Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal nexus of various moments of history. But no state of affairs is, as a cause, already a historical one. It becomes this, posthumously, through eventualities which may be separated from it by millennia. The historian, who starts from this, ceases to permit the consequences of eventualities to run through the fingers like the beads of a rosary. He records [erfasst] the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one. He thereby establishes a concept of the present as that of the here-and-now, in which splinters of messianic time are shot through - Walter Benjamin 1
Past often holds cryptic clues to the configuration of present. A careful appraisal of even the apparently insignificant events that occurred at a particular place in a given period of time often throws up surprising correlations between those times and later developments. Such events need not be spectacular at the moment. Their significance has to be revealed only on retrospection.
This makes the close analysis of events and incidents that happened in the past of any particular locale mandatory while documenting its visual cultural history. As the practice of keeping records or documenting the present-day developments is still virtually non-existent in Kerala, tracing even the recent history of Kerala's cultural scenario has become a challenge.
In this context, it would be quite interesting to look back at certain points of time, at certain happenings (or non-happenings) in the recent past of a city like Thiruvananthapuram, especially in the backdrop of a new initiative in the visual arts scenario taking shape here. Nothing originates from a void, as human history is just a continuum.
In cultural history, there are ‘happenings' and there are ‘non-happenings.' Often, it is the non-happenings that function as pointers to the later developments much more than the happenings. One such ‘non-happening,' that occurred in Thiruvananthapuram in the late 1990s, around nine or ten years ago, calls for special attention in the present context. It was the attempt to hold a national-level exhibition, lining up Malayali artists from across the country. Behind the effort to put up that show were some of the important names of Indian contemporary art, like N.N.Rimzon, Alex Mathew, Aji V N, and Rajan Krishnan. The initiative was meant to rejuvenate and drive some energy to the stagnant art scene that existed as a sorry specter amidst the so-called dynamic, and so-called cultivated public of Kerala.
The work started in the early months of 1998. “ The idea was to bring together some of the contemporary artists from Kerala, most of them staying outside, to a common platform in order to enable the public here to view their art and share their concerns, ” 2 said Rajan Krishnan, who had initially mooted the idea. All the preliminary works were done. Letters were sent out to all the proposed artists. All of them agreed to participate. And, all of their works reached Thiruvananthapuram within the expected time. But, unfortunately, the show never happened, just because of the absence of infrastructural support. All the works were sent back quietly, after a while . “I had offered every kind of non-financial support,” recalled Rimzon . “Some others had agreed to take care of the financial aspects. But, as far as I could understand, these people soon started losing interest in the project, for reasons of their own. As me and Rajan were new to the city, we could not do much in raising local support.” 3
If that show had taken place in 1998, it would have brought together the works of around twenty five Malayali artists from all over India to Thiruvananthapuram. It would have acted as a bridge between Kerala and the national art scenario. It would have provided the much-needed morale boost and a positive milieu for the Malayali artists who were staying back in Kerala.
Thiruvananthapuram, in the late 1990s, had an interesting presence of contemporary visual artists. Many of the known names in the present national art scenario of India were staying there at that time – N.N.Rimzon, V.N.Jyothibasu, Babu Xavier, Alex Mathew, Rajan Krishnan, V.N.Aji, Gopikrishna and Jyothikumar, to name a few. This convergence happened just almost by chance. Rimzon arrived there from Delhi around 1998, to start his teaching career at the Department of Sculpture, Govt. College of Fine Arts. Jyothibasu, just before entering a significant phase in his career, was designing sets for Asianet, the first private sector Malayalam television channel that had ushered in a new era of visual media in Kerala. Alex Mathew had returned after his teaching stint at M.S.University, Baroda. Rajan and Aji were back in the city of their graduate studies (also Aji's native place) after completing post-graduation in Baroda and Delhi, respectively. Gopikrishna was working with the silent tenaciousness characteristic of him. Jyothikumar, who had completed BFA in 1987 from the College of Fine Arts, made frequent visits to Thiruvananthapuram from his home town in Alappuzha.
