On December 11, I travelled to Kerala to view the fifth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, India’s most prestigious visual arts event. Not long after I landed, the Biennale Instagram handle put out a story stating the display had been pushed back to December 23. That post was taken down, only for the bad news to be reaffirmed by the same account on the morning of December 12, the day of the scheduled opening.

Bewildered art lovers who had flown in from various parts of India and the world tried to make sense of what had gone wrong, or, to be more precise, what had gone wrong enough to warrant the radical decision. KMB was, after all, notorious for being short of fully ready on the traditional opening day of December 12.

Although no tickets were being sold, visitors were allowed to access the main site of Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi and the subsidiary venues down the waterfront. I wandered through room after empty room, some with electrical connections missing, others with walls unpainted, yet others used for storage of electronic equipment. Most of the works that had been successfully installed were covered up to protect them from dust thrown up by carpentry work and cleaning. So little was fully set up that it seemed very unlikely the site would be ready to meet the revised deadline of December 23.

Not a surprise

I was saddened by the failure, and angry at having shelled out good money for a no-show, but not surprised. In a column written eight years ago reviewing the biennale’s second edition, I had suggested it could not go on as it had done till that point, with many artists unable to display their work on opening day, power cuts regularly leaving monitors blank in video-based artworks, and some art damaged in transit. The founders of KMB, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, had done an incredible job getting it off the ground, but keeping it aloft required a more professional organisation.

By 2018, I began to think my analysis had been erroneous. Without any structural change, with the same ad hoc management style and rough-and-ready look to the sites, the biennale kept producing exhibitions whose impact matched the best the world had to offer. I was glad to be proven wrong because in my heart I had always been a cheerleader for KMB and an admirer of the drive and ambition of its founders. But 2022 has proved that the system was not resilient enough to cope with unexpected stresses, did not have sufficient margin for error to withstand a series of shocks. If one is always scrambling to get things up in time, a moment is bound to arrive when the scramble falls decisively short.

In a conversation with me, Bose outlined the major factors that in his view had contributed to the debacle. Aspinwall House has for years been caught up in a tussle between the state government which wants to take it over and the DLF group which is reluctant to part with the prime property without adequate compensation. With negotiations falling through at a crucial moment in November, DLF withdrew permission for KMB and locked up the property. The management of DLF had changed since the previous edition of the biennale, and the KMB organisers had not built relationships with the new team. It seems (my words not Bose’s) that the sponsor held the biennale hostage to extract value from the government.

This was the moment to postpone the event with minimal reputational damage. What could KMB do if its main venue had been rendered inaccessible? It was already clear at this point that installing the show was going to be next to impossible because of a logjam with customs clearances. Indian import rules are dreadfully unsympathetic to international art displays. Huge sums have to be deposited as guarantees and are only released by customs once works have left Indian shores.

In the past a private bank would process the guarantee in a day, but a rule change meant only nationalised banks were now allowed to do this, and it took weeks to obtain the documents, leading to delays in shipping works from abroad. To make things worse, Bose said, KMB began this biennale cycle with a debt of almost Rs 5 crores, leading to a funds crunch and a paucity of labour. Although I heard a major sponsor had vetted past accounts, it’s still a bit of a mystery to most people where so much money is being spent. I had asked for transparency from the organisers in my column eight years ago, and that seems more critical now than ever.

Bose now regrets not pulling the plug in November, but his reasoning at the time was that thousands of art lovers had already booked tickets and planned itineraries around the event. Besides, KMB had triumphed against high odds before. But things only got worse once Aspinwall House was made available. A number of artists told me about deficient accommodation, missing facilities (no toilets at the venue for female artists and volunteers), delays in handing out per diems, and constant communications issues with the management, with desperate emails and Whatsapp messages going unanswered and unacknowledged.

A final blow was struck by Cyclone Mandous, which brought heavy rain to Kochi, exposing leaky roofs in many spots. Kerala, it must be said, is hardly one of the globe’s arid regions. It would have been worse if such deficiencies were exposed in the middle of the event, with artworks being damaged in the process.

An artists’ biennale

In the past, Bose’ co-founder Riyas Komu had handled a lot of the nitty-gritty of installation. In 2018, however, at the height of the MeToo movement, serious anonymous allegations were levelled against Komu leading to him stepping away from KMB. Without making any judgment about the charges themselves, it is clear that Komu’s absence has deeply hurt KMB’s ability to deliver on its commitments.

Bose admits his team botched communications with artists, being caught up with firefighting on other fronts. However, KMB advertises itself as an artists’ biennale. Its curators have all been practicing artists like its founders. The last thing the organisers can afford is to alienate an artists’ community that has backed it through thick and thin. And right now, artists are very alienated indeed.

Asim Waqif, who makes sculptures from detritus and repurposed materials, and has produced a spectacular work in bamboo for this year’s KMB which looks part roller coaster, part forest and part percussion instrument, didn’t hold back in his condemnation of the KMB authorities. “This institution is practicing exploitation as a working method, exploiting arts practice, labour and goodwill,” he said, “The disregard for artistic and curatorial concerns have made people feel humiliated and belittled”.

Without being so explicit, at a panel facilitated by one of the event sponsors, BMW, this edition’s curator, a brilliant India-born, Singapore-based artist-intellectual named Shubhigi Rao, made apparent her own anger at the way the fiasco played out. It seems with each successive edition, as the artistic directors have grown less personally familiar to the founders, tensions have got worse between management and creative heads.

If KMB is to survive, perhaps it needs to batten down the hatches, lower its ambitions and make the biennale a more local affair for a while. It is hard to see any artist of international repute taking on a curatorship that has turned into a poisoned chalice. Bose and his team have maintained good relations with the Left Front state government, and can be optimistic about continued support from that important backer. The future of private sponsorship and patronage looks far cloudier.

With a gaping hole in visitors’ itineraries, the accompanying Students’ Biennale and satellite events gained importance and luckily provided much to savour. A clutch of group shows at the TKM Warehouse was perhaps the highlight, but interesting shows studded cafes, warehouses and galleries in Fort Kochi. There was more painting in the Students’ Biennale than in past years, perhaps because the pandemic lockdowns left artists with few creative options in terms of medium.

Many young artists appear drawn to personal narratives, frequently inserting biographical elements into their work. There was, however, the occasional work that confronted historical trauma, such as Biswajit Thakuria’s Remembering the Landscape, in which the Guwahati-born student of Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan, contrasted idyllic official images of Assam with a history of secret killings two decades ago.

Among the personal narratives, I was moved by A Livingstan and V Sivagnanam’s En Vallkai, a sculptural assemblage in brick, wood and terracotta. Livingstan’s mother works in a brick kiln and, as a hobby, makes little sculptures out of leftover clay. Her example of retaining creative agency despite a soul-destroying occupation inspired the two students of Kumbakonam’s Government College of Fine Arts to create whimsical sculptural objects from bricks she had made and arrange them alongside some of her creations.

Some of the collateral events featuring mature artists also carried forward the biographical thread. I was particularly impressed by Prasanta Sahu’s drawings, diagrams, sculptures and video interpreting his family history of agricultural labour through the lens of his education as an engineer as well as his vocation as an artist. He conveyed the dignity as well as hardship involved in using basic but often elegant tools for farming, foraging, fishing and yarn-making.

By the end of my second full day in Kochi, I was feeling more optimistic about the biennale’s future. It has become too important a fulcrum of the Indian art world simply to discard. The art community, patrons, and KMB organisers need to have serious discussions and institute fundamental changes, but hopefully a way forward will ultimately be found.