My first glimpse of Kochi through the flight window was an expanse of coconut tree tops interspersed with water bodies. I was welcomed with myriad sights, smells and sounds, as I stepped out of the airport, all of which I tried to absorb at once, before getting into my cab. I watched the city pass by; the sun was just about to set and I could see glimpses of pink, yellow and orange through the gaps between the trees and the buildings along the roadside. Before I knew it, we were in line to board the ferry that would transport us to the other side of the Vembanad Lake. I’d been to Kochi before, but this was my first trip to Fort Kochi. I didn’t know what to expect; I was excited!
Half an hour into the ferry ride, we reached Fort Kochi and drove out of the ferry into the (now) narrow lanes, buzzing with the evening frenzy of families, tourists, vehicles and animals going about their business before the sunset. I quickly checked into my hostel and stepped out onto the streets to find a place for some appam and fish for dinner.
I was tired, having spent the last week in Bangalore and Coimbatore, attending a friend’s wedding, but I was keen to get a feel of the neighbourhood before calling it a night. Walking through the quiet lanes in the dark, I felt a sense of calm set in. I loved walking under the moonlight with a subtle wind blowing against my face, occasionally passing by someone on a bicycle. I couldn’t wait to explore further, but only after catching up on some sleep.
Experiencing the Biennale
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale takes place in Fort Kochi-Mattancherry, Kerala every two years from December to March. The theme for the 2018-19 edition (the fourth edition of the festival) was aptly named ‘Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life’, reflecting the increasing levels of hyper-connectivity in a world that has been consistently alienating people from the warm solidarities of a community.
I must admit, while I am an art lover, I don’t know much about the art industry or art history- Indian or otherwise. The first thing that struck me about the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was how accessible it was to one and all. There were people from various nationalities, but also a significant number of local people from Kochi and beyond. There were art intellectuals and socialites, students and tourists. It didn’t have the typical art gallery ambiance, rather, felt like a public celebration of art; an artistic expression of issues that matter.
As I walked through the numerous galleries inside Aspinwall (the main center of the festival), I was happy to note that the festival was more than art for art’s sake, rather, sought to bring to light social, political and cultural issues that are relevant in our times and directly or indirectly affect us all. While some of the artwork in itself didn’t impress me initially, reading the accompanying artist’s statement about their work definitely gave me a more nuanced perspective, adding a lot more depth to what I saw and experienced.
While it’s futile to compare artwork or try to pick a few favourites from a festival like the Biennale, given the limited space (read words) I have here, I’m sharing more about a few handpicked exhibits that will hopefully inspire you to add Fort Kochi (during the Biennale) to your travel bucket list!
Ecocide and the Rise of Free Fall
One of the first few installations that I saw at Aspinwall was ‘Ecocide and the Rise of Free Fall’ by Marzia Farhana. This artwork was made of objects collected from the damage caused by the floods in Kerala in August 2018, with the aim to reiterate the eco-catastrophe caused by human consumption, commercialization, exploitation and overall destruction of nature.
With fans, TV sets, chairs, bookshelves, and so on collected from flood-affected houses hanging off the ceiling, Marzia’s work calls for an urgent rethinking of our relationship with the environment, and through the use of everyday objects, also tends to humanize the disaster that took place, displaying the impact of the floods on everyday life, more than any newspaper report or statistics ever could.
One Hundred Deeds of Sale
Another exhibit that caught my attention was ‘One Hundred Deeds of Sale’ by Sue Williamson. Sue tries to highlight the similar colonial history shared by Kochi and her hometown- Cape Town in South Africa. As an ode to the Indian people enslaved in Cape Town by the Dutch East India Company, her artwork offers a posthumous return home of sorts through the display of t-shirts hung on a clothesline overseeing the dock, with information about the slaves handwritten on them.
If nothing else, the artwork definitely leaves one with the eternal question- how much is a life worth?
More Sweetly Play the Dance
‘More Sweetly Play the Dance’ by William Kentridge was another stunning work of art. The installation had silhouetted figures marching and dancing to the music of a brass band, set in the period of Apartheid in South Africa. An eight-panel video installation. it was unlike anything I’ve seen before!
The installation showcased refugees migrating in what feels like a procession- shadows of figures dancing, marching, carrying luggage, throwing pamphlets, carrying sick people, waving flags, playing drums, and so on.
As beautifully articulated by the curators, “Kentridge is perhaps referencing the medieval practice of dancing to avoid death, and forefronts the downtrodden masses who must carry the burdens of history while persevering into the future.”
MAP Project Space
The farthest of the Biennale venues, the MAP Project was a pleasant surprise and one that’s often missed by visitors, being slightly cut-off from the rest of the festival venues.
This stunning project by Georges Rousse was unique, combining art, geometry, architecture, and photography. As the artist himself describes it, it’s almost like an abstract painting with elements of reality, pushing one to contemplate about the role that colour and form can play in life.
It’s also interactive in nature, as it’s only when one stands in the designated viewing area, does the entire visual of the geometrical shape(s) come together.
It’s not just the idea of a project like this, but also the superb execution of it, that is so mind-boggling. I’ll let the photographs do rest of the talking.
These are just a handful of interesting artwork that I came across during the course of the festival. Needless to say, there were numerous other thought-provoking exhibits, and few days aren’t enough to even scrape the surface of a festival like this.
There is also no doubt that the exhibits came to life because of their surroundings and locations, ranging from make-shift art galleries to abandoned warehouses. It would not have felt the same had they been displayed in a usual commercial gallery setting. Further, the daily life in the Fort Kochi area, the local fishermen’s community, and the old-world architecture and vibe- all added to the richness of the festival.
