Without whitewashing or attempting to hide, stand inside the walls of Aspinwall; stories by individuals on a family tree now uprooted, by individuals who once belonged to a cultural mandala now wiped off, by tongues that have lost the language used to convey intimacy, by women suppressed by hands that were handed their strings.
Ironically displayed on whitewashed walls of an old heritage structure that housed businesses of a British merchant; in rooms that may still hold the sweat of workers and maybe even souls of those who toiled in its hot humid rooms, the stories are told to shock and disturb.
If one has memories of an art festival with grand displays and installations designed to awe, in heritage structures with grand arches and bay windows that look out into blue shimmering water, then one is not just disappointed but also disheartened at first. The morbid reality of the stories is not covered over by bright colors; the medium used to express in most cases is not paint but slow-moving images on a screen in a dark room that demands viewers to stop, read, sit, watch and immerse. Or through installations that make you experience the dark, black rancid interiors of a manhole as a manual scavenger does.
The text on the placards are heavy, the topics heavier. Many of the displays require deep thought, others an understanding of the geo-political history of past times. The idea of fluttering from one room to another allowing the art to wash over you, has been replaced by a slow walk that makes you see the unseen, hear the unheard and tune into voices muffled by the cacophony outside in the world.
The growing discourse in popular cinema to create an escape for viewers rather than showcase the world as we live in today, has led to production of scores of movies that even masses who they are created for, reject them. The unseen and unheard is no longer so for anyone, even the masses. One may not understand it all but one is definitely not unaware. Here in the island town transformed for 3 months into a conclave of art open to the masses and the privileged, the thought of the polite, the easy to the eye, the palpable has been discarded unabashedly into the blue waters of the harbor that hugs the island. Positioned on a land where historically the masses have been synonymous with protest poetry, songs of dissent, political pamphlets and persistent striking. Where the face of Che Guevara stares at you on derelict walls graffitied by artists and the red sickle peeks at you at every corner and street.
After the initial irritation at the gray and sepia-ness of the rooms, and post a little discourse over dinner, on why it is the way it is, what led to it; your eyes seem to adjust, just like they adjust to a dark room. And very like to the widening of your retina to let in light, the Biennale pleads with you to widen the crevices of your mind, your capacity to absorb, and to engage with the complex unfiltered expressions on display.
You leave the comfort of your warm white hotel bed, dressed in summer prints, a strappy dress or printed shirts with fun motifs, feeling light and airy, carrying that little handbag you bought just for this trip, into the hot sun, with dark tinted sunshades and maybe even a hat. Armed with bottled water and a map to guide your steps, entering into venues marked by the six lines of the Biennale's aesthetically designed logo that demarcates locations, hoping to be amazed or at least amused.
You walk into a warehouse with its roof collapsed, there from naked beams hang human forms covered in newspapers on a noose, drawing attention to the women lost to rape, murdered before their time in India. On a screen the size of a mini theater, a choir performs low octave throat chanting while on the wall you read names of nearly 700 women lost to sexual crimes in just the last 2 years in South Africa. Some whose names are unknown, unclaimed by none. The similarity to the story of hundreds of women in India who experience sexual violence, draws home injustices women in societies, here or 5000 miles away face every passing day.
Homes lost, lands ripped open, rivers stifled with dams, forests wiped from the surface of a map, beckon us to question where we call home, which part of this earth is our birth land and does it exist the way it did the day we were born? For those who call cities their place of birth, filmmakers capture the screeching sounds of a scorched city in constant flux, devoid of its soul, with miles of blue from slums that exist beside skyrises made of steel and metal, from the vantage of a camera on a high-rise. Made even more haunting by folk songs sung in coarse voices playing in the background.
From the annals of great horror as stories of resistance and revolt have been retold, men who have always taken center stage as heroes and revolutionaries are replaced by women whose blood and tears are recorded and acknowledged for playing their part. Women fighting while waiting for sons and daughters to return for multiple decades, women campaigning underground with protest literature while birthing 6 children at the start of a democracy in Nepal. Women across continents writing, lecturing, publishing for equal rights while they build communities, nurture camaraderie devoid of class or caste.
In its past avatar, the Biennale has never shied from hard truths and difficult narratives but may have created a balance by juxta positioning harshness with hope. In its 5th edition, despite operational challenges, an open letter of dissent by participating artists and a delayed start, the well-established platform that has now entered popular narrative as a must visit destination, has made a choice to bring under its umbrella a darkness that is all pervading and yet ignored by us.
Devi Seetharam’s ‘Brothers, Fathers and Uncles’ at the Biennale
The curatorial stand taken is to not hide, gloss over or cover up the ugliness created by us, but to put it under the spotlight and not even pretend to put a pretty shroud over it. It does have a cerebral tone with narratives taking precedence over exhibitionism. With stories of dissonance, disenfranchisement and displacement ringing in your ears much after you leave its gates. But most importantly it makes a strong case for accountability. It wants us to question each news headline before believing it to be the truth, to have context before we read forwarded messages and move them ahead into an abyss of ignorance and to hear stories that will never make it into everyday conversations.
It may not intend to make you feel guilty for your life, but empowers you to have more context of the world created by us.
Popular, acclaimed, riveting, established; all these may be the cross the Biennale has to carry. But despite that, it has not bothered to impress or to entertain but rather to shamelessly be.
For the sheer might it has shown to fight reductiveness; provide each one entering its doors a little flag of accountability and saying it without sheen, it deserves its place in the sun, or more specifically in the hot coastal rays of Fort Kochi.
Although words have been the primary mode of expression for someone who is reluctant to call herself an artist, you frequently find Mehar Zariwala in the company of watercolours, easels and oil pastels. Raised in the city of Bangalore in the 80’s, Mehar identifies herself as a Bangalore girl, totally in love with the city, including the current version. On her blog, Bikhre Lavz, she transliterates Urdu poetry, writes poetry and essays inspired by people and their lives, dabbling in all things wordy. She believes in the power of collaboration and has been working with other artists, making art, building toys and penning song lyrics while driving them up the wall with her impromptu jokes, loud laugh and tips on all ‘insider shortcuts’ in the city of Bengaluru.