‘Society influences art and art influences society’: Veer Munshi overview on Kochi Biennale 2018

Veer Munshi reflects on the Srinagar Biennale Pavilion at KMB 2018, and the impact of art on urban reality. 

Jaideep Sen Published :  29th March 2019 03:34 PM   |   Published :   |  29th March 2019 03:34 PM
Srinagar Biennale Pavilion

Srinagar Biennale Pavilion

As the curtains are drawn on the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, there will be a lot highlights to look back upon — with affection, to pick up lessons, and to derive inspiration.

The Srinagar Biennale Pavilion, among the Biennale's many other spotlight creations, was easily among the most impactful works at the biennale, which has quickly turned out to be the subcontinent’s biggest art festival of its kind.

As one of the KMB infra-projects, the Srinagar Biennale Pavilion, curated by veteran artist Veer Munshi, formed a significant part of festival curator Anita Dube’s overall vision.

Veer Munshi turns the focus to the pain and sorrow of communities that were forced to flee their land, featuring 14 artists from both religious faiths that were affected by the conflict of 1989.

Showcased at the venue TKM Warehouse in Mattancherry, the central work of the project features a structure shaped like a Sufi dargah.

According to Munshi, who hails from Srinagar and now resides in Delhi, the structure borrows elements from Kashmiri architecture, reinforced by secular values. “Sufi shrines are considered a common place where all could go and pray,” he says.

The inside of the shrine features a clutch of minor-sized coffins with papier-mâché bones and skulls, while the installation is surrounded by works of other artists.

At the Pavilion, the art comes in the form of performances, paintings, photographs, papier-mâché works and new media mix.

The participating artists, besides Munshi, included Altaf Qadri, Ehtisham Azhar, Gargi Raina, Hina Aarif, Inder Salim, Khytul Abyad, Maumoon Ahmad, Mujtaba Rizvi, Neeraj Bakshi, Rajendar Tiku, Sanna Irshad Mattoo, Sauqib Bhatt and Showkat Nanda.

In every sense, the Srinagar Pavilion documents the migration and alienation faced by Kashmiris. “Most Kashmiri artists have been in and out of the valley, since the 1990s,” notes Munshi, now aged 63.

The artist offers that the only recourse is to give life and return love to the region — embrace it and become strong. “Only in this way, can we realise our potential as a community and blossom in ways that would be more beautiful and fruitful than one could have ever imagined,” says Munshi.

In the days leading up to the Biennale's finale, we got Munshi to share his thoughts on the festival, his role as an artist and curator, and the role of art in society....

Veer Munshi

The larger role of Kochi Biennale
Prima facie, the role of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is to showcase artworks in much more free interactive spaces, which allows them to communicate across the barriers of languages, class and culture.

Unlike the rest of the developing countries, we in India, have a small audience that visits museums, galleries and other art spaces. Mainly, there is a gap between art and society.

The Kochi Biennale has been consistently playing a great role to connect this wide gap for India, particularly in south India. 

The Kochi Biennale is truly changing the dynamics of art in India by reaching out to the masses, and thereby building a culture of viewing art. It also goes a long way to bring international audiences to visit us, and understand our various practices and engagement with art and society.

The Shrine by Veer Munshi at TKM Warehouse, Fort Kochi

From India to the world
Besides showcasing works of significant artists across the globe, I would be keen to engage with discussing the way ahead for the practicing artists from this part of the globe, that is India, which is both the world’s biggest democracy as well as the cradle of an ancient civilisation.

I have been very keen to engage on conversations around architecture, design, craft and tradition. Though the Biennale had a lot more inclusiveness, the collaborations superbly engaged the marginalised communities, in general.

A scene from a performance by Veer Munshi at KMB 2018

Onto a larger platform
ART, by and large, has been elitist, and confined to white cube galleries. The Kochi Biennale opens a discourse to a much wider audience, which influences society by changing opinions, instilling values and translating experiences across space and time.

It affects the fundamental sense of self. Painting, sculpture, music, literature and the other arts are often considered to be the repository of a society’s collective memory.

Fort Kochi, as a venue, compliments the works and vice versa. Diverse mediums and expressions and the use of historic architecture, as the background on which art is showcased, is also fantastic for deriving semantic associations with the works.

A work at the Pavilion by Ehtisham Azhar

A grand carnival of art
Yes, we are a festival-driven country, so the celebrations, which may be traditional in nature, seem obvious. My experience has been soul searching as a participating artist, and curator for one of the infra 
projects — the Srinagar Biennale at TKM Warehouse — which gave me the opportunity to work and experience the Biennale at two different levels.

The Kochi Biennale is emotionally driven, and incomparable to any Biennale in the world. There is a huge connect through volunteering, especially by the youth brigade from Kerala, who own the Biennale with great pride.

The management has been excellent, and hard working, making the impossible possible under given circumstances.

My project at TKM Warehouse has been received well, which is in a place that is by and large surrounded by a multi-cultural society. 

The project space, far from the main venue, is yet graced by a lot of visitors comparatively, and one might need to advertise more for these spaces or facilitate guest visits with some means of transport.

Works in the Srinagar Biennale Pavilion

Should artists be political?
The purpose of works of art might be to communicate ideas — be it political, spiritual, or hilosophically motivated art. Art should be deeply intellectual or political on one hand.

Art might also be connected to our dying traditions, be it in craft, textile, food or language; our inheritance, which we are proud of, but don’t seem to be engaging with as much.

India has a great handmade tradition, which need not die with the influence of technology, and rather can get enhanced in its possibilities, to reach the masses.

Here lies a role of practicing artists, to make art socially engaging with issues from one’s own surroundings — to create not only awareness, but also activism, to contribute to the collective psyche of a generation.

Cezanne’s satisfaction was short-lived: “We have to think more, the eye is no longer sufficient, reflection is imperative.” Society influences Art and Art influences Society.

— Jaideep Sen