Delhi-based Malayali Gigi Scaria’s work drills into history & myth.
Viewed from a distance and without referencing local history or folklore, the giant metal bell on the placid seaside would appear like an installation that simply heralds the experimental spirit of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
That impression could deepen as the visitor at the 108-day extravaganza gets to know more about its themes and symbolisms that range from extolling the traditional dock-work techniques of Khalasis in Kerala to a colonial-era fable about a weighty bell that sank in a European ship while headed for the Malabar Coast.
“Chronicle of the Shores Foretold” is a performance-based work of sculpture which pools in hyperlink histories and myths which artist Gigi Scaria has sought to liberally interpret about labour, religion and maritime trade that have been woven into the socio-cultural fabric of his native state.
As a Malayali based in Delhi for two decades, 41-year-old Scaria has made the small dock in a water-front venue of KMB’14, lending a real-time value to his artwork that is among the 100 main exhibits at the second edition of the biennale which casts 94 artists from 30 countries. Fixed in the backyard of Pepper House, an 18th-century Dutch-style complex, that had been a point of trade between India and foreign lands, the 2.5-tonne bell hoisted by bamboo poles finds its place today just furlongs opposite an International Container Trans-shipment Terminal which is hardly four years old.
Moulded and welded in Coimbatore of east-central Tamil Nadu, the bell, which is 13 feet tall and measures a diameter of 16 feet at the base, has the Arabian Sea water jutting out through a string of holes drilled into it. This, Scaria notes, is a symbol of the times that Kochi has passed through, narrative of the changes in its character owing to medieval invasions and new-age development among others.
The bell was installed on the eve of KMB’14, which began on December 12, by Mappila Khalasis from upstate Malabar. “They are one traditional community who have been largely unaffected by change of labour equations in the era we life in,” notes Scaria, who has done his Masters in Fine Arts from Jamia Milia University in the national capital. “I sought their help in installing my work to also highlight the value of labour in the present times defined by easy pleasure.”
Thus, last Thursday, Khalasis from Beypore Coast off Kozhikode erected the bell with a crane—making it a performance by septuagenarian dockworker Hameed A N A and his team.
“We are a community of contemporary relevance,” points out Hameed, 77, noting that Khalasis were employed in the rescue operations of Kerala’s 1988 Peruman railway tragedy, where they brought up compartments that had sunk into the Ashtamudi Lake near Kollam after the train plunged off a bridge, killing 105 passengers on July 8.
Today, ‘Chronicles of the Shore Foretold’ stands against the backdrop of vibrant movements of the cranes at the container terminal in tiny Vallarpadam Island. The backdrop also looks busy with different kinds of ships and boats—both passenger and fishing—plying up and down the sea.
Scaria, a native of Kothanellore off Christian-dominated Kottayam, notes that the “bell-sinking myth” associated with churches in his central Travancore belt has also contributed to his installation. “Even today, there is this belief that the bell emerges annually from the deep sea on the festival day, and tolls on its own,” he adds with a smile.
Much like that ring, his biennale installation (whose titled was inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicles of a Death Foretold) awakens dormant memories of a community—in fact, for people across the world.