A love letter to Kochi

Sbcltr online article – text by Rohini Kejriwal, 2 March 2017.
Common Ground: The Serendipitous Happenstance Project. Featuring the work Godh: in the lap of nature. Group exhibition curated by Helen Rayment, OED Gallery, Mattancherry, Kochi, Kerala, India, 10 December – 29 March 2017.

Rohini Kejriwal, travelled to the seaside town for the Kochi Biennale and discovered that the city had as much of an effect on her as the art she experienced.

Over the years, I had amassed all kinds of feedback about Kochi and it offered me a skewed version of the place. By the time I finally arrived there, crossed the city to Fort Kochi, smelled the salt and the frying fish in the air and realised that despite being a vegetarian it didn’t bother me, coastal life had already caught my fancy.

The first thing I noticed, besides the pungent smells was the prevalent fisherman culture. Outside the lane near the Chinese fishing nets where my Airbnb was located, the friendly fisher folk—men and women alike—would set up their makeshift shop, call out in crisp Malayalam to passer-bys, and if no customers were around, would be seen joking amongst themselves.

Then there were the street food sellers—seafood, raw mangoes with the most unbelievable masalas, pickles, cotton candy, juices, sandwich makers, the good ol’ ice cream carts. There were plenty of options for everybody, and sometimes, one even got offered “vegetarian prawns” when one was avoiding the seafood stalls, “come back here when you feel hungry.” Beyond the people and the noise was the vast Arabian sea itself—endless and picturesque with its ships out sailing, the waves crashing against the rocks, the sunsets that offer you a quiet space to still your mind to just watch and absorb.

A little further down, there was the Fish Cemetery, an art installation by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute and Cochin Shipyard Limited to remind and warn people about how plastic debris threatens the biodiversity and ecology marine life in general and human life in the long run.

All the Google searches, recommendations and research cannot prepare you for the real experience of a place. One has to just dive into it and trust that with time, the place will reveal itself to you, unravelling its secrets one by one. Over the course of the next ten days, I had as much time to appreciating the culture of Kochi, as well as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale—an international exhibition of contemporary art, curated for the 2016-17 edition by Sudarshan Shetty. With the third edition’s theme being Forming in the Pupil of an Eye, a line from Sharmista Mohanty’s work, the Biennale aims to see and show how the perspectives of what you see shift, change, and leave you dazzled.

For me, this shift in perspective became somewhat a personal journey as I became an explorer of the town, finding my own favourite cafes (Qissa Café, Kashi Art Café, David Hall for pizzas, Passage Malabar, Solar Café), walking for hours without any agenda other than to soak in the gorgeous architecture, discovering bars like Seagull, where in the evenings, as you sipped on beer, you could spot a pod of dolphins.

The quaint beauty aside, Kochi can sometimes be a bit overwhelming for some travellers. The heat and humidity, occasional remarks from shopkeepers and drunk men on the roads are matters of concern, and it’s always better to be safe. Basic travel precautions apply – pepper spray, keeping the phone charged, being friendly but cautious, and most importantly, being aware of the surroundings– go a long way. Armed with that awareness, I went about my days, seeing Kochi as my playground.

Kochi Biennale in all its glory amplified this experience enormously. Having been to other art festivals across the country, this was most certainly the best suited way to celebrate art. With every corner one turned revealing a new venue, new artists across different fields to savour. The way the entirety of Fort Kochi and Jew Town were transformed to incorporate showcases, installations, galleries, street art, was exceptional. Add storytelling to the visual aspect and the way each artwork forced one to think and question and it’s a formula for something great.

The popular Kashi Art Gallery, for instance, is now home to all sorts of multimedia experiments – Gigi Scaria’s compelling 6-screen installation Can I Call You Back?, questioning Indian women on the subjects of society, self, monogamy, security. Risa Horowitz’s photo series Starfields and Fields; KK Muhamad’s imaginary landscape paintings, and Meydad Aliyahu’s The Box of Documents—a tribute to Kerala’s Jewish community are worth mentioning. Walk down the road to the Dutch bungalow that is David Hall, to engage in the stunning 3-video project of Padmini Chettur’s choreography. Have a lemonade, savour Dana Awartani’s four-metre-long tapestry based on Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi’s eight poetic love letters dedicated to the Kaaba.

Aspinwall House, a gorgeous waterfront heritage property and the largest venue of the Biennale, was like a maze waiting to be walked on, with every space, every corner offering something exceptional. Among the many noteworthy artworks there, some worth mentioning are AES+F’s Defile, a series of life-size photographs of recently deceased people in high-end fashion, making one question the relationship between death and beauty. Subrat Kumar Beheras’ lithograph of 60 panels titled Mythological Paradigm Prophesied, a vision beyond the limitations of physical reality. Yardena Kurulkar’s Dance of Death light installation—both illuminating and thought-provoking. Dia Mehta Bhupal’s paper and glue Bathroom Set.

