In a candid interview with the young art critic and theoretician, Premjish Achari, India’s most popular art blogger, art critic, curator and writer, JohnyML unveils the backstage maneuverings of both Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu in misusing public funds to their own ends in the name of Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
Premjish Achary: Kochi-Muziris Biennale seems to have got into a controversy regarding alleged misusing of public funds and lack of transparency. And you are amongst the few people who have raised a voice against the proposed Biennale. Now as there is a controversy pertaining to it, what is your stand on this issue?
JohnyML: Kochi-Muziris Biennale was destined to get into this controversy from the very day of its inception. I have been only wondering why there is no public hue and cry against it till an article written by the noted journalist Viju V.Nair appeared in one of the prominent Malayalam weeklies called ‘Madhyamam.’ If you remember, it was in February 2011 the formal declaration of this proposed biennale happened in Kochi with much fanfare. Two artists namely Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu have been projected as the front persons of this project. But except for these two people none in the Indian art scene knew what exactly was going to happen with this project. Even today none knows what is happening inside this Biennale project. It was communicated in trickles that the project was going to be funded by the government of Kerala. And a whopping amount of Rs.72 crores is the project estimate. To an interview given to the Art Newspaper, London, Riyas Komu had said that one third of this amount would come from the State government, and the second portion of it would be raised through the central government agencies and the rest would be raised from the private sector. The government of Kerala gave an initial funding of Five Crore Rupees to the Kochi Muziris Biennale Foundation in March 2011. But today, by the end of 2011, the Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu say that the money is over and they need another Five Crores from the state government urgently. Interestingly, apart from the renovation of the Durbar Hall in Kochi they don’t have anything substantial to show or claim before the public. There is some mystery behind this biennale project; one, there is no accountability and two, there is no transparency.
Premjish Achari: Why do you say that there is no accountability and transparency? What kind of accountability and transparency are you expecting from these project managers?
JohnyML: I believe in the values of democracy and a non-corrupt society is what I am aspiring for. When public money is spent on anything, the public has the right to ask why it is spent and on what it is spent. When a cultural project like a Biennale happens, people have the right to see what exactly is going on behind the scenes. Let me tell you, the people in India or in Kerala are not dumb people. They want to know why the state government has agreed to spend Rs.25 crore on a project like this and what was the reason for believing in only two artists out of the millions of other artists, historians, art scholars, curators and experts in this country.
Premjish Achari: I would like to intervene at this point and need a clarification. Could you please make it a bit clearer? The problem is there in the Biennale organization or in the way the funds are used?
JohnyML: In both. Many people do not know that the idea of this Biennale originated almost two years back. The context was not exactly a biennale. Bose Krishnamachari owns a plot near Aluva (near Kochi) and his idea was to build a private museum for contemporary art. He had big ambitions as the market was booming and money was coming in. Bose had even made an architectural model of this museum and when he knew that the funds were not coming in, he had even exhibited this model in a couple of exhibitions in India and abroad. When the economic recession struck, it became impossible for Bose to continue with this project. To make this museum possible, he with his friend Riyas Komu approached M.A.Baby, the minister of education and culture at that time. M.A.Baby, it is said, told Bose that he would not be able to help to establish a private museum but if anything happens in the public sector, as a minister he could do something towards it. It was then this idea of Biennale had come up. There were a series of meetings between these three people in Mumbai and Trivandrum since June 2010.
Today Bose and Riyas claim that the government of Kerala approached them to do a Biennale in Kochi, which is very difficult to gulp without asking a few questions. First of all why the Government of Kerala approach two individual artists living in Mumbai to do an international show in Kerala? Secondly, when the idea was mooted there was no Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation. It was a quick formation with five members, Bose Krishnamachari as president, Riyas Komu as secretary, Bonny Thomas (a low profile cartoonist) as treasurer and V.Sunil of W+K as the member. Though the foundation’s head office is in Bose’s studio in Borivili, the foundation is registered in Sreemoolanagaram, a village near Eranakulam.
Within three months after registering this foundation, in March 2011 the CPM led government in Kerala allotted a fund of Rs.5 crores to this organization and it was routed through the Muziris Heritage Trust. In the MOU between the foundation and government of Kerala (dept of Tourism), interestingly there was no clause written so that the foundation stood answerable to the finance department. The idea of accountability was flouted at the initial stage itself. That means, the intentions of making use of this money and the amounts that were supposed to flow into the Foundation’s kitty were not that good. It is quite alarming that the so called cultural activists getting into large scale financial corruption.
