It’s a late September day in the port city of Alappuzha in Kerala. It’s humid but breezy and pleasant. There’s not a soul in sight at Alappuzha beach—no crowds, no balloon or ice-cream sellers, no children jostling for rides at the playground. Just miles of clean white sands, waves of the Laccadive Sea hitting the pier and policemen telling a group of students to move along. Covid restrictions are still in place.
The group moves to a roadside shack, opposite the beach. Under an almond tree, they sip cold lime sodas and chat about an art exhibition they’ve just been to.
Also read: An upcoming auction shines the spotlight on women artists
They’re talking about Lokame Tharavadu (The World is One Family), which Alapuzzha is hosting. It features 267 Malayali artists from around the world, 56 of whom are women. There are over 3,000 works on display in venues as diverse as a shipping museum, old coir factories and warehouses. Stalwarts of the art world, such as Jitish Kallat, Gigi Scaria, Indu Antony, K.M. Madhusudhanan and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, share space with upcoming young artists like Tito Stanley, V.V. Vinu, Meera George and Chithra E.G.
“This show has woken up a sleepy town to culture, and the economic opportunity that art brings,” says its curator, artist Bose Krishnamachari, who is also the founder of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF). He cites the ‘Bilbao effect’—how the opening of the Guggenheim Museum more than 20 years ago, made Spain’s Bilbao world famous—and though it’s early days, he is more than convinced that art and tourism can boost this region’s economy too. “Lokame Tharavadu has given everyone—from an autowallah and a chai shop owner to airlines and artists—an economic incentive. Everyone makes money,” he says.
If you’ve been to Alapuzzha, or Alleppey as it is also known, you probably associate it with houseboats and holidays. What’s less known is that this picture-postcard backwater is one of the oldest planned towns in Kerala. Traders from Greece, Rome and the Middle East arrived by sea for spices and coir in the 1800s. When Irish-American trader James Darragh set up India’s first coir factory in 1859, the town got richer. The state government is now trying to remind people of this history with the Alappuzha Heritage Project, pouring over ₹200 crore into conserving museums and buildings and turning the town into a creative and cultural hub. Lokame Tharavadu, which opened on 18 April and will run till 30 November, is the first big step towards this.
Organised by KBF and supported by the Kerala government, the exhibition has seen a new breed of art collector come forward. “It’s local and regional collectors, young entrepreneurs and teachers who are buying art now, even if on a small scale. It gives confidence to artists,” Krishnamachari says. So far, works sold have been priced in the range of ₹22,000 to ₹28 lakh.
Filling a gap
When the 2020-21 Kochi Biennale had to be postponed because of covid-19, it created a void in the art calendar. A chance meeting in September 2020 between Krishnamachari and conservation architect Benny Kuriakose, a member of the Alappuzha Heritage Project, led to a plan to feature artists who trace their roots to Kerala. A month later Krishnamachari came up with a list of 140 artists who would feature at the exhibition.
Lokame Tharavadu is thought provoking: it asks questions about our ideas of home and the world. You experience various schools of thought: realism, surrealism, abstract, minimalism, conceptualism, modern and post-modern, narrative and arte povera. Volunteers are at hand to explain stories behind the displays and frequently, you bump into the artists.
The pandemic and its effect on the relationship with home is among the themes artists have tackled. During the lockdown, Mona S. Mohan, who lives in Thripunithura, spent her time indoors hand-stitching thread portraits of people she describes as “life’s survivors”—daily wagers, delivery persons. Kozhikode-based G.S. Smitha made dazzling paintings of her village, its forest and hills. “I couldn’t go out so I imagined the spaces I wished to go. Nature became more colourful when we were inside,” she says.
Thaj Backer is showing drawings with naturally-made Arabic ink from his hometown, Ponnani. The ink is used for a ceremonial initiation into education, when words from the Quran are written on a child’s palm. “I found Ponnani ink during the lockdown when I couldn’t get other art materials,” he says. “There’s a certain honour in working with local resources.”
Also read: A new exhibition brings the Gauri dancers of Mewar to Gurgaon
Alappuzha’s coir history is visible in Anpu Varkey’s graffiti of human hands engaged in a tug-of-war on the 45m-long wall of the William Goodacre building. More local history is told through Alappuzha-based V.S. Blodsow’s series, Spectrum, which brings together 33 shades of blouse material sourced from a local store to comment on the tax that lower caste women had to pay to cover their breasts in Kerala until 1924.
Artists have experimented with print-making, graffiti, augmented reality, video art, photography, sculpture and more. “You don’t find such diversity in art anywhere in India, as you do in Kerala,” Krishnamachari says.