Outside, Aleš Šteger’s The Pyramid of Exiled Poets invites audiences on a haunting, simple historical walk that captures what it means to be in exile as the soundscape and voices and words of the past—Ovid, Czesław Miłosz, Mahmoud Darwish, take you back in time. Another powerful installation Raúl Zurita’s, The Sea of Pain, a dialogue on the Syrian crisis and a tribute to Galip Kurdi, the five-year-old brother of Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed ashore, forces you to wade through the water, read between the lines and question the collective failure of democracy of humanity in the scary world of today. Even when you leave, the words ‘Won’t you come back, never again, in the sea of pain‘ remain…

There’s something for people of every aesthetic, style and sensibility at the cultural extravaganza that is the Biennale, with a total of 97 artists from 31 countries, including 36 Indians showcasing their creative oeuvre this year. At Pepper House, a charming bungalow-turned-gallery, walk through Hanna Tuulikki’s weird and evocative video installation dissecting visuals, sound and body and admire Praneet Soi’s cut-out sculptures as you grab a bite.  The diversity of ideas find unlikely homes in spaces like MAP Project and Cabral Yard, where the Portuguese once constructed a hydraulic press for coir yarn. Today, the yard is home to local artist Tony Joseph’s The Pavillion, an architectural installation to host talks, screenings, performances and discussions. There’s also Will-O’-The-Wisp by Katrīna Neiburga and Andris Eglītis, a site-specific and engaging audio-visual experience in a bamboo cocoon where one can experience stories of human encounters with miracles.

And when it all gets too tiring, there’s always the ferry to the rescue, allowing one to breathe—a reminder of the sea and its languid life. Get off at Ernakulam, Cherai Beach or Mattancherry, where more beauty awaits. Yet even in Ernakulam, traces of the Biennale can be felt, in tucked away galleries like Durbar Hall, with Himmat Shah’s sculpture series that bring together abstraction and figuration from 1980 to 2016 greeting visitors. Climb up the steps to Dream Stop, a video installation by Gary Hill using 31 spy cams, aluminium, and projects to give distorted, upside-down, miniaturised images as you walk down the room.

When you’re done exploring, walk over to the Marine Drive, stop over at Pai Dosa, an establishment famous for its mouth-watering 36 varieties of dosa and have fresh gelatos at Gelato Italiano before heading back to Fort Kochi.

Jew Town, a bustling port area and centre of the Kochi spice trade, and the whole of Mattancherry is another must-visit area of Kochi. Traditionally, Kochi Jews trace their lineage back to the time of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Today, the community there is almost extinct, but the 400-year-old Pardesi Synagogue still stands testimony of its glorious past. Walk through the lanes and bylanes of Jew Town to admire the marvellous yet faded blue and green facades. Soak in the smell of spices and enter the curio shops dominated by Kashmiri shopkeepers selling wood carvings, oil lamps, block prints, quaint door knobs, hand painted tiles, spice boxes, paintings, and other reminders of the civilisation that once dwelled on these streets.

Beyond the existing charm of the town are tourist attractions like the International Tourism Police Station and Police Museum, where one can explore the changes in uniforms, medals, and rifles over time and take selfies with the displays.

If you’re still around while the Biennale is on, experience the transformed homes and spaces whose walls now adorn artworks and installations. The Students’ Biennale, an art education initiative spread primarily across Jew Town, features the works of over 470 aspiring artists from 55 schools across the country in an exhibition that runs parallel to Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. Down the road in a furniture shop is Gunjan Gupta’s Kissa Kursi Ka, a homage to Indian professions through chairs and OED Gallery, with the ingenious Common Ground: The Serendipitous Happenstance Project.

Beyond these, Anand Warehouse and TKM Warehouse, which have been converted into makeshift galleries, are brilliant spaces reeking of spices, scents and memories. From Bharat Sikka’s poignant photo series Where the flowers still grow on a vision life of Kashmir to AES+F’s Inverso Mundus, a bizarre video installation using digital collages to depict daily scenes of life inverted, Anand Warehouse is a treasure trove of wonder.  TKM Warehouse is another wonderland, with Alicja Kwade’s Out of Ousia installation, a beautiful and complex work comprising an intersecting concrete wall, a mirror and a wooden frame with objects like rocks and branches placed around it so that as you walk around its four sections, each set of objects seemed to seamlessly bleed into the next and one’s perception is questioned yet another. Another powerful one that one can’t leave Kochi without seeing is, Alex Seton’s marble sculpture of a hunched figure titled Refuge 2015 that questions the notions of comfort, homeliness and generosity.

With my heart filled to the brim after my experience, I returned home, a bit vacant and lifeless at the possibility of not being able to explore entirely new worlds of art beautifully amalgamated with the sleepy coastal town that was no longer at my disposal. Kochi was an experience that was intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and artistic in equal measure. I’d left home a tourist and I came back wiser. Now when I look back at my experience—all I can conjure is the sea and the setting sun and these lines by Van Gogh, “the heart of man is very much like the sea, it has its storms, it has its tides and in its depths it has its pearls too.” For now, Kochi is my pearl and it shall be, for a long time to come.

Photo by Rohini Kejriwal.