February 5, 2013

Kochi-Muziris Biennale : the art of new beginnings

I've always thought Fort Cochin (or Fort Kochi ) is like one of those story-book places; full-of old-world charm and slightly fantastical ... as if it's living in its own time-zone . Perhaps it's the towering, ancient Rain Trees all over the place, touching canopies and dripping with ferns, that does it.
Or the white-washed walls laden with crimson bougainvilleas and beautiful gardens sprouting old, tile-roofed  bungalows within.
The antique shops and quaint cafes  and ferry boats.
Or the musty old spice warehouses and unused yards smothered in vegetation.
The Dutch palaces with Kerala murals, Chinese fishing nets, Jewish synagogues, Jain temples, Portuguese churches, British clubs, Indian spices and history seeping through every brick and stone.
And the very picturesque water-front that wraps around it all, dotted with fishing boats and cargo ships and sea-birds.
Oh, the romance of it all ... !

But now, it looks like I've to stretch my mind a bit more and include the art that is spilling out onto its streets too. And drawing more people than I've ever seen there before.

Now, I can almost picture Kochi's predecessor and alter-ego, Muziris , as it must have been, way back in the first century A.D. ... bustling, thronging with people of all nationalities (at least, the trading ones), buzzing with an undeniable energy and conversations in myriad tongues. King Solomon's ships came looking for spices here. So did those of the Pharaohs, the ancient Greeks and the Romans as well as the Chinese!  
Today, centuries after this port-town on the Malabar coast of Kerala in the southern tip of India, fabled for its access to treasured spices, timber and gems, was flooded by the river Periyar and sank into anonymity, it finds a resurrection of sorts in India's first Biennale. The Kochi-MuzirisBiennale  .

I couldn't resist the celebration of contemporary art by artists both local and international either. So, I flew to Kochi and coaxed Mridula Jose, interior architect from CEPT,  to show me around. ( She's also the author of an architectural study and is the VP, Product Development of CGH Earth whose David Hall Gallery is one of the venues of the Biennale. But the really big bonus for me was that her work in conservation and adaptive reuse of heritage buildings made her the perfect person to tell me about the venues as well as the art on display. That's what bloggers call good karma! )  

I went to Fort Kochi prepared to have the venues to myself or, at the most, to share them with a few art-enthusiasts. Instead, I found them bustling with people from all walks of life: school-kids racing excitedly from one installation to the next,all sparkly-eyed and wide-smiled with enthusiasm, doddering old grandpas squinting at some of the artworks, young couples enjoying the cool breeze from the backwaters just as much as the art, clusters of housewives, tourists, a priest in flowing robes striding briskly in, and yes, a few bewildered, head-scratching individuals too who couldn't figure out just what to think of the contemporary art on display.  

I clicked a camera-load of photos there and still regret that I couldn't take more of some of the venues. Unfortunately I don't have details of all of them (I thought I was being clever in clicking the write-ups too but didn't account for the fading light in the evening!). So if you can help me with details which I have missed out on, please let me know and I'll add it here. 
And now, I'll let the photos do most of the talking, okay? (This is a picture-heavy post; be warned!)

The approach to Cabral Yard (across the road from Aspinwall) was a revelation of things to come. We drove down a leafy, rain-tree lined road to another and turned a corner to find art taking over the street! 
I love street art and graffiti, so finding it here put me in just the right frame of mind. 

So refreshing to find art instead of political slogans on the walls here! No, actually the slogans were still there in the background, I think, but the art just grabbed everyone's eyeballs so we barely noticed anything else.

And inside the yard, after trampling through an exuberantly over-grown mud-path, were some very interesting installations, including this one by Sudarshan Shetty. 

Really makes you think, doesn't it?

After buying tickets at Aspinwall, we went to Pepper House which has some of the most interesting art on display, including this rusty anchor with twisty chains by Alex Mathew. And the view of the waterfront beyond  isn't half bad either!

'Leave your shoes here' by Hossein Valamanesh is one of my favourites. I love the play of light and dark and silence to create a very powerful, almost spiritual effect.

And, as with all good art, these pictures just don't do it justice.

I loved it that almost everywhere, people were interested enough to actually read about the works that they were viewing. And I also loved it that the venues are old buildings most of which are not in use (which explains the wear and tear on some of them). I love the juxtaposition of the modern and the old! 

Gert Jan Kocken's works seem to fit in so beautifully into this space. The theme, though, is a bit disquieting, especially since we're now seeing so much of this kind of defacement of art because of some individuals' personal interpretations of religion. 

I love this installation! The long hall with aged-wood flooring and light streaming in through window after window, while outside the swaying green tree-tops and water-scape added to the luminous serenity of the scene. The sheer silence and lack of people in the hall was almost like a bonus that just added to the beauty of it all.

In fact, I liked it so much that I had to share one more view of it.

For some reason I didn't hear the 'saturated surround sound' mentioned in the text above. It was not on and I had no idea that I was expected to switch it on (so much for ideal scenarios). But I loved this anyway.

The next room was as different as it could be similar. Almost empty again, except for a family with young children curiously running up the ladders to take a look at what was just out of sight from below, 'The Attic' by Anita Dube was one of the most disturbing works for me personally.
I'm not very fond of heights but I bravely tottered up one of those rickety ladders because I just had to see what was up there!