Food wasn’t left behind either, with a unique project called Edible Archives forming a part of the festival. Experimenting with more than 15 different varieties of rice, local ingredients, and traditional recipes, the project sought to bring reflection, politics, and pleasure back into food! (Could a project theme be any cooler than that?!)
I tried one of their lunch bowls (photograph below) and can vouch for the quality of food as well!
All said and done, I was quite bummed to recently learn that the Biennale Foundation, in fact, ran into a fair bit of controversy towards the fag end of the festival this year, accused of non-payment of dues to the labour that did a lot of the last minute work at short notice at some of the festival locations (more details on this Instagram account). I’m not sure of the finer details of this case and the accusations, but if there’s truth to it, then it’s rather disgraceful for a festival like this to not uphold the values it tries to inculcate.
More Than Just the Biennale
While Fort Kochi comes alive during the Biennale, the charm of the place is definitely more than just the festival. Walking through the streets in the evenings with no particular destination in mind was by far one of my most favourite things to do while I was there. I spent an entire evening watching kids play football in the public ground, and on another day, walked by the beach and hung out with fishermen catching fish at the Chinese fishing nets area.
Given its colonial history, Fort Kochi also has a lot of interesting historical sites, particularly religious institutions. St. Francis Church is where the body of the famous explorer Vasco da Gama was initially buried and is an interesting site to visit. The Santa Cruz Basilica Cathedral stands high and mighty and is particularly stunning during sunset while visiting the Jewish Synagogue was my first exposure to a Jewish church and therefore very fascinating. There is also a Dutch Cemetery which I was keen to visit but learned that it was now closed to visitors.
Further, Mattancherry town in itself is an exquisite experience of sights, sounds, smells, taste, and most importantly- the mind. Walking down lanes lined with spice shops, tea shops, trading companies, and old warehouses took me back to the colonial era and made me wonder what it must have been like in its heyday as a busy trading port under colonial rule.
Warehouses marked an important site for trade during Dutch rule in this area, hence featured central courtyards surrounded by rooms on all sides and jetties with docks facing the water. These warehouses temporarily house spices, such as cinnamon and pepper, collected from different parts of Kerala and shipped to the world. The hustle-bustle of these lanes is a delight to observe, and one can really get lost in time!
What was even more interesting was how these spaces were interspersed with street art by GuessWho, Left-influenced sights like posters of Che Guevara and “reading rooms”- a concept that really caught my attention and heart. Reading rooms are essential small public rooms- with usually one side open, and looks similar to an enclosed bus stop, with a table, couple of chairs and/or benches, and a bunch of books, newspapers, and magazines to pick from. Anybody can walk in, have a seat and browse through the material- for free, and for as long as they want!
Floating through the backwaters
After three days of exploring the nooks and corners of Fort Kochi, I decided to spend my last day taking a backwater tour with some fellow hostelers in a neighbouring village in Vaikom, Kottayam. While it wasn’t as picturesque as Alleppey, the waterways felt fairly untouched.
We floated through the narrow waterways on a Shikhara, a traditional wooden boat used for transporting goods back in the day. Since the advent of motor boats, they’re now primarily used for tourism, and our captain was a local villager who did such backwater boat rides for a living.
As we floated around the backwaters, not a sound was heard, except for the quacks of the ducks we occasionally came across. We were also greeted by kingfishers and water snakes, not to mention hundreds of tadpoles!
We stopped every half an hour to visit a few homes in the villages we passed by and witnessed how the locals made ropes out of coconut husk and carved masks from the branches, even as they urged us to buy them as souvenirs. While it was fascinating to watch them carve out these artifacts in a matter of seconds, I couldn’t help think about the paradox between consumerism and tourism. While there is a growing culture of travelers limiting how much they buy on their travels (at least people who travel light and regularly), not just to spend less money but also to carry less, and horde less at home, the business generated through tourism aids the local economy of poorer households and regions. I felt quite conflicted and kept wondering what a perfect balance would look like. How can one support local artisans without giving into accumulating things one doesn’t need?
Another unexpected highlight of the backwater ride was visiting a small spice farm, where we learned about the myriad Indian spices that exist and the hard work that goes behind growing them. It’s ironical that despite the academic degrees and laurels that so many of us city-breds hoard, we still know so little about the food we eat and how it’s grown!
All in all, this trip was a journey of the senses, turning them ‘ON’, and trying to seep in as much as I could on a rather short four-day trip. Needless to say, if you get a chance to visit Fort Kochi, especially during the Biennale, don’t pass!
All information pertaining to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale can be found here.
I stayed at Zostel Kochi and had a great experience. A bed in the dorms cost INR 400-500 per night and the staff was very friendly and helpful. They have private rooms as well, and a washing machine (this was important for many travelers I met :D). What I loved the most about it was its location- most places of interest were only a 5-10 minute walk away. The hostel also helps organize backwater tours and assists with bike rentals.
There are also plenty of nice homestays and guest houses in the Fort Nagar area (don’t think many of these are listed online, but off-season (read Feb onwards) one can easily book a room on the spot.
Commuting to and from Ernakulam is the fastest and cheapest via the Jetty. It costs just INR 4 for a one-way ticket and takes you to the other side in under 30 minutes. Tickets can be bought at the counter itself, but you might need to wait in line during peak hours (I personally waited for over 45 minutes on a Sunday evening, and less than 5 minutes later at night).
HAVE YOU BEEN TO FORT KOCHI DURING THE BIENNALE? HOW WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE? LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW!
For more photos, short videos and behind the scenes content, follow me on Instagram @ilareddy.