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For Biennale Artist Shambhavi, Kerala floods Triggered Emergency Memories

In Kochi
November 21, 2018

When the August floods devastated Kerala four months ahead of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) where she is an artist, Shambhavi’s thoughts raced back to a similar scene during the days of Emergency. A pre-teen girl in 1975, she was among the victims of the nature’s fury that had struck her native Bihar.

“The Sone river overflowed, and swallowed our entire locality in Patna,” she recalls, adding that a helicopter carrying the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was making an aerial survey. “We stood on the roofs of our houses. Most of us waved black cloth in extreme aggression and frustration. That was the moment I realised that colours can depict emotions and thoughts so intensely.”

That incident etched deep and dark images in Shambhavi. “So much so, all my initial canvases are in black,” adds the artist, now 52.

Today, with three weeks left for the fourth edition of the 108-day KMB, the Delhiite has been camping in the biennale city. At Fort Kochi’s Aspinwall House, which is the main venue of the contemporary art festival beginning on December 12, Shambhavi is working on an installation that reaffirms her identity as practitioner of non-figurative work that focuses on the relationship between man and nature.

Patna-born Shambhavi, who moved to the national capital in 1990 to earn her Masters from Delhi College of Art, has been regularly attending KMB ever since its inaugural show in 2012. “The atmosphere in Kochi is one that stimulates the art in you,” she says. “It’s thrilling to find that this time I am taking part in the biennale.”

Shambhavi goes on to say that KMB is a “pilgrim’s place” for artists. “It is India’s only biennale, and so holds a very particular respect among us,” she adds about the event that features 95 artist projects with 138 participants in total.

The artist prefers to take her own time for any creative work. “I like to spend a long period on it, proceed slowly in the activity so that it hopefully achieves a certain degree of perfection,” she says. At the upcoming KMB, the artist is to showcase a series of finite works on which she has been working for a decade. The title for the assemblage is Maati Maa, which means ‘Mother Earth’.

That suggests yet again that Shambhavi continues to nurture her love for rural life, especially that of the farmers. Three years of urban-centric life notwithstanding, she retains her interest in peasant communities — sometimes with a take on migration of such labourers.

Anita Dube, who is curator of the fourth KMB, says she has been following Shambhavi’s art making for two decades. “The whole idea of her work here is based on agriculture,” Dube notes about Shambhavi’s KMB installations that are made manually using different types of iron sheet.

According to Shambhavi, Kerala stands in the centre of country’s contemporary art world. The state holds a very strong history of art, besides a notable number of arts colleges of national importance. “No surprise, thus, that the biennale is a success in Kerala,” she added.