What had seemed to be a serene room  below stairs took on dark overtones once those ladders were climbed and I poked my head through the hatch into the attic. The almost stifling atmosphere made me pause and the now-audible feminine sobs and odd ominous sounds (clink of anklets, the thump of what sounded like footsteps ... common-place sounds, yet which sounded almost predatory and ominous now) hinting at impending danger, made my hackles rise and I was as frozen as I was impelled to run away from there! I could seriously feel myself start to sweat now.
I wobbled my way down that ladder and I needed long moments away from there, at one of the windows looking down at the greenery around and people calmly sipping their cups of coffee before I felt my nerves settle again.
I wonder if I would've been as affected if we had not been still reeling from the shock of thebrutality in Delhi just a few days earlier. Most definitely, I think.
I wonder what those young kids thought of this installation...

As I leave Pepper House, I look back through the wooden door. And read the inscription around the arch on the far wall. "All of past must be resurrected".

But remember what I said about Art spilling out on to the streets?

I LOVE THIS! I told you I like graffiti, didn't I? But you already knew that.
What I love about this is the fact that this building is apparently not even one of the official venues of the KMB! Oh, the sheer deliciousness of it!

And here's another look at it.

And it's so detailed. I love the vibrant colours, the graphics, the scale .... all of it! This was definitely one of the high points of the KMB for me.

I found these names painted on the side of the building. I assume they're the artists. If so, then Aravind Raju, Biju R., Irshad Mavayil, Mohammed Riyas, Prashanth K.V., Shanto Antony and Sujeendran, take a bow. You guys are brilliant! 

I found that I have far too many interesting pics of the Kochi - Muziris Biennale. I tried to short-list them to fit into 1 blog-post but it just couldn't be done. And that, in spite of the fact that I couldn't even visit all the venues and that towards the end of the day I just couldn't click any more pics because of the bad light!
I don't want this to be so picture-heavy that it takes forever to load, so I'll take a break here. Come back soon to read Koch-Muziris Biennale, Part II which will be posted in a few days.

One last bit of advice... go, book a ticket to Kochi. Take a look and soak in the creative spirit of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Hurry! It's on only until 13th March, 2013.
In the meantime, Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern,  speaking about the Importance of Public Investment in Art  is a Must-Watch! And take a look at the links below before you go, okay?

(Just noticed ... KMB is using the same tag-line as Chai 'n Spice. What a coincidence! )

Kochi-Muziris Biennale, official site : http://kochimuzirisbiennale.org/the-kochi-muziris-biennale/                
Muziris Heritage site : http://www.muzirisheritage.in/muziris-heritage.html#
CGH Earth : http://www.cghearth.com/ 
David Hall : http://www.cghearth.com/traveller/earthcalling&IssueId=9 (see page 3)
Sudarshan Shetty : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudarshan_Shetty
                             Times of India article
Alex Mathew :  http://kochimuzirisbiennale.org/interview-with-alex-mathew
Hossein Valamanesh :  http://www.mca.com.au/collection/artist/valamanesh-hossein/ 
                                   Out of Nothingness 
                                   Video on YouTube  (watch this!)
Gert Jan Kocken : http://www.gertjankocken.nl/ 
Ibrahim Quraishi : http://ibrahimquraishi.org/ 
Anita Dube :   http://www.khojworkshop.org/user/anita_dube 

KMB in the Press : An interface between Art and Heritage
                             India Ink 
                             Financial Times 
                             Times of Indi
                             The Hindu      
                             India Today 
                             Art Observed     

(I have to thank Bharat Bhushan, my wonderful friend, for helping me to replace this blog-post which my fidgety fingers had accidentally deleted while editing. Bharat, you're a genius! )


  1. Thanks for sharing...so much so, I am going to share other places too! Good going Sunita!

  2. Oh, it is, Usha! If you haven't seen it yet then do go.

  3. beautiful!!!! esp those painted walls... they look amazing! and what an experience that attic must have been!

  4. Hi Sunita, i went to the thieves' link you provided and here, they didn't even ask your permission. Just Sunita is placed on the byline, not even the URL. Grrrr!

  5. Anuradha, you have no idea what a tough time I had in selecting which photos to add to this post. All of them were so interesting!
    And yes, The Atiic makes a very powerful impact.

  6. Andrea, do you mean to say that my blog-post is still up there? I thought they had removed it! I'm so angry that they copied my blog-post to their site without even asking. And it is not a few lines which have been copied but the entire post and pictures!

  7. Thanks, Lisa. I'd love to read about the places you go to. You're always taking your magnificent quilts to such interesting places!

  8. This is such an interesting place. The graffiti seen in the second last photo is amazing - a brilliant piece of art.

  9. Oh yes, it is, Stiletto! I loved it. And that building with the graffiti was one of the highlights for me.
    Come back in a few days to see the rest, okay?

  10. Hi Sunita,

    I have set up a date with an old classmate of mine to go to fort kochi this sunday. Didn't feel the urgency till i saw the last date in your post. Just booked the train tickets from tvm to ekm this morning. Thanks for the push! When I get back may I include a link to your post in my blog?

  11. That's great! I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did, Sreekala.
    And, yes of course you may add a link to my post in your blog. Thanks for asking.

  12. Dear Sunita

    This is such an awesome post! from the streets of kochi to complete artist details, it gives your readers a comprehensive idea of what kochi looked like during the biennale...

    I hope I can make it next year! :)


  13. So glad that you enjoyed this, Sharon! I'm sure you would've loved it even more if you could see it yourself. Dont wait (the next one is in 2015), make plans and go to Kochi before March 13th. You still have almost a month and it is definitely worth it!

  14. I love the buildings and the art on them. Beautiful!

  15. Wonderfully written. I was there is 2012 and sure enough will go this time too.

    1. Thank you, Suresh! So glad you enjoyed it.
      I heard that this time the Biennale is even better and I would love to go but doubt if I will be able to. Hope you enjoy it.