Bose Krishnamachari continues to revolutionise world
perception of contemporary art by reinventing its benchmarks
and language, pushing relentlessly at the boundaries of
imagination, says Divya Menon
Samuel Beckett’s plays that explore the absurdities and polarities in society create a conducive climate for the intelligent man to manifest a parallel world of expression using aesthetics imbibed from these quirks and form born in their imagination.
For Bose Krishnamachari, who, in one of his earliest trysts with theatre, played the role of Beckett’s Estragon, understanding of these extremes of life dawned early. A lot that he has said in 30 years, through his art could be traced to these inspirations. For instance, his ambitious project in 1992 after suffering a blow being rusticated from Mumbai’s Sir J.J. School of Art, was ironically titled AmUseuM and shown at the Jahangir Gallery in Mumbai. It was born in the concept of impermanence and materiality driven by human imagination and the coexisting idiosyncrasies of Mumbai’s book selling footpaths. He recalls that in the early 90s, the library at the Sir J.J. School of Art despite being well stacked had a dearth of reading material on modern and contemporary art. His search for such knowledge exposed him to street book sellers, some squatting on the ground amidst stacks of books, others perched atop pillars of books!
The absurdity of the scene, the dichotomy of absence and excess, his thirst for information and its inaccessibility grew into AmUseuM that showcased within glass cases, painted spiral bound books bearing inscriptions of poetry and mummified with colours on glued pages, mimicking conventional museums. His Ghost/Transmemoir in 2006, explored ambivalence even more critically with an extraordinary presentation of 108 tiffin boxes with their bellies torn and embedded with LCD monitors that relayed commentaries by celebrities and commoners alike. The show recreated the sounds of both dissonance and harmony typical of Mumbai – the city that throbs with an energy that instantly absorbs one into its many polarised layers. The show was first previewed at Kitab Mahal in Mumbai, then New York’s AiCon Gallery, Milan, Dubai, Lille, London’s Serpentine Gallery, Lyon Museum, Singapore, Astrup Fearnley Museum Oslo and Herning Museum in Denmark.
The soft-spoken gentleman with deep political consciousness and social awareness is, however, an outspoken critic of the fallacies and mishaps that afflict contemporary times. In 2020 at Kolkata’s Emami Art, his first solo in nine years titled The Mirror Sees Best in the Dark addressed his worries and aversions without brevity in the language of maximalism and minimalism, exploring diverse materiality. Some projects in this series used maximum ornamentation like gilt, golden frames and Kerala’s Aranmula Kannadi (polished metal mirror), while others sank into minimalist mode with paper and Braille like perforations.
When a mirror becomes the protagonist of an artist’s creation, it explodes into our psyche, absorbing and reflecting us and the world around us. It lays bare our obsessions that lie hidden, carefully camouflaged under layers of fallacy. Obsession is a dangerous state of mind that can ruin the very fabric of human existence. Bose says, “I find obsession running deeply in contemporary society, obsession with religion, God, capitalism, racism and so on. It worries me”.
It is 2021 but the pandemic still looms large over us manifesting mixed scenarios in our world. It has locked us down behind unseen walls and rechartered our plans and physical boundaries. In many parts of the world, it has silenced galleries, biennales and shows indefinitely causing deepest anguish to artists, but has also catalysed with greater urgency than ever, the migration of art into virtual space where borders are merely subjective. For our thinkers who have been hankering for a free space for expression without borders, it has spawned an entirely new world. And yet again, in a cold reminder about the mpermanence of existence, it has theatrically shrunk the chasm between life and death! These are strange times indeed! But this is also the time, that Bose imagined would be just right for Lokame Tharavadu (The World is One Family) – an expression of solidarity, an art show of excesses, be it in the number of artists or, of an abstraction called imagination. Like a crusader, Bose Krishnamachari, the man at its helm spent much of 2020 networking with Malayali artists across the world, travelling the length and breadth of Kerala and other places, studying their works, holding discussions, understanding their backgrounds and so on for the The exhibition dubbed India’s biggest contemporary art event since the pandemic, has showcased works of 267 Malayali artists, across 6 venues in Alappuzha and Ernakulam. Interestingly, it is a new platform for many obscure artists who were handpicked by Bose to hop onto his Noah’s Ark of sorts.
