old trading port, which, for more than six centuries, has been a crucible of numerous communal identities. 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. They 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. The site was recently identified and is currently under excavation. It is necessary to explore and, when necessary, retrieve memories of this past, and its present, in the current global context to posit alternatives to political and cultural discourses emanating from the specific histories of Europe and America. A dialogue for a new aesthetics and politics rooted in the Indian experience, but receptive to the winds blowing in from other worlds, is possible.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to establish itself as a centre for artistic engagement in India by drawing from the rich tradition of public action and public engagement in Kerala, where Kochi is located. The emergence of Kerala as a distinct political and social project with lessons for many developing societies owes also to aesthetic interventions that have subverted notions of social and cultural hierarchies. These interventions are immanent in the numerous genres and practices of our rich tradition of arts. In a world of competing for power structures, it is necessary to balance the interests and independence of artists, art institutions, and the public.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to reflect the new confidence of Indian people who are slowly, but surely, building a new society that aims to be liberal, inclusive, egalitarian and democratic. The time has come to tell the story of cultural practices that are distinct to the Indian people and local traditions, practices and discourses that are shaping the idea of India. These share a lot with the artistic visions emerging from India’s neighbourhood. The Biennale also seeks to project the new energy of artistic practices in the subcontinent.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to explore the hidden energies latent in India’s past and present artistic traditions and invent a new language of coexistence and cosmopolitanism that celebrates the multiple identities people live with. The dialogue will be with, within, and across identities fostered by language, religion and other ideologies. The Biennale seeks to resist and interrogate representations of cosmopolitanism and modernity that thrive by subsuming differences through co-option and coercion.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to be a project in appreciation of, and education about, artistic expression and its relationship with society. It seeks to be a new space and a fresh voice that protects and projects the autonomy of the artist and her pursuit to constantly reinvent the world we live in.
The Kochi Biennale Foundation is also engaged in the conservation of heritage properties and monuments and the upliftment of traditional forms of art and culture. The Foundation was founded in 2010 by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu.
Conceptualized in 2010, the first edition of the Biennale was held in December 2012. Since then four such events have been successfully conducted, each time getting more varied and better than the previous versions.
According to Tate Modern, Kochi-Muziris Biennale was the best biennale they had ever seen. The biennale accrued 150,000 visitors in its first month and 250,000 visitors in its second, averaging a thousand visitors a day (as high as 5,000 daily and 10,000 on weekends, early January). Local people have stepped up, on an individual level, realising what the biennale has done for them, socio-economically and culturally, and in terms of putting Kochi on the international cultural map, something that does not go unappreciated in Kerala. McKinsey and companies have expressed their interest in studying the Biennale to know its economic effects.