Premjish Achari: How do you define corruption in the context of this proposed biennale?
JohnyML: Corruption starts when you obscure information. We have never asked Mr.Amit Judge (the head of former Bodhi) how he spent his money because it was his private money. Even if he keeps information regarding the working of Bodhi under cover we cannot question it because it is his private organization and it is his private fund. But here in the case of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the corruption is not just about misusing funds, it is about misleading people and safeguarding information.
Look at the organization’s character. We have Bose as program head and Riyas as executive head. To read it in different way, they are the official commissioners and curators of this biennale. At the same time, they are the fund raisers as well as fund users. And now, if we ask who are these two people? They are two moderately successful artists living in Mumbai. Bose has curated a few significant and many insignificant shows. Riyas’ claim to fame is that he has once been in Venice Biennale. But we have several other artists better equipped and better qualified that these two. After all, if I quote an artist friend, ‘both of them are only BFAs’.
Besides, if you see these guys have asked for Rs.4.9 crores as their personal fee to conduct this Biennale. And biennale cannot be a short term affair. In the project report that the government approved without checking facts it says that the rent, renovation and functioning expenditure would be met by the funds provided by the state government. That means, as we know the biennale offices are Bose’ and Riyas’ studios in Borivili, in the coming years, if the agreement stands, Kerala government will provide money to do their private business.
When the declaration of this project happened in February 2011, Bose invited a few artists and the only art critic he invited to the function was Uma Nair, a newspaper columnist who writes on art. She was the only representative from the art scene other than a few artists. That means Bose and Riyas did not want, from the day one onwards, anyone from the art scene to have a say in this project. The organizational structure proves that Bose and Riyas want to make it a private affair at the expense of public money.
Premjish Achari: So, what? Why cannot we have two private individuals initiating a project like this? Why do you insist that there should be more people into it?
JohnyML: Premjish, if Bose and Riyas are using their own hard earned money and they raise some fund from the private sector to establish a biennale like this there is no problem. Even if government is strategically involved in such projects nobody can question it. Only thing is that then it would not be a ‘biennale’ of its name’s worth. There are several private biennales across the globe where anybody could get any kind of awards. But here this biennale is primarily funded by the state government. In that case, we cannot let the two individuals to call the shots.
Now let us take the way the international biennales function. There is an organization and there are collaborations between the public and private sectors. There will be an advisory committee and committee of experts and there will be members with executive charges and powers. These committees work in tandem with each other and there is a decentralized way of functioning. That is at the organizational level. Coming to the intellectual part of it, there are several expert committees that organize seminars both domestic and international, there are educational programs and many other reach out activities. Look at the Think Fest organized by the Tehelka in Goa and the Jaipur literary festival. Both are world class programs with strategic partnership with the local governments. They are not getting into controversy. Why? Because they are transparent and they don’t do it to pocket the public fund. Here in the case of Kochi Biennale, none of these formalities are followed. There has been no activity apart from the renovation of the Durbar Hall which is another huge controversy.
Premjish Achari: You are talking about misinformation, obscurantism, lack of transparency and now lack of activities. How do you elaborate on that?
JohnyML: Let’s take two recent examples in India- ten years of Khoj and the more recent Yamuna-Elbe project. Both are initiated by private agencies with the strategic government participation. There have been several layers of preparation including various seminars, reach out programs and artists’ exchanges. Most of them have happened under the public eyes. Now we have had this Delhi Biennale project almost ten years back. This was looking for the possibilities of creating a Delhi Biennale. Instead of straight away going for crores worth of government funding, the Delhi Biennale Committee went for a series of discussions, seminars and debates, and after two years of thorough brainstorming the project was shelved for the time being and even one of the leading figures of the Delhi Biennale Committee, Gita Kapur declared that Delhi Biennale would remain as a platform to discuss and theorize the biennales. Everything went on record. And this effort had all the intellectuals’ support and it was an inclusive platform.
Now, one year gone by with the Kochi biennale, with adequate government funding, not a single public project or seminar has been organized by the foundation. No advisory board has been instituted. Not a single person from Indian art scene is apprised of the activities of this foundation. It raises questions about the intentions of both Bose and Riyas. Why didn’t they want to organize a committee which has the stalwarts from the Indian art scene that include the art historians, theoreticians, cultural theorists, critics, gallerists, collectors, social scientists, city planners and so on? Hence, we understand that for Bose and Riyas it is an ego trip with no respect for the public or government.