Putting debates on the timing of the show to rest, Bose says that art is simply therapeutic and that after long periods of confinement, a coming together to boost sinking morale was a necessity. The pandemic being a leveler of sorts had just delivered a powerful message to the world that beneath the cacophony of social disparities is a commonality – that we are all equally vulnerable. Bose’s blueprint for the show was thus born in the urgency of the times. Those who are familiar with the phenomenal mind of the man called Bose Krishnamachari would concur that this is not the first time that he has done something seminal.
As the long-distance video conversation progresses into interesting vistas, the man whose brush wields power offers a generous peek into his art and mind, “Technology has made life so easy, but I fear that it could be robbing our young artists of their ability to imagine”, laments Bose. The ability to visualise and dream are both sacrosanct to creativity but the gadget strapped youth of today, lured by the infinite possibilities that rest at the touch of a button, is edging towards a major cultural catastrophe with imagination slowly becoming a dying art!
He says, “At 22 when I caught the Jayanti Janatha train from Kerala to Mumbai to study art, I had just recovered from a long illness, had no inkling what Mumbai looked like, had never before ventured out of Kerala and there was no Google in those days! But I was fortunate to have had the gift of imagination that allowed me to visualise and create a space to hoist my dreams.”
The man whose brush wields power offers a generous
peek into his art and mind, “Technology has made life so
easy, but I fear that it could be robbing our young
artists of their ability to imagine,” he says.
But initial days in Mumbai were trying. He says, “Survival as an art student was hard because funds were low. In Western countries, students receive financial support of various kinds but that is not the case here. I stayed in a chawl in Saki Naka sharing a room with several others.” His stint at Worli’s Mela Restaurant as a sketching artist that exposed him to all classes of people is where he honed his language skills and sharpened his observations. He adds, “I made portraits for Rs 10 and was often given tips by my clients and that helped me to live life big time, party, travel and buy books.”
Much has been written about his student life at the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai that introduced him to different disciplines of art study, where he topped with record scores, made associations with brilliant minds like Kapil Gupta, Geetanjali Rao, Samira Rathod, Sudarshan Shetty and others, did a teaching fellowship at the Institute before being chucked out for an open critique about the school! In hindsight, all that transpired at Mumbai were precursors to the monumental journey he would undertake in the years that followed.
BFA and several shows later, he won the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship (1999-2000) that took him to Goldsmiths, University of London, from where he acquired his MFA in Visual Art Theory and Practice.
Bose Krishnamachari has always been a champion of artistic development in the country and a keen spectator of India’s changing social fabric. He says, “Culture is the backbone of society and should ideally be part of the Education Ministry as it used to be. Our students do not get enough exposure to world practices in contemporary art for lack of resources, collective spaces and collaborative efforts.
Talent is plenty but often it is not skill that matters but how you present it. Aesthetics is a core aspect of design and technology and must become part of mainstream education. We need museums that can be continually reprogrammed to grow into centres of education. We must ask pertinent questions like why we make art and what we are trying to educate with our art projects. The educational system in India could do with some reformation so that perception of art can change and greater value can be attached to art education.”
He believes that the future of the world would be one that is coengineered by artists, designers and scientists and that the collaboration of these people will create an impactful space.
On the lines of art democratisation, he says that art needs to enter the life of the common man more intimately to stimulate cultural dialogues at all levels. In 2005 with his ingenious project titled Laboratory of Visual Art (LaVA), he gave a glimpse into what an inventive space could do by travelling away from practiced norms. Through LaVa he expanded the landscape of the conventional museum space by demolishing its implicit boundaries. LaVa was designed as a travelling, temporary space in order to elicit greater involvement and enthusiasm from the public as it moved from one city to another, absorbing viewers into its whirlpool of interaction.
With 12 monitors and specially made modular furniture, the space featured more than 3000 books, 1800 DVDs and other objects of interest spanning visual art, architecture, design, culture, fashion, philosophyand more. These were hand-picked by him on his numerous visits to galleries, museums and shows worldwide and thrown open to artists and students.
