In one of the chapters of his book Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, historian Eric Hobsbawm—while talking about his unusual areas of interest, which span across art, literature, music and cinema festivals—discusses the importance of holding festivals in the 21st century. Hobsbawm stresses that we should not mistake the inquiry of ‘Why hold festivals in the twenty-first century?’ with that of ‘Do festivals have a future in the twenty-first century?’ Festivals, biennials, and triennials have become a common sight in many places, and they are not just a way to showcase culture, but also to boost the economy of the cities or states they take place in and bring art and culture to unexplored locales that far outstretch the boundaries of modernist art.
Therefore, the future of festivals and the public experience of art and culture is not an issue to worry about. Rather than just dwelling on what kind of spaces will exist, we need to think about the type of cultural forms and expressions that will be found in them, and who these cultures will be accessible to. In light of the rapid global spread of cultural nationalism, can festivals like these provide new ways to form more sensitive communities? As art strives towards social relevance, it is faced with a daunting predicament—to remain autonomous or succumb to the pressure of community-building exercises dictated by public expectations. How will this struggle be reconciled in festival contexts? Will art be able to find a balance between its core values and the collective aspirations of society?
The festivals and biennials hosted throughout India showcase an array of world-renowned and local artists, reaffirming the country’s indomitable creative spirit despite its numerous tribulations. From Kochi to Chennai, Goa to Delhi and Kolkata, curators and organisers mount challenges to astound viewers with international spectacles.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. The Kochi model has blazed a trail across South Asia’s contemporary biennials, thanks to generous state and private funding and a steady stream of visitors. It is a cultural endeavour encouraged and supported by art lovers, locals and the art community, though the recent debacle has undermined its future. To secure its long-term vitality, the Kochi model must swiftly pull together its financial sources with support from state bureaucracy and a passionate internal team. Rather than relying on grandiose projects, they should focus on genuine community-driven initiatives of art to ensure the sustainability of their model.
The discussion surrounding autonomy and censorship must go much deeper than simply referencing state authorities. Private groups, such as leading galleries and museums, wield a tremendous amount of control over the artistic autonomy of their artists who take part in the Biennale. This reality must be acknowledged to truly understand its impact on the freedoms of these creators.
Three hours away from the bustle of Fort Kochi and the spectacle of biennial, an intimate and humble art camp and festival opened in the same month at the village of Wadakkancherry in Thrissur. Satish Kumar, the principle founder and organiser of Niracharthu Art and Cultural Society, who took a conscious retirement from his lucrative corporate career to strengthen cultural and pedagogic approaches at the grassroots, explains the objectives behind the camp and the festival: “The Niracharthu Society was founded with the aim of helping to improve the infrastructure of the local school. We knew that working on the facilities of the school would not be enough; we had to create a creative learning environment and support the arts. This was important as the majority of students attending were from lower class and caste backgrounds. We then initiated the Niracharthu art camps in order to build an environment that shifted away from the commercialisation of art and also the preconceived notions of how art and culture should look like.”
The Niracharthu Society didn’t want either state support or corporate sponsorship. Though they could manage to ticket performance events, it felt too outrageous to do this with visual art. Without the funds needed to meet their goals, they quickly devised a camp that would unravel artistic processes before the eyes of the villagers. To prevent a thematic overhead, they agreed on an open format, also selling works at affordable prices to encourage locals and young collectors.
Niracharthu hopes to make its camps and residencies convivial experiences by inviting village dwellers to participate. Artists are given the freedom to choose where they want to work in and around the hamlet. They are also provided with lodging in the village, allowing them the chance to appreciate the region’s culture and hospitality. Niracharthu’s Ni Fest 7, dedicated to art historian and author, Vijayakumar Menon, featured various folk and classical art performances. It was curated by the contemporary artist, SN Sujith, gathering a total of 20 contemporary artists from all parts of India who presented a unique experience of melding performances, discussions with locals, cultural programmes, lectures and folk-art presentations.