Those years were also the last years of the Millennium. In retrospection, it seems that those years had held a subtle energy that had forced some vital transmutations upon the society as a whole. The closing years of the Millennium were also the time of a significant re-locating and re-registering among the creative community of Kerala, especially in the visual arts. A neo-modernist sensibility was on the rise among the artists, marked by an inclination to draw on memory and history. There were re-orientations at many levels, in different fields of creativity including theatre, cinema and literature. However, a thorough examination and analysis pertaining to those areas remain to be done. Scattered attempts, though rather inconspicuous, were taking place with the aim of pumping some energy into the sedentary scene of visual arts. The aborted exhibition of 1998 was such an effort.
And it was also almost ten years since the emergence and fading out of the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association 4 . In that way, it was no wonder that the time meant many things, especially for those who were closely involved with the Association, or the Group , as it is still popularly known among them. By 1998, Jyothibasu was picking up the threads of his interrupted career. “ Jyothi (Jyothibasu), Aji and I used to meet regularly. I'd go on my bike to Vattiyoorkkavu to meet Aji, and Jyothi. Jyothi was partly working for Asianet. I remember Aji and me trying to motivate Jyothi to come back fully to work,” 5 was how Alex Mathew remembered of those days. The first, crucial years of Jyothibasu's re-emergence or “resurrection” as an influential visual artist were spent in Thiruvananthapuram. “That was the period of re-inventing my own beliefs, a period of re-discovering identity,” Jyothibasu recalled later. 6
Thiruvananthapuram, during late Nineties, had many factors conducive to the emergence of a strong visual arts scene, with the presence of a group of core artists being the most significant one. But, the city could not hold them for long. The leave-taking started soon. “ Artists are in perpetual exile ,” 7 as Aji used to say. Before long, he also left for the Netherlands. (Later, speaking of his life abroad, Aji said that he never felt in exile just because of his being in another country). Jyothibasu remained till his first solo show in Mumbai, in 2003, with Gallerie Mirchandanie. He moved on to Mumbai, soon becoming one of the ‘ Bombay Boys .' In 2000, Rajan shifted to Kochi. Alex Mathew started teaching at R.L.V. College in Tripunithura for one year, commuting between Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, until he moved to Hyderabad. Only Rimzon and Gopikrishna stayed on. The slide shows and discussions that used to be held at Lenin Balavadi continued for some more time, only to dwindle away soon.
These slide shows were quite lively events for a brief period. Organised almost on the personal capacity of painter-poet George, the events provided an occasion for some of the contemporary artists to share their images at least with a small circle of concerned people in Thiruvananthapuram. Many artists like Alex, Rimzon, Shibu Natesan, Jyothibasu, Aji, Sumedh Rajendran, V.G.Abhimanue, the Dutch artists Remi Jungerman and Juul Kraijer participated in the slide shows. These events were conducted on an informal level, with George informing friends by word of mouth. Not much media publicity was involved. Neither were any regular dates. The shows were held as and when the artists were around. Babu Xavier, who had been working from Thiruvananthapuram since 1982 remembered, “There was a certain vibration about the events.” 8 The departure of artists from the city affected the slide shows, which slowly died down.
The subsequent years saw Kochi emerge as one of the centres of Indian contemporary art, claiming a niche in the national art scene.
At this point, it would be interesting to take a brief survey of what was happening in Kochi in those same years, providing a strong ground for all the developments that were to follow. By the end of Nineties itself, art spaces had started emerging in Kochi. Catalyzing forces were at work. Draavidia Art and Performance Gallery, that upheld the concerns for an unfeigned art practice and discourse, started providing space for emerging artists in the late 90s. In December, 1997, Kashi Art Café was opened in Fort Kochi, conceived as ‘a place where the artists and the aficionados can meet informally over a cup of coffee.' 9
Then there were some short-lived ventures, like Galleria Mareechika opened by the Times of India Group and Galleria Synagogue in Mattancherry. In Ernakulam, an ambience for art was already existing with the presence of Kerala Kalapeetom, Chitram Art Gallery, and the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi's Gallery of Contemporary Art. During the early Nineties, the Madhavan Nair Foundation at Edappally had provided a space for artists like K. Raghunadhan and K.Prabhakaran as teachers at its Centre for Visual Arts. Some of the familiar contemporary artists like K.P.Reji, Binoy Verghese and George Martin were associated with the MNF then.
On the southern suburbs of Kochi, the Zen Studio at Eramalloor, a village in Alappuzha district, was providing a space for artists from around 1995 under the initiative of artists like Sudheeran, Venu and others. Zen drew inspiration from Samskara Cultural Study Centre, a rural cultural activists' group which propogated the cause of good cinema, literature and art during the Eighties.
