I did not attend the opening of Kochi-Muziris Biennale on 12/12/12. The organizers had not invited me. Even if they had, I would not have gone. However, I had booked my ticket to go to Kochi and see it in February 2013. But something horrible happened at home; a house break-in by thieves. I cancelled my tickets as I thought I was wanted more at home than at the Aspinwal House, Fort Kochi, Kerala where the KMB had taken place. Somehow, I feel that something that ends with ‘MB’ is foredoomed. BMB (Birla-Mehta-Bose, when Birla talks about this, Bose-Mehta-Birla, when Bose talks about it) tanked after a few expensive shows. KMB, from the beginning itself had been facing problems. Seen from the side of the organizers, I was one of the trouble shooters for them. Along with many well-meaning people, I had opposed the ethics of KMB functioning. I am not going into the details of it as the debates have already been registered in history. But once the show was on, from the photographs I realized that I had all the reasons to oppose it aesthetically also. But I did not talk much about the aesthetics of it as it was not ‘ethical’ to critique something which I had not seen in person.
However, the people who visited KMB on the opening day and the next day informed me that I was very much ‘there’ in the biennale. I am not trying to say that I am too important in the Indian art scene; as I was involved in the controversy, many people expected me to make a very dramatic entry on the opening day itself and shock the people with my presence. I had declined to do so. I knew that I was like Banquo’s ghost on the declaration of KMB. Most of the friends attended the opening had innocently thought that I would be there. Some people had even phoned me up just to know the location where I was sitting or standing at the Durbar Hall ground. I told them politely that I was very much there at Faridabad and was not thinking much about KMB declaration. On 13th December 2012, I night received a visual evidence of myself being there at KMB, but in the form of a photograph, which was a part of an installation created by none other than Atul Dodiya.
(Sent to me from KMB by Abul Kalam Azad)
The picture that Manisha Gera Baswani, who is always seen ‘armed’ with a camera (whenever I see Manisha, I think two time frames coming together in her physical presence; an elegantly dressed Manisha often looks like a woman coming directly out of the Indian Miniature paintings but as she holds a camera, she looks a lot contemporary), had sent to me on 13th December, showed me reclining on a bed reading a newspaper where a detailed interview Atul Dodiya was published. I found it a bit shocking not because of my presence in KMB even as an image but because the coincidence of a date, 13th December with 13th March 2010, when Atul Dodiya’s interview was published in the Indian Express. I was reading it on the same day in a Navsari hotel room where Atul Dodiya was clicking me while Vivek Vilasini was clicking Atul Dodiya clicking me. We all were on a trip to the Dandi seashore as a part of the Freedom to March project which was jointly curated by Anubhav Nath and myself.
The shock should have ended there itself. I was a bit curious as I saw the image because already I had been informed of my ‘presence’ in KMB. What made me curious was the location where this photograph of mine was displayed. Atul Dodiya seemed to have co-opted a wall writing as a part of the installation and he seemed to have very consciously decided to exhibit my picture there. The installation, from many photographs I understood, was a series of photographs taken by Atul Dodiya over a period of time and these pictures included the portraits of some people, objects and places, who interestingly could have been recognized by any. Initially, I thought that my image was placed there for its sensational value. Atul Dodiya knew that I was from the opposition camp and it could be a way of co-opting me cleverly to the scheme of things implying that one cannot be ‘out of’ KMB even if one deliberately wanted to opt out. I was wondering how the organizers who had sent a Rs.250 Crore defamation case against me, tolerated my presence even as an image in their own premises.
(from KMB, sent to me by Usha Ramachandran)
The more I looked at the image and the wall writing the more I realized that what a wonderful laugh they all might have had at the expense of my reputation. The writing just under my photograph reads, ‘Fire Extinguisher’. The placement of the photograph makes it read almost like its caption. So here was the ‘extinguisher of fire’ (of KMB) but look, he has become an image and he could not even pour a few drops of water in the wild fire called KMB. Such a pathetic figure I might have cut before their eyes. Whenever friends visited KMB, they called me up from there and informed me that they were standing right in front of ‘JohnyML’ at KMB. Many clicked this picture with their mobile phones and cameras and sent to me. Initial embarrassment had given way to a sort of inexplicable pleasure for me. I was almost feeling like a monument; when people visit a monument, they call up their friends and say, guess where I am standing right now? You make guess work. Then they declare right in front of Taj Mahal. I was feeling like a monument in history.
(On 13th March 2010, at a Navsari hotel, Atul Dodiya clicking my picture reading Indian Express)
Atul Dodiya does not have any reason to join the party of disparagement though he knew that I was one of the critics of KMB. His works and words almost hide a double edged sword at times. He might have happily convinced the organizers of KMB about incorporating my image in the much celebrated mega show. The arguments might have sounded really convincing. At the same time, I wonder, had the artist also thought the multiple linguistic possibilities of the caption, Fire Extinguisher? Okay, in the public perception, at least a part of it, I look like spoilsport. But at the same time a majority still believes that the efforts of people like me were a sincere attempt to save the art world from corruption. In that sense, I have all the reasons to believe that Atul had thought a lot about the phrase fire extinguisher. Fire extinguisher is a saviour for it extinguishes fire. The person in question could be a fire fighter who fights to save the people who are caught in a burning hell. In that sense Fire Extinguisher does not have a negative connotation at all. I believe, Atul was playing a strong double speak from within a camp to which he had not pawned all his integrity.
(Gopal Mirchandani's photo essay on KMB in the latest issue of Art Journal)
I was not thinking of writing this diary entry at all. But today when I came back home, I found the latest copy of Art Journal, edited by Rajendra Patil and published from Mumbai. In the photo essays included in the magazine I found Gopal Mirchandani, a respected friend from Mumbai, presenting his takes on KMB in a visual essay. Obviously, this picture in question was there. I was a bit amused at seeing it again. Gopal Mirchandani also must be thinking of the same lines of Atul Dodiya. If it was all about exorcising the ghost of JohnyML’s ghost, the image would not have got this much celebration elsewhere. I believe, people today understand, what a fire extinguisher stands for. I am not the saviour of art scene. I do not intend to become one either. But I want to have a clean and transparent life in art. That also does not mean that I need to live according to the middle class values created by somebody.