With LaVA, he reformatted the gallery experience giving his viewers a taste of the myriad possibilities of an interactive space. From the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai where it was first exhibited, it travelled to the Travancore House in Delhi and then to Kolkata’s Gallery 88, Red Earth Gallery in Baroda and Bangalore’s Sumukha Gallery, for couple of months each before moving to Kochi’s Kashi Art Gallery and then returned to Gallery BMB in Mumbai created in 2009 by Yash Birla, Devaunshi Mehta and Bose. From 2011 it has been at the Pepper House in Kochi as part of the Kochi Biennale Foundation.
Cultural tourism is another interest he nurtures deeply. Citing the Kochi-Muziris Biennale formula, he says, “Greater investment must be made to transform more Indian cities into cultural centres with festivals to attract visitors and bring in the economy because we already have a rich heritage”. The event has put Kerala on the world cultural map and is a collective space for artists from different practices from all over the world with several verticals under its banner like the ABC (Art By Children) Art Room for schools and the Students’ Biennale which is the first of its kind internationally.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is India’s first one and has assumed colossal proportions today as a successful socio-cultural model for cultural exchange. It was conceived at a private meeting at Bose’s Mumbai residence in 2010 with the then Education and Cultural Minister of Kerala M.A. Baby and later at Borivali with artist friends like Riyas Komu and Jyothi Basu. With its rich heritage, social fabric and cultural openness to worldwide voices, Kochi was the perfect springboard for the Biennale, touted as the largest art festival in Asia and Bose is the Director and the Founding President of the Kochi Biennale Foundation.
He says, “Across the world, biennales have catalyzed cultural and social movements that altered the lives of people in those cities. Take the ‘Bilbao effect’ for instance. The coming together of revolutionary ideas, new ways of thinking have always sparked positive changes which is why we need more such collectives and biennales in India.”
The challenge of the unpredictable in art is something that he enjoys and believes that if it was predictable, it wouldn’t be art. Tweaking Joseph Beuys’s quote he says that everyone could, be an artist but curatorship is more complex than common perception. He has curated shows in India and internationally. In 2012 Bose co-curated the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale and in 2016 curated For an Image, Faster than Light, first edition of the Yinchuan Biennale, in Yinchuan, MOCA, China. He says, “A curator is not merely someone who packs pieces of art into a show but someone who researches into the premise of the concept, studies the backgrounds of the artists, the space, the need to exhibit, its relevance to contemporary times and has awareness of architectural and scenographical processes and historical sensibilities in relation to the concept”. We arrive at several high notes in the conversation, especially when he talks about how Kerala and Mumbai are both dear to him differently. Kerala gifted him his first platform to express his art, through theatre, music and dance. The Kerala cuisine that can be anything from a humble gruel to a majestic 16 dish feast taught him early in life about the beauty in extremes.
His socio-cultural sentimentalities were born here. His skill and generosity are genetic legacies of his parents. Whereas Mumbai, the city of survival or Bose’s ‘city of maximum’ is the place that transformed the village boy from Kerala into a phenomenal presence in the art world.
It gets even more interesting when he says that his art and life resonate deeply. Some of his works are jarringly loud visually, and then there are others that are shockingly minimalist, pretty much like his sense of fashion that can be anything from quirky to elegant. He says, “Well, life is full of extremes. If there is chaos, there is order as well. An artist knows how to create order from chaos”.
Art is an omnipresent reality that lies concurrent to man’s life, constantly shaping his world. The artist of today is not someone who lives and creates in isolation. Freedom to explore and express are important to him. It is essentially this liberal space that Bose Krishnamachari has been trying to create through his art that speaks to current times.
He continues to revolutionise world perception of contemporary art by reinventing its benchmarks and language, pushing relentlessly at the boundaries of imagination. He is a gallerist and an art collector with collections dating back to his student days that include stellar works by young artists and big names alike from around the world.
The conceptualist is unstoppable and moves between many more roles from a thinker to a facilitator, a narrator and critic of contemporary times, a friend, a patron of young artists and a teacher who is kind and willing to share for he believes art is for all. He says, “I have no success mantra but my life has been carved around, destiny, passion, enthusiasm and commitment. I do not encourage my students to follow me, I myself follow none though many have inspired me on my journey which has been truly rewarding this far; at the same time, my deepest regret is the loss of precious time with my family”.
For Bose, with more to be said and done, there is no time to pause.