In her curatorial note for the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Anita Dube invokes “possibilities of a non-alienated life” – the theme of the Biennale – where “pleasure and pedagogy could share a drink” in search of “politics of friendships”.

It is a hopeful idea. It stayed with me, prompting the question “what do we seek in the experience of art”, as I visited the Biennale. At one of the venues, there was Shilpa Gupta’s installation, For, In your tongue, I do not fit in a darkened room, titled after a poem by the 14th century Azerbaijani poet Nesimi. Many microphones hung atop pages of texts pierced through with sharp spears. A hundred poets, who have been jailed for their writings, spoke in clear and muffled voices, one overlaying another, from across time and places. The room was, at once, a prison cell and a space through which other visitors moved slowly and silently. The voices – in Urdu, Chinese, Arabic and English – spoke of resistances and dissent against authoritarian powers, and reminded me of Sunil Shanbag’s play Words Have Been Uttered.

The quiet visitors had become part of the installation. But did the speakers that were represented by microphones want us to speak up? One wondered – in the past five years in this country, how many must have walked the streets and raised slogans? For us and for much of the world, this has been a torturous time. So do we seek solidarity when we experience art? Does art provoke us to shatter that silence congealing in our own throats?

Shilpa Gupta, 'For, In your tongue, I do not fit in a darkened room'. Photo credit: Swanoop John/Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
Shilpa Gupta, 'For, In your tongue, I do not fit in a darkened room'. Photo credit: Swanoop John/Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

The artist speaks fearlessly. Even when declining an invitation to participate in an international Biennale. On a wall at a venue is printed Cuban installation and performance artist Tania Bruguera’s letter to the director of the Biennale. It talks about Decree 347, through which the Cuban government is legalising censorship by enforcing a rule that artists must make work suitable to the state’s ethical and cultural values. Ironically, Bruguera writes, she is sending this letter on December 10, 2018, the International day of Human Rights. Bruguera says she must be home, standing in resistance with her fellow artists to fight this decree. Injustice exists, she says, because past injustices have not been challenged.

Tania Bruguera's letter. Photo credit: Swanoop John/Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
Tania Bruguera's letter. Photo credit: Swanoop John/Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Through her letter, Bruguera was more present in her absence. I was reminded of the time in 2015, when Perumal Murugan announced that “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead”, following attacks by right-wing groups. Do we seek to explore modes of resisting oppressions of power when we experience art? Where does one need to be present to do so?

Ehtisham Azhar places you in front of 10 sheep skins hanging from a wall. You resist the stench. You are in the presence of death in his work Horrors and Poetics of Nostalgia. On a chair lies an oxygen cylinder and gas masks. Also in this room, which features the works of the travelling Srinagar Biennale, is A Place for Repose curated by Veer Munshi. There are stories from the Valley all around. Eleven bottles of water – each a slightly different colour – stand in front of a hand-drawn map that says Anantnag. I could not muster the courage to ask artist Khytul Abyad whether he took pity on us and removed the colour of blood.

Abyad’s exhibit brought back memories of Iffat Fatima’s film, Khoon Diy Baarav, or the blood leaves its trails, on the thousands who have disappeared in the Valley, as did the next work I saw.

Rows of photographs of women across these walls – wives and mothers, searching for their lost ones in jails, army camps and torture centres – make up Showkat Nanda’s Grid of Photographs. It seems to accuse Indians of turning a blind eye to the travesties in Kashmir. Do we seek to un-blind ourselves as we experience art? How do we see what is not in the room?

Prabhakar Pachpute takes us to a room to show us the Resilient Bodies in the Era of Resistance. Wood cutouts of farmers, who have organised rallies of protest across the country over the past year, hang on the walls. A large sculpture of a bull-like animal, with its head a raised fist and the tail a plough, stands in one corner. Installed in Anand Warehouse, which was at one time a thriving granary and now an abandoned godown, it highlights the agrarian crisis and the plight of the farming communities that has been ignored by mainstream media and the political powers. It reiterates that the farmers’ bodies have become the site for their dissent. It reminded me of the farmers’ march to Delhi in 2018, when a poster designed by artist Orijit Sen used white space to show a hammer and sickle carved into the farmer’s foot. Do we seek the bodies that spell dissent when we experience art? Is dissent the deepest desire in our souls?

Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh, 'Desire and Dissent'. Photo credit: Arundhati Ghosh.
Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh, 'Desire and Dissent'. Photo credit: Arundhati Ghosh.

Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh’s Desire and Dissent is a space that features photographic and video installations of queer life in India. It has been only a few months since the draconian Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised homosexuality, was overturned by the Supreme Court. This space celebrates the tentative gentleness and fierce courage of the community, which had lived for so long under this brutality of the state, and still faces a long struggle. It acknowledges various facets of their lives, the “many stories, even those we don’t want to hear”.

I go back to Mandeep Raikhy’s Queensize, a performance piece on a charpai in the middle of an intimate setting, where two male bodies play the stories of their desires – stories that challenge both morality and the country’s laws. Do we seek these stories when we experience art? Do we celebrate these lives of transgressions?

Bapi Das. Photo credit: Arundhati Ghosh.
Bapi Das. Photo credit: Arundhati Ghosh.

In his intricate embroideries, Bapi Das, an auto rickshaw driver from Kolkata, celebrates the life he sees while navigating the city. His windshield is his frame of vision, and his needle and thread have an intimate feminine touch. His pieces often evoke the sense of loneliness of the anonymous in a metropolis. But there is also a lightness in each image that is content in its gaze. He listens deeply to the sights of this buzzing city, while finding his own quietude. I am reminded of another rickshaw puller, the much-celebrated Dalit writer from the same city, Manoranjan Byapari, who also listens to the silence of a jailbreak by Naxalite activists in his novel There’s Gunpowder in the Air. Do we listen to the pauses between silences as we experience art? What do we listen to?

Dube insists that we listen “to the stone and the flowers, to older women and wise men, to the queer community, to critical voices in the mainstream, to the whispers and warnings of nature – before it is too late”. When we listen to others, we also listen to our deeper selves. Just like what we seek from the experience of one piece of art work emerges in our memory of another piece somewhere else. Connected through anguish, aspirations, helplessness and hope. And in the process, perhaps we attempt to heal and build, individually and together.