If you look at the website of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, which is also listed amongst the other thirty seven biennales all over the world in the Biennale Foundation website (a unified portal for the world biennales), no information is available. It has a flash driven home page with the images of a few dilapidated structures in the Fort Kochi area. The written information is limited to a mission statement, an about us, a press release and two photographs of Bose Krishnamachari sitting with a laptop in front of him. Most of the links are blank. I am told the foundation has conducted some secrete seminars in some five star hotels in Kerala. If so at least there should be some pictures and information regarding those should be there in the website. This is what I again say that there is a tremendous about of lack of transparency and secrecy in this project which leads naturally to the issue of misuse of public funds to private ends.
Premjish Achari: Now it is alleged that the renovation of Durbar Hall in Kochi has eaten up all the money and the Biennale Foundation is in a cash crunch situation. What exactly happened in Durbar Hall issue?
JohnyML: Had it not been Durbar Hall issue, the corrupt practices of both Bose and Riyas would have continued away from public scrutiny. One of the agreements that Bose made on behalf of Kochi Biennale Foundation and the Kerala Lalitha Kala Akademy was that the foundation would renovate the heritage building, Durbar Hall and in return to that the foundation should be given the permission to use the premises free of cost in every two years for during the biennales. As per the initial agreement the renovation was supposed to be completed by mid 2011 and was to be handed over to the Lalit Kala Akademy. However Bose could not finish the work within the stipulated time. So he approached the academy again with a request and the then committee accepted his request and gave him a four months extension to finish the work. As per the second agreement the work was finished and the building was handed over to the academy. By that time the new government has come up in Kerala and as per there were changes in the academy administration also. When the renovated Durbar Hall was re-presented to the state with an exhibition organized by the Lalitha Kala Akademy, to the horror of Bose and Riyas, they found their names were not written on the plaque. They went to town with a press conference alleging that it was they who spent the money and they were not acknowledged in the final outcome.
This press conference by Bose was the first one since the declaration of the Biennale. That too was not for displaying the accomplishment but to complaint. Now let us ask a simple question: How did Kochi Biennale Foundation itself came as the ‘contractors’ of the renovation of the Durbar Hall? If they wanted Government involvement why didn’t they ask the government directly to renovate it but under their supervision? How did Bose’ brother became the chief contractor of the whole renovation process? How did the foundation claim that it was ther money? Today, it is said that Rs.3.5 crores is spent on renovating that one single building. I am told that except for the new lighting, false walls and split air conditioners no fundamental changes have been done in the name of renovation. And this unearthly sum of Rs.3.5 crores is just spent on this. Ajayakumar, the former secretary of Laliha Kala Akademy says that in his tenure when the renovation was done it had not exceeded Rs.25 lakhs. And also the then cultural minister T.K.Ramakrishnan was skeptical about air-conditioning the whole building.
Today, it is clear that split air conditioners do not work in such huge buildings. We need centralized air condition with an external air cooling unit. As it is a heritage building you cannot build cooling units near by the heritage building. So you need to find a different place to set up this. Bose has not observed any of these formalities and there is no account for how this 3.5 crores is spent. Also it is said in the project report submitted to the government by Bose and Riyas (read the foundation) it is clearly mentioned that part of the money will be used for setting up and enhancing the offices of both Bose and Riyas in Borivili. As we all know from the given address that these offices are nothing other than their personal studios. It is also said that the people hired as office staff were not given salaries for a long time and most of them left the organization in due course of the last one year. So we need to ask where the rest of the Rs.1.5 crores gone?
Premjish Achari: There is also an allegation against Bose and Riyas that they have not observed the rules of the Archeological Survey of India that takes care of the heritage building, Durbar Hall.
JohnyML: That is quite a serious allegation to which these two parties stand answerable. But interestingly, when asked by a journalist from the Indian Express Newspaper, Riyas Komu said audaciously that it was not the concern of the foundation as the building was handed over to them by the Lalitha Kala Akademy and to which it was given by the government of Kerala. First of all, this man with a simple BFA degree in hand does not have any respect for the people of this country as he is out and out here to plunder the public funds. Otherwise how as an artist he could have said such a dismissive answer? Now after spending this princely sum of Rs.3.5 crores on the renovation of Durbar Hall, he says that he is not responsible for observing the directives of the respected Archaeological Survey of India. Interestingly, this is the same person who started a very ‘revolutionary’ newspaper from his studio this year with its first issue dealing with the lack of sanitized toilets for the poor migrants in and around his ‘home town’ of Borivili. The same person, after a few months is out there to grab the public money for private use. In of the press reports it is said that Riyas wanted to bring political art to India through this proposed Biennale. And even they were trying to get Ai Wei Wei from China. I wonder whether these guys have ever understood anything political about art or art about being political. May be they have learnt the art of politics along the way and the corruption accompanying it.
