Rooted in Kochi, the Students’ Biennale has a national impact – being the only exhibitory platform for fine art students in India.
The Students’ Biennale (SB) is a programme conceived by the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF). Rooted in Kochi, it has a national impact – being the only exhibitory platform for fine art students across the country. To exhibit alongside the main Kochi Muziris Biennale is the kind of exposure young students could only dream of – yet, here is the Students’ Biennale, having completed five editions – including one online – in the decade since its inception.
This reach is what attracted the programme to the Arts & Culture Portfolio at the Tata Trusts. But besides providing opportunities for students, how can one impact the curricula – or lack thereof – that young students are exposed to? In 2014, the first Students’ Biennale, highlighted the lacunae in instruction that prevailed in fine art colleges. In sharp contrast to the main biennale, which showcased contemporary art practices from around the world, the Students’ Biennale predominantly focused on painting, sculpture, and printmaking, with hardly any representation of installation, new media, or performance.
Introducing curators to work with the students was a good idea. However, it still needs honing – engaging with over 55+ colleges is a tough proposition, and bringing in the outliers requires dedication, time, and effort. We have observed that there hasn’t been consistency in this aspect – in terms of engagement, the permanence of the impact of the workshops at colleges, the interaction between the curators and the faculty at colleges, and the formulation of a curriculum to keep up with the times. Perhaps, by now, this could have been put in place in at least one college in the home state.
What we have seen, though, is the tremendous leap in the work displayed at the biennale. The students have responded to both the curators and the pressing issues. With the production grants provided by the Tata Trusts, the imagination and flair shown in the final works have established the Students’ Biennale as a must go-to place during the opening week for visitors from home and abroad, curators and gallerists.
In all three of the five editions (2016, 2018, 2022) support by Tata Trusts has been provided for venue rentals, exhibition production support, student production grants, salaries for curators and programme coordinators, conferences, workshops, and the catalogue. In addition, Tata Trusts Awards – three international and two national – were given. Largely in the form of travel grants, these awards have exposed the winners to international art and culture, allowing them to visit exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale and documenta, explore museums, and attend national residencies. We hope this exposure gives them a head start in their careers ahead. Many are now represented by reputed galleries, have participated in other exhibitions, and indeed some have exhibited in the 2022 edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. For the many others, it has, during their years at college, provided them with the opportunity to interact with senior artists, faculty, curators, gallerists, and the large public who visit the biennale.
There are many to thank for the 2022 Students’ Biennale which opened on the scheduled date– the programme, finance, and audit teams at Tata Trusts that kept the new SB management on track; and all at KBF, especially the co-ordinators, curators, and students who worked hard alongside to ensure a successful opening on 13 December 2022. A special thanks to the growing audience who participated so enthusiastically and provided the students with invaluable feedback, questioning them and engaging deeply with their work.
There is much to iron out in practice – for a smoother exhibition setup, for a permanent venue for the exhibition, for more effective changes in curricula, and for increased engagement in the follow-through of exhibiting. It is a tough programme, and I have nothing but admiration for the concept and for the commitment of KBF to hold the Students’ Biennale, despite tough years. It has had 10 years of impact on students who were fortunate to participate and gain from the interaction. It has become one of the most valued programmes of the biennale. A shift in KBF thinking is needed – in seeing this for what it is and investing in it as institution.
First published as a foreword by Deepika Sorabjee, Head – Arts and Culture, Tata Trusts, for the Students’ Biennale 2022 catalog supported by Tata Trusts.