by Almas SadiqueDec 24, 2022
Space has myriad connotations for man - it could be a physical territory like home, or exist in man's consciousness as an indulgence, an identity, an emotion, at times even an affliction. When the ongoing pandemic struck our world for the first time, it reformatted our notions of space, and the latter migrated into frontiers yet to be explored fully. How the pandemic fragmented communities and dented every belief system valid until then is knowledge. From an experiential perspective, how this shifting canvas of space could be explored and what it holds for man in the aftermath of the pandemic, warrants an investigation into our spatial concepts with an urgency like never before. How imagination impacts space is the take off point of this narrative.
Adaptive reuse breathes new life into dead spaces like elixir, and in demonstration of its many virtues, LokameTharavadu, a show of art that has defied obstacles and transgressed definitions, proves to be a consummate proponent. The genesis of Lokame Tharavadu, which literally means that the world is one family, was triggered by worldwide closures that decreed a tough stance on the curatorial venture of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, which left the Kerala community unhappy for want of a biennale experience. Moreover, the pandemic magnified several global issues like migration, concepts of space and home, the complex relationship between common man and art, the role of art and culture in the revival of economy and many more that demanded an investigative intervention. This led Bose Krishnamachari to conceptualise at Alappuzha and Kochi, as a vertical of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, a show which despite its parochial elements would translate itself into a model that would consummately address concerns common to the world art community, in synchronicity with its title.
With over 3,000 works of art spanning different genres, 267 Malayali artists, 600,000 square feet of display space and 1,50,000 square feet of wall space spread across seven locations in Alappuzha and one in Kochi, Lokame Tharavadu that opened to the public in April 2021, is by no standards 'just another' exhibition down a silent street. Beyond the crazy numbers, this colossal show masterminded by the phenomenal Bose Krishnamachari and braving the times, has at its centre the resurrection of the art community's morale, the deliverance of several spaces from the vagaries of time and the revival of Alappuzha's heritage aligning with the vision of the Alappuzha Heritage Project, the brainchild of Thomas Isaac, Kerala's former Minister for Finance and Coir.
Krishnamachari has often said that unpredictability appeals to him and when he set out on the mission of creating Lokame Tharavadu, there was not even a blueprint. The soaring number of participating artists, the arduous task of repurposing dead spaces, the uncertainty generated by the pandemic to gravely sinking finances, all were surprises he was pretty much unprepared for. When Bose visited Alappuzha in October 2020, he saw a city exploding with promise. The search for spaces led him to factories, godowns, and other derelict structures that had not seen light in decades. The State government offered him at Alappuzha, the Port Museum, New Model Coir Society main building and courtyard, and the Kerala State Coir Corporation Ltd. godowns B and D. Two properties namely Eastern Produce Company Ltd, and William Goodacre & Sons Pvt Ltd were graciously lent by Betty Karan, an art connoisseur and the largest exporter of coir products. In Kochi, the weather-controlled Durbar Hall was the venue of the exhibition where it drew to a close in August 2021.
Dr. Benny Kuriakose, the Conservation Consultant of the Alappuzha Heritage Project commented on the conservation stating, "We attempted to keep changes or replacements to the buildings at a minimum and tried to retain their industrial character. Traditional materials and techniques were applied to conserve the structures as best as possible. Attempt is underway to convert these spaces into alternate uses and some could morph into museums.”
Krishnamachari explains, "False walls were erected in most of the sites while iron structures, ceilings and floors were left untouched except at the Port Museum site which had to be carpeted due to pebbles and gravel flooring that rendered it uneven." His plan for each site is reflective of its very own skin and character. The high point of the design of the exhibition spaces is the fluidity achieved through spontaneous improvisations. Finding channels of synergy between art and architecture was central to creating spaces responsive to different mediums of art.