Premjish Achari: Where does the former minister M.A.Baby stand in this issue?
JohnyML: M.A.Baby is not a novice in politics or in organizational activities. After student politics and an active political career in Kerala, he was sent to Delhi by the CPM. Baby was here in Delhi for around ten years and he was one of the major supporters of Swaralaya, a cultural organization that promoted music. I believe M.A.Baby was sincerely hoping something to happen in Kerala during his tenure as a cultural and education minister. But when I look beyond that, I have all the reasons to think that Baby had some strange fascination for these two guys. In June 2010, when I was invited by the Film Akademy to set up a video show along with the international short film festival, M.A.Baby took a special interest in introducing Bose and Riyas to the press, almost avoiding me and Gigi Scaria, who was a participating artist and an already declared Venice Biennale invitee. He introduced Bose and Riyas as ‘internationally acclaimed’ artists. I believe the discussions for this biennale was already on or about to begin then. It is quite surprising that Baby went to the Venice Biennale in 2011, with Bose and Riyas and attended a lavish party thrown by these two guys there. It is strange that even after becoming an opposition MLA, Baby was requesting the present Congress government to give more funds to Bose and Riyas. I don’t understand the psychology behind this. One needs to probe further on this nexus. Also we should ask why the government of Kerala has never given such kind of funds to the other academies working from Kerala. Just look at the annual grants given to the Lalit Kala Akademy, Sangeeta Nataka Akademy, Sahitya Akademy, Cartoon Akademy and so on. The Cartoon Akademy gets an annual grant of Rs.10,000/- (Ten Thousand only) from the government of Kerala. Isn’t that amount ridiculously inadequate for an acdemy which has been there for more than ten years? How did a government with Baby as the cultural minister overlook all these and then suddenly decided to give a grant of Rs.25 crores to a newly formed foundation by a few private people? And once the government has agreed to do so, these guys are going to get an annual grant and full-fledged government support for the rest of their lives because Biennales are not done over night. It needs round the clock activities in all the 365 days in a year. This is one of the most strategic corruption cases in India in which unfortunately M.A.Baby is involved.
Premjish Achari: Everyone knows that you were a good friend of Bose. But now you are very critical about him. Is there any personal reason to do so?
JohnyML: Bose is a good friend and I am sure he would remain one if he steers clear this controversy and comes out clean. I have written a lot about him and his works. I have helped him in formulating several of his curatorial ideas. He used to ask me for help because he could never articulate things theoretically. Even today, if someone asks me to write about his works I would happily do that. But he seems to have developed this ego of being the ‘biggest’ artist in India who could do anything under sun. He is fashion crazy and is boastful. He had even declared that he is a communist and bourgeoisie at the same time. That means he has not digested the theoretical polarities of these two notions. Off late, he had even compared himself with M.F.Husain. But for me, Bose is one of those artists left the home land to struggle in Mumbai and made it to the top. He is one of the many. He is a restless person with a lot of aspirations to do things. But I would have appreciated his efforts if he had approached this ‘biennale’ in a democratic fashion and stood in public clean and uncorrupt. He should have asked this question whether he and Riyas stand qualified to do a biennale all by themselves. He should have respected the people in this country and also the artists and art fraternity in particular. He has proved himself to be power hungry and prone to corruption. I wish he could come out of it soon with clean hands.
Premjish Achari: Okay, (smiles). Where does this Biennale stand now? And are you out and out to stop it by asking for clarifications and all?
JohnyML: As far as I know, further funding of this biennale has been stopped by the government of Kerala.
I am not against a grand opportunity that Kerala would have perhaps through this biennale. I want it to happen in a very democratic and intelligent way. I demand transparency and inclusive methods of functioning. I do not want any position in this biennale. I have a clean history and I am not power hungry. My strength is my conscience and the artists, writers, cultural activists and well meaning politicians in this country. I want India to be a strong country in all the fields including arts. And I believe, if we are against Rajas, Kalmadis and people like them, why should we not stand against the people who do corruption in the name of art?
Premjish Achari: Thanks Johny!