A noteworthy event that happened in Kochi in the late Nineties was an exhibition, ‘ An Album of Drawings and Paintings – Recent Works of Ten Painters of Kerala .' Held in Draavidia's Jew Town gallery in Mattancherry in October, 1999, the show coordinated by Santhan N.V., presented an interesting collection of works. The participants' list read – ‘ M.K. Rajan, Lekha Narayanan, Zakkir Hussain, Aji V.N., N.V. Santhan, Jyothi Basu, Nijeena Neelambaran, K.Sudheesh Kumar, Valsaraj, N.N. Mohandas.' 10 The show provided an impetus to many of the artists who were going through a process of internal re-invention and working towards disentangling their own inner selves.
The beginning of 21 st century saw far-reaching changes sweep over Kochi. The Kerala Lalithakala Akademi's Durbar Hall Art Centre, created out of the entire Durbar Hall buildings through the unrelenting efforts of Ajaya Kumar, the then secretary of the Akademi, started functioning in 2000. The sprawling gallery spaces of Durbar Hall drew the attention of artists from outside the State even. The space prompted Bose Krishnamachari to bring his ‘ De-Curating: Indian Contemporary Artists ,' to Kochi in 2003. The shows ‘ Bombay x 17, ' (at Kashi Art Gallery, 2004) and ‘ Double-Enders ,' (Durbar Hall Art Centre, 2005) curated by Bose followed later on. In 2003, Kashi entered a new phase with ‘ Remembering Bhupen, ' a group show paying tributes to the late Bhupen Khakkar. By the end of 2004, Dilip Narayanan, a gallerist based in Kozhikode, came to Kochi with his exhibition series, ‘ Open-Eyed Dreams' . Dilip stayed on, shifting his base from Kozhikode to Kochi, with ‘Gallery OED.'
By this time, there started a steady influx of artists to Kochi. Around 2001, N.N.Mohandas and Sosa Joseph moved in. The couple was living in Thiruvananthapuram from 1999, but came to Kochi following Mohandas's exhibition at Draavidia. “ Alex was prompting us to move to Kochi, that all artists were there and we could get a good ambience to work ,” 11 Sosa later recalled. During 1999, she was resuming work after a break following her delivery. After moving to Kochi, both Mohandas and Sosa entered a significant phase of their career with a more organised approach towards their work. “ I was getting a studio space after a long time ,” Mohandas recalled. “ At Trivandrum, we were working from home, which had a lot of limitations. Having your own space helps a lot. Also, the presence of other artists, who were committed to work, provided a lot of encouragement. ” 12
In 2000, Zakkir Hussain and Sreeja had also arrived in Kochi. His solo show was held at the Durbar Hall that year. Zakkir remembers the liveliness of those days - “ Many artists were already there, like Vivek Vilasini, Santhi Swaroopini ( teaching at RLV), Santhan, Lekha, Upendranath, Nijeena and Radha. The public was starting to take more interest in art, with more people walking into the Durbar Hall with every show. ” 13
Perhaps the biggest transformation happened in the life of Raghunadhan, who woke up to a period of resurrection after a long hibernation, lasting almost two decades. “ I had moved to Kochi at the instance of friends,” he later recalled in an interview. His words sum up the milieu . “Anoop and Dorrie (of Kashi) had arranged for me to stay and work at the Art Retreat (in Kakkathuruthu, Alappuzha district). The presence of other artists, like Rajan, Mohandas and Sosa, and Zakkir Hussain, and many others who had moved to Kochi, and occasional visits of Alex Mathew and Rimzon, gave good motivation. After a long break, I was again experiencing the presence of fellow artists, supporting each other, criticizing and questioning each other's work. That sense of collective feeling that was integral to the times of the Group could be felt, though in a totally different way.” 14
When ‘ Representation ' happens in Thiruvananthapuram in 2007, bringing together the works of eleven Malayali artists working in and outside Kerala, what we are seeing is a cycle of life, of being, come into full circle. Which is just one of the many full circles; many full moons. As Aji said, “ We all continue running into each other, in other locales, keep meeting in many places, as if in a magic. The paths are meandering and intercepting. Not one of the no return.” 15
Yes, the journey do continue. Paths do meet and move away. And this is only an attempt to trace the paths of certain people, at certain places and certain points of time, for the sake of the times to come.