The repurposed New Model Coir Society space has a labyrinth-like design with several lanes, detours, blind corners and sound-controlled video rooms as well. It helps to know that prior to the decline of the coir industry in Kerala, this space was thronged by coir workers who struggled to weave an existence around the golden fibre. The industrial character of the space that has been retained keeps alive the legacy of the past. Surrounded by extraordinary exhibits, even being faintly aware of the character of the space leaves one overwhelmed but surely inspired to explore further. There are no directions or verbose descriptions to manipulate the perception of the viewer. Energy flows unbridled from one exhibit to the other. Individual works of art do not influence the viewer's discernment of another. The layout complements the multiplicity of practices, from printmaking to augmented reality that has emerged out of Lokame Tharavadu, articulating one of Krishnamachari's most telling lines that exhibition spaces ought to be conceptualised 'especially for the exhibit'.
Again, synergy is an important word and the lack of it accounts for the disconnect between art in gallery spaces and common man. To build synergy in our exhibition spaces, one must understand why many museums fail to elicit public participation. Public participation through interactive and outreach programs that absorb the common man into the vortex of the exhibition quantifies success proportionally. Conversations spawn creative exchanges, like residencies. Evidently Krishnamachari's original plan for the sites also include cafes, club spaces and amphitheatres. Running parallel to the exhibition are a series of educational workshops, talk shows and cultural programs.
The premise of Alappuzha is important to this narrative. Like Kochi, the social fabric of Alappuzha is multicultural with many different communities that have made this quaint city their home and hold a stake in its economy. Its backwaters and canals have been drawing tourists for decades. The city’s cultural diversity coupled with important historical elements makes it an interesting case study. "It has the potential to become a museum city, an art or creative city with many spaces where residencies can happen. With cultural programming Alappuzha could well qualify as a UNESCO city," says Krishnamachari.
How we react to dead spaces is vital to the development of an aesthetically ‘curated’ city which breeds economic development through creative intervention. Alappuzha, beyond its concrete blocks, is a city that pulsates with life, memory and character, with all the trappings of a greater city. Funding is both a stepping stone and stumble block, and Krishnamachari hopes that policy makers will realise that funding for creative development of a city will return to it by leaps and bounds. His aphorism that art is like acupuncture that can intervene into a city's veins and heal, becomes the inspiration for numerous discussions.
Bilbao and Kochi testify that art and culture have the potential to spark economic revival of a place. Lokame Tharavadu has already impacted the economy positively in many ways. Numerous art works have been sold, several artists have received national and international visibility, paving way for immense confidence which led to the extension of the show until the end of the year, following their appeal. The growing number of visitors has pitched the trust and acceptance of the local community as well. Tourism, airlines, hoteliers, local tea sellers, transport givers and vendors are among those who have reported an increase in their businesses. With its unique format, Lokame Tharavadu that has created a vibrant cultural ecosystem in Alappuzha, presents itself as an important partner in the rejuvenation of the city at all levels.
India's top collectors, gallerists and architects following their visits, have much to say about the show. Shireen Gandhy, owner of the prestigious contemporary galleries, Chemould Prescott Road, one of the oldest in the country, was left positively overwhelmed by the show. Her take, “It kindled beautiful memories of the phenomenal Kochi Biennale. The architecture once again mirrored the art as in Kochi. As a gallerist it was truly a feast with a variety of great artists that one got to see. A real opportunity for galleries to find new talent.”
Samira Rathod Design Atelier likes the way Krishnamachari has constructed this exhibition, streaming away from the white cube museum spaces into open local warehouses, as an inclusive model that brings people together. She adds, "Bose has also shown the world that we don't always need new spaces to showcase art. Repurpose is the new mantra."
"I have never witnessed anything of the scale and diversity that Bose has presented at LokameTharavadu," states architect Tony Joseph of Stapati, who has been to shows worldwide. He finds it particularly promising that a lot of architects and students of architecture are visiting the exhibition and believes that this is an important achievement of the show.
Lokame Tharavadu has transitioned from an exhibition to a brave intervention into the stagnancy of current times, an incredible model worth studying and implementing. Pooling together titans of the craft and obscure artists alike, the show is a statement on ideals of inclusion and diversity that have been raised to a new pinnacle. It has placed Alappuzha as a tourist destination beyond its backwaters and canals.