Across the coast, the Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB) stands out with its exclusive focus on photography, creating a platform for modern artists to explore their craft. Photographers have tested and pushed the boundaries of their craft, demonstrating how old photographs can be used to tell stories, to show and to alter reality. The CPB takes out photography from the confines of galleries and museums to the public in unique spaces and locations, in a way that few other festivals have engaged before.
“The CPB happened in response to the growing need for a touch point, a middle ground for emerging photographers to connect and share, a platform for photography and lens-based art forms in South India, more specifically in Chennai—that is largely known for its traditional art forms. A few of us felt the void ourselves as photographers and realised that while we had the opportunity to visit the Delhi Photo Festival, not everyone gets to go or gets represented,” says founding member Shuchi Kapoor.
The response was fantastic. “It would establish a reason to have beautiful collaborations and exchanges with other festivals and invite everyone to one’s city. We realised the need to drive photography education after the first edition and established the Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation that is now over five years old, working with student communities, emerging artists, professional artists and photojournalists through its various skill-based and pedagogical initiatives,” says Kapoor.
The CPB is already showing signs of innovation in the curatorial direction. Moreover, the organisers are striving to make the event accessible to both art and non-art enthusiasts alike. But, the CPB too was hit by Covid. Kapoor recollects: “In the third edition, a hybrid edition due to Covid, we invited a set of four curators from different backgrounds— photography, curation, academics and artistic practice. Our mandate has always been to ensure a larger number of female artists. The artists, curators and our team work together to make sure that we are able to present the works in forms that build curiosity, supplementing them with bilingual texts for native language readers.”
The astonishing Art Ichol estate stands regally in the village of Maihar in Satna, Madhya Pradesh. Annually, the MAI Festival bestows its visitors with a unique cultural experience. This year, I was privileged to experience the mellifluous music of Pt. Prakash Mishra and Pt. Deepak Mishra, backed by the steady rhythm of tabla player Pt. Gopal Mishra. Later I watched, mesmerised, as Vishal Krishna delivered a captivating Kathak performance, followed by a Dastangoi session by Sunil Mehra and Pallav Mishra. But undoubtedly, the highlight of the night was Karl Antao and Gigi Scaria’s powerful sculptural works.
I spoke to Ambica Beri, the Founder of Art Ichol and the MAI Festival commemorating the memory of Ustad Allauddin Khan. “We decided to have a festival coinciding with Art Ichol’s first anniversary. The first time I planned the festival with the local villagers, the idea stemmed from the fact that I wanted to include the community in our activities. It was an impulsive decision as ours is a privately-funded organisation. But it continued to evolve organically and is gaining momentum. We’ve had theatre, jazz bands from Chicago, Taufiq Quereshi on the drums, Geeta Chandran, young contemporary dancers, Anamika Singh and Mahima Sabherwal, Manipuri dancer Priti Patel and so on. The festival not only attracts the locals from around Maihar but also people who especially come for it from abroad and metropolitan cities. The locals are exposed to something only the privileged have had the opportunity to enjoy,” says Beri.
Still, many queries remain unanswered. Is it possible to make an event both accessible and financially viable without compromising its artistic excellence? Is it possible to construct a stable framework that will remain secure over time? The Art Ichol phenomenon has achieved something remarkable: disparate cultures interweaving and coming together, to create a new force whose purpose lies in unifying seemingly antithetical backgrounds through art.
Festivals and biennials are not only a spectacle of culture, but also a representation of the variety of perspectives within the artistic world. It is clear that such occasions bring people together to appreciate art in their own ways, and thus it is noteworthy that we recognise the world in this manner. The bubbling soup of cultural exploration churns and boils wildly, testing the boundaries of art’s independence and societal influence, pushing the limits of acceptance to their farthest reaches. In this tumultuous, unstable environment, no definitive answer to the questions posed can be found.
(Views expressed are personal)
Premjish Achari is a Delhi-based writer and curator. He teaches art history and theory at Shiv Nadar University