Contemporary art is opening a new road to connect to the heritage of the ancient Kochi-Muziris region of Keralto carry it to the world through a series of reconnecting works in a variety of mediums, on display at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012.
The ancient port city of Muziris - now being excavated - was a key transit point on the Indo-Roman and the Indo-Greek trade route since 1st century BC while its twin city Kochi has been a cultural melting pot for the last six centuries.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 - India's first official biennale of contemporary art begnning Dec 12 - is being described as a cultural renaissance built around the holistic heritage conservation model of regenration, reuse and sustainability of archaeological relics, its organisers say.
It has drawn 88 artists from 24 countries and nearly 1,500 performers. Little wonder then that Kochi-Muziris is a flurry of actvity.
In a large dimly lit space at the Aspwinwall House in Mattancherry, the ancient spice trading quarters of Fort Kochi, a group of workmen is putting together what seems to be a strange installation. The workmen are assembling thousands of brown clay pottery shards, excavated from the ruins of Muziris in Pattanam, into an abstract miniature of the port city that was destroyed in a flood in the Periyar river in 1341 AD.
The installation by contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram is trying to connect the history of Muziris to contemporary abstraction - a realm that allows the viewer to re-imagine history in his own way with impressions of a reality no more there.
Next to Sundaram's heritage installation hangs a 60-ft long wooden trading boat, a realistic installation by artist Subodh Gupta. The boat, traditional in design, is a replica of the vessels used to ferry spices and goods on the high seas off the Mattancherry coast.
The installations meld into the history of the venue - the old Aspinwall & Company Ltd, a spice firm established 1867 by English trader John H. Aspinwall.
"The kind of material Vivan Sundaram uses in the installation touches upon a kind of hidden history using a high-end technology. It represents new knowledge and adds a cultural depth to the place and the art," says biennale co-curator Riyas Komu.
Gupta, who has been working with boats, calls his installation an extension of his ongoing practice but "one which takes on a new meaning in old Kochi, the boat city".
"I have been reconnecting to history with smaller boats for the last few years in my studio," Gupta says.
Kerala-based artist Valsom Koorma Koller is recycling the state's natural resources - coir, coconut husk, coir wool, rice husk, coconut fronds, pots, clay, textile and metal scrap - in a bunker-display space at the Aspwinwall House. "The act of recycling material signifies that nothing dies and all material has life if we put a little mind and art to it," Valsom says, explaining the nature of his work.
The materials are arranged in figurative and pyramidal forms on bunkers - piled in stories on each other. "What I am concerned about is that when somebody dies, we either burn or bury them. But we rarely donate their organs to live in the next generation... We sell our future to enjoy a joyful life today. I want to perpetuate life," the artist says.
The sea outside the historic Pepper House, another venue of the biennale that has been restored last week, flows into artist K.P. Regi's canvas. The imagery is a direct transposition of Regi's interpretation of the arrival of the Indian Navy aircraft carrier at Cochin harbour in a photo-realistic style. (As it happens, INS Virat is being refurbished at the Cochin Shipyard).
Regi says his work explores "the layers of Kochi's history - from its days of pastoral innocence to the years of Mahatma Gandhi, independence of India, the Left politics and weapons of war on the town's historic waters".
The Dutch-style waterfront Pepper House is a living heritage of change. Once consisting of two spice godowns with clay roofs and a central courtyard, the 16,000 sq ft building has been restored as a modern multi-use space to host art and culture.
Other historic venues have been resurrected from the rubble of neglect as well. The Durbar Hall, built in 1850 by the king of Cochin has been converted into a modern scientifically-planned art museum and gallery while the David Hall, a Dutch-style bungalow built in 1695 by the Dutch East India Company, has been restored to host art and performances.
One classic example of rebirth is Goturuth, a sliver of land that emerged out of the water after Muziris drowned in a deluge. Nearly 40 km from Fort Kochi, the 14th century landmass will support a public installation of Chinna Thambi Annavi, who is believed to have founded the Chavittu Nadakam, a Latin Christian performance art.
Kerala-based artist Anto George is working on the 11-foot statue of the cultural icon at a site where a Church overlooks a Shiva temple.
The biennale is paying its tribute to Ilango Adigal , the creator of Silappadikaram who wrote the epic story of divine princess Kannagi, by installing a Kannagi icon at Mathikalam, located in what was once Muziris.
(Madhusree Chaterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)