The Castaways

Why artist Riyas Komu thinks the time has come for Mattancherry's voice to be heard

The co-founder of Kochi-Muziris Biennale talks about his latest curated project.

 |  The Castaways  |  10-minute read |   31-07-2017
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I remember the man who had kept a two-minute silence as an ode to Fidel Castro at the start of Kochi-Muziris Biennale last year. I heard the story. They said in Kochi many things are possible. Cuba is not a faraway place here. Delhi felt remote by the sea.

Riyas Komu, the co-founder and an artist, uses "sagave" as a sign off on one night while we talk about his latest curated project called Mattancherry in Kochi starting August 12. It is significant for many reasons.

First and foremost, it breaks away from the cosmopolitan art scene by collapsing the "usefulness" of art in a location populated by the people who have been "oppressed", but haven't surrendered.

Sagave means comrade. It is an artist and a writer exchanging notes, trying to understand the significance of an experiment like his curated project that is inspired by a site and isn't independent of it, too. By choice.

And I ask him about his "My Father's Balcony", a project in wood in 2005, which was an ode to the ideological balcony of his father in the Ettumana village in Thrissur that provided him with a liberal, inclusive view of a landscape with churches, mosques and temples. That home of his was modest, he had said in an interview. There was no balcony. But if there would have been, it would have been the view of Mattancherry in Kochi.

I have been to Mattancherry. It smells of sweat and spices. But it is the artist and the curator who tells me that certain places are beyond history and its impositions of identity. The view from that ideological balcony is one that history can't interfere with. Certain landscapes from a vantage point are matters of ideology.

riyas_073117060227.jpgCredit: India Today file

Mattancherry is more than its history, he says. Finally, he saw the view.

"If you are fortunate to take an early morning walk through Mattancherry, you could easily "travel back in time". When you walk through the narrow lanes and branches of Bazar road or the Jew street, or the many churches, mosques, and temples all connected as part of a visible network, or past the many reading rooms where people gather, or through the criss-crossing of roads and bylanes that take you from one community to another, or as the various aromas of Mattancherry and its communities hit you, or the numerous trade-union "waiting sheds", or past the lazing goats, you just know that this is a place that's more than its history. Of course, I understand that many other places can lay a claim on being weather-beaten, but I don't think any other place can claim to be as multi-cultural as Mattancherry. And this multi-culturalism is prior to our ideas of cosmopolitanism," Komu says.

And only sometimes an interview can leave you with a smile at the hope, the resistance and the view.

My house had such a rooftop. In Patna's old quarters. I could hear the muezzin call five times a day. My other grandmother was Christian. From that roof in my city, I saw mosques and temples. Years later, I know what that view meant. It was an important view.


Q. Why this exhibition now? Is such an investigation necessary in today's time? Is this a micro-lens?

A. The curatorial premise of Mattancherry explores the contemporary spatial, social, historical and temporal shifts of the location by way of investigating the history of labourers and working class, internal migrations, traceable pasts, intangible cultures, stories, and memories. The investigation is also a provocation - to look deeper into our own past and present. The context that's necessitating this investigation is rapidly evolving.

The cycle of violence, censorship and the increased visibility of various forms of discrimination, populism, state sanctioned cruelty is leading to an attitudinal shift. And I am not looking at this shift as a knee-jerk reaction to what's happening in our country/world (it seems to be the prevailing mood).

So, the idea of Mattancherry is to move beyond the established microcosms and suggest the multi-layered aesthetic, cultural, social, and even abstract sentiments expressive of different multi-cultural perspectives - of looking at and seeing Mattancherry, the place through its people.

 Mattancherry, the place, is fascinating politically, socially and economically.

The place-ness of Mattancherry is not because of the spatial identity built through the convergence of physical place, historical conjunctures and social relationships, but it stems from an identity formed through resistance and through enabling narratives because of the place. Even as its communities, people, and social networks change they steadfastly resist new urban environments and conditions of social life as imagined by globalisation.

At a time when our political elites are experimenting with nationalism, intolerance and the idea of privileged citizenships, I believe Mattancherry shows a different way forward with equal citizenship, rights and privileges for religious minorities, lower castes and the poor. It again resists the modernist dichotomy of dividing the world into either "enlightened cultural destinations" or as "inferior deculturated peripheries", between mainstream tourist attractions and stagnated margins.

But of course, Mattancherry too has been marginalised and even oppressed over time, but it has never surrendered. That's why it becomes important to investigate and explore the place through its people and the social networks on the ground. To go beyond what we are told through representation (poetry, films, lyrics, etc).

But this can also be seen as an extension into the contemporary art world itself. Even while it's heralded as "inclusive", the contemporary exists only within cities - where capital is globalised and omnipresent. It only exists as part of a certain lifestyle; accessible only to a few. So when you place an exhibition like Mattancherry, where the people are not objects but active participants and situate it not only on the peripheries of the art world, but also at a place where art itself becomes useless (in the daily lives of the people there), it creates a space that becomes an unreserved expression of solidarity and goes beyond the generality of "being in the context".

