Behind the scenes at Lokame Tharavadu, the biggest festival of Malayali artists coming up in the land of houseboats and coir warehouses
Shed D of KSCC (Kerala State Coir Corporation) in Alappuzha, one of the main venues of Lokame Tharavadu (The World is One Family in Malayalam), resembles a wedding house. The upcoming contemporary art show — organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation in association with the state government, and curated by renowned artist Bose Krishnamachari — may have pushed its opening date (pandemic protocols), but the preparatory work continues unabated.
I step into a cacophony of drilling machines, stone cutters and an earthmover. Young men and women — artists and volunteers of the Foundation — unload wooden crates from vans and remove bubble wrap to reveal paintings and sculptures. I spot Nijeena Neelambaram’s installation titled Almirah, with the names of women from history visible through the packaging. “The almirah is part of a girl’s trousseau when she gets married, a customary tradition in Kerala; it’s a keepsake and baggage as well,” shares Neelambaram. Fresh paint is being applied to the walls around me, framers adjust pictures, and the strong smell of polish, glue and linseed oil pervades.
Next month, Lokame Tharavadu will turn the spotlight on 268 Malayali artists from India and abroad. Their works will be showcased across five venues in this seaside town with its Venice-like canals and quaint bridges, including the Port Museum, Easter Produce Company (EPC), the Goodacre Warehouse at the Revi Karunakaran Museum, and the New Model Society Building.
“We are days away from the official launch and two of the venues are almost ready. But production will go on simultaneously till all the works are up,” Krishnamachari explains as we walk through the din. “These cubicles will hold video works,” he says, pointing to aluminium frames on which boards are going up as partitions. An installation by CF John made of coir and jute hangs perilously from the high roof.
268 artists united
Works of many artists are up already. Krishnamachari rattles off names. “Here’s Babu Cherian, one of Kerala’s most important names in the 80s, a self-taught artist… there’s Prathapan, Jyothi Basu, Surendran and Sudevan, a filmmaker… I’ve collected works from those I find talented.” He explains that the Alappuzha show is an extension of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB). “Just as the Sydney Biennale moves out to Cockatoo Islands, a location that’s an hour away, similarly Alappuzha is close to Kochi and carries its charm.”
Coming full circle
- The final venue of Lokame Tharavadu is around 60 km away, at Durbar Hall in Kochi (a popular KMB venue). In the climate-controlled space, works of senior artists such as Velu Viswanathan and A Ramachandran will be exhibited. “This will also establish a connect between the two cities of Alappuzha and Kochi,” says Krishnamachari.
In 2004, Krishnamachari had curated BombayX 17, a show that had brought into focus visual art experiments by Mumbai artists, followed by Double Enders a year later (both hosted in Fort Kochi), which exhibited works of Malayali artists from around the world. These shows can be seen as a prelude to Lokame Tharavadu. Now, after a pandemic has disrupted the entire world and affected artists the hardest, he is producing this ‘survey show’ as a tribute to the fraternity.
In Alappuzha since January, Krishnamachari has been ideating for the past seven months. The show (three times the size of KMB with reference to participants) will not only display the works on one platform, but will allow collectors, curators and viewers to evaluate pieces for later exhibitions or for their personal collections. “An online exhibition cannot replicate the strength of a physical display of art, just like life. There has been no tangible show for a long time. This [show] will build the confidence of the artists, who are all highly talented,” adds Krishnamachari. The show is being buoyed by the hopes of the people of Alappuzha. “They have formed a group and meet every other day at venues to oversee the progress of how the huge exhibition is coming about.”
Breaking the white cube
Next, Rohana Jeyaraj of the Foundation guides me to Port Museum on the beach, a longish row of barracks interspersed with spaces opposite the iconic kadal palam (pier). A landscape garden is being readied here and a café is to come up soon. Artist Arun KS is at work, putting up an installation using mud, lime and cow dung. He has created hundreds of Onattapan-like (a clay figure symbolic of Lord Vamana) structures in different sizes and colours, which are neatly arranged on mud blocks. Tiny sea shells and manjadikuru (lucky red seeds) are scattered on its surface. “I made these working right through the pandemic last year. Ideas block creativity so I just let one thought lead to another,” says the Baroda-based artist of his untitled work.
Jeyaraj points to the walls where a Jitesh Kalat will be displayed and a hall which awaits a Gigi Scaria. Out on the beach a mural by Sameer Kulavoor in bright exterior weather-proof paints grabs my attention. It forms a backdrop to the open air stage where playback singer Shahabaz Aman will perform during the opening.
“A few thoughts were running through my mind: Noah’s Ark, the phrase ‘we are all in the same boat’, and the title of the show, Lokame Tharavadu,” Kulavoor later tells me, over phone from Mumbai. “I decided to put everyone on a boat — the man from Harappa to the 3,000 BC sculptures of Easter Island, to represent the whole of humanity.” We drive to the other venues, where I see Anpu Varkey’s striking murals on the walls of Goodacre and EPC. Varkey was the first artist to be invited to show at KMB’s first edition. “Surprisingly, here too she’s the first,” says Jeyaraj. Her sky blue de-boned fish is splayed across the wall of the venue. Meanwhile, at EPC, she has created a powerful mural of coir ropes and hands, a tribute to the factories here and the people powering them.
The New Model Society, a majestic colonial building, is also getting dressed up for the big occasion. A flight of stairs open up to a well-lit hall where Vishnu Kolleri’s work — terracotta sculptures on a bamboo frame — has found its place. Artist Mithra K is waiting for her work, a painting with autobiographical references, to be put up. Downstairs, a makeshift office is in work mode.
Lokame Tharavadu will open in April. Tickets at ₹20. Details: kochimuzirisbiennale.org/lokame-tharavadu