I hope the exhibition will be an interesting and personal narrative of what Mattancherry means to the people who live there.

Q. How did you choose the 13 artists? Can you please elaborate on some of the works, stories, narratives, etc?

A. I have chosen a diverse group of artists, including painters, photographers, poets, videographers, designers and research-based collectives. While painters like Sosa Joseph and Zakir Hussain and photographers like KR Sunil and Ramu Aravindan look into capturing the contemporary life and times of Mattancherry, designer Latheesh Lakshman is exploring the cultures of the place through various design elements.

Poet Anitha Thampi is developing profile poetry based on the life of working-class men and women. We will continue her project even after the exhibition opens and she will work on this project for a year or so at the end of which we will publish a book with her profile poetry of 30-40 people from Mattancherry.

Anvar Ali is looking into the music tradition in Mattancherry and will evoke the inimitable Mehboob Bhai. Saju Kunhan is mapping Mattancherry through a very interesting process of transferring images on wood. Jalaja PS is painting labourers across walls in Mattancherry and Fort Kochi.

Route Cochin, a research-based collective, is looking to unlock some aspects of the larger history of the place through the Dutch bread called breudher. Upendranath TR is using collage to investigate the life of labourers and the marginalised. Urban Design Collective, a Chennai-based group, is looking to highlight the developmental discrimination of Mattancherry since independence through a fact-based study and approach and will be a long-term project meant to intervene into the socio-cultural-political landscape of the region.

Q. What does it mean for a place to be unashamedly itself?

A. Of course, it's easier to say that places need to be what they are, that they should preserve their cultures and have some identity, but the truth is that most places (and people) are divided between remaining true to its cultural identity, or give in to being forcibly homogenised.

Mattancherry is not unique in this regard, but nonetheless an exception because it allows for different communities to take root and co-exist. Its social life, networks and support systems are firmly anchored to its people, to its communities and to its way of life. Of course, there are spatial, social and temporal issues, but there is rootedness in Mattancherry that comes from a certain condition of contentment available from the existing systems.

This had led to people actually returning to Mattancherry - because the outside world doesn't offer this kind of support systems even where there is an abundance of capital. It is this kind of "communal cohesion" that has ignited some fear in the authorities - they are unable to break this place (and its people) apart in spite of the many divisive projects proposed, redrawing of maps, assigning places as slums (attempting to shame it), and other forms of systemic division.

Even concepts of rehabilitation have been blurred and reframed to the essentiality of modernity. It's easy for Mattancherry to give up and be converted into a glitzy urban district (as has happened on the other side of the island). But while Ernakulam lacks a soul, it has been turned into a caricature for urbanisation and urban ideas.

Mattancherry has withstood this deliberate globalisation (for the tourist and as a centre of capital) and has remained itself. But that does not mean its marginalisation (from politics, progress, civil liberties, civic functioning, basic amenities) is entirely in the past.

I think the time has come for Mattancherry's voice to be heard. 

Q. Why did you choose Mattancherry? What does this place mean to you? Your first introduction with the place?

A. I didn't arrive at the idea of investigating (or looking into) Mattancherry as an art project. I have been in Kochi for the most part of the past seven years. I have invested my life and time in Kochi. I cherish my family roots here. During my time in Kochi, Mattancherry was an enigma - not because of its "glorious past" and the narratives, but because of the spirit of that place.

It's built over the centuries through trade, cultural exchanges, and ideas of coexistence that is beyond ideas of modern cosmopolitanism. So in a way, the exhibition is an extension of my own ongoing investigation into Mattancherry - but here, I have included a few fellow travellers who share different backgrounds to respond to Mattancherry.

The idea is also to make this a survey and not another representation. A survey that's set to continue through several projects.

Q. As an artist, how would like to investigate this place?

The curatorial framework of this exhibition is an extension of my own engagement with the place and is an extension of my art practice. As a contemporary artist, I believe that politics have become something that's too difficult to ignore. We cannot keep making art just for the sake of it.

I am not saying that value is derived only from usefulness (or the clarity of message), but that the artist should be more engaged. Then the question is how best to respond? How do we connect to a place, to its plurality?

How do displacement and internal migration (within Mattancherry) fit into the narratives built?

How do we tackle the idea of "sense of belonging" through ideas of a place and society that is moving away from global reality, but never separate from it?

I would look at working with entire contexts - crossing mandates, entrapping cultures, unnerving institutions. I want my art to also account for what's happening now.

Now, is our future.

Also read: Why more than a third of Kochi Metro's transgender employees have already resigned


Chinki Sinha Chinki Sinha @chinkis

Rover in the driftless area of the outcastes. Writing is a way of deleting.

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