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Kochi coup: an Indian art biennale

As if it didn't have enough to wow visitors already, the Kerala port city has now established India's first art biennale. Words and pictures by Amrit Dhillon

 

Pay no heed to Shakespeare - there is a lot in a name. Not for nothing do we have the Venice Biennale, the contemporary art exhibition that takes place once every two years in the northern Italian city. The name conjures up the majesty and grandeur of the place. Neither a "Sha Tin Biennale", say, nor a "Delhi Biennale", quite makes the grade.

How about the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in the Malabar region of Kerala, India ("the Venice of the East"), though? That has a nice ring to it. Kochi (formerly Cochin) is a place that is synonymous with the spice trade - a port of steamers and ferries, the Arabian sea and buildings dating back to when the first traders arrived, in the 15th century.

The less well known Muziris in the title is Kerala's lost city, which was destroyed when the Periyar river flooded in the 14th century. Legendary for its role in the ancient spice trade, Muziris is now the largest heritage conservation project in India, even though its exact location is still debated.

Kochi needs no selling. Its lush and verdant landscape and backwaters are enough to draw the most staunch of hodophobes (those with a fear of travel in case you didn't know). And the launch of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, on 12.12.12, provided yet another attraction for visitors.

Even with my untrained eye and rudimentary knowledge of art, it is thrilling to wander around the main venue, the ramshackle and sprawling Aspinwall House. The property once belonged to a British company that traded in spices, tea, coffee and rubber. The estate is overgrown and wild, but +the art looks all the more interesting in this unusual setting.

As the heritage building is situated on the waterfront, two factors dazzle visitors wandering about the rooms and open spaces: the art on display, of course, but also, through the windows or the shrubbery, arresting glimpses of the wharf and the waters of the Arabian Sea shimmering in the sunshine.

Just as the Venice Biennale celebrates its host city, so the Kochi-Muziris Biennale celebrates Kochi's history. This is a place where Arab, Chinese, Dutch, British and Portuguese traders came looking for pepper, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. They found all these along with an enchanting land of forests and water.

Works by the 80 or so artists, half of them from overseas, are displayed all over Fort Kochi (the heritage quarter), in gardens, public spaces, galleries and other historical buildings, such as Pepper House. Many of the works are thought-provoking or even controversial: Dutch artist Jonas Staal's 45 billboards depicting the flags of banned or blacklisted organisations are his way of showing us the limitations of democracy and free speech; Indian artist Subodh Gupta's boat is loaded with detritus such as bicycles, garden chairs, fans, televisions and kitchen utensils; Australian Dylan Martorell's Robot Drums are made out of rubbish swept up from the venue; and Indian artist Vivek Vilasini's Last Supper - Gaza recreates Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, but with Christ and 12 burqa-clad figures.

The atmosphere at the venues - and in places such as the Kashi Art Cafe, where people congregate for post-viewing chats - is electric; there is nothing like a good festival to energise a city.

Kochi has always been cosmopolitan. Hindus, Jews (just a few now as most families have emigrated), Muslims and Christians have long formed a harmonious mosaic. But with so many foreign artists around for the opening, the town feels even more diverse than usual.

The spice market in Fort Kochi is a living one. Ginger and turmeric are laid out to dry in courtyards off the main road, before being packed off for delivery around the world.

Mace is a less familiar spice: "You use it with rice dishes to give a lovely aroma and flavour," a shop assistant tells me.

Fort Kochi is full of shops, museums and cafes. In its architecture, Dutch, Portuguese and colonial British features have been crafted, over the years, onto the traditional Malabar style. This is also the location of the oldest church in India, St Francis', built by the Portuguese in 1503; old Portuguese homes with hand-painted tiles on the floors and wooden ceilings; the famous fishing nets that line the harbour - the great spider-like contraptions introduced by Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan - and the only functioning synagogue in India, in an area called - it sounds rather disrespectful, but it is meant to - Jew Town.

In the evenings, the throngs can be found strolling along the waterfront, coconut water or ice cream in hand, among fishermen selling their catch of the day.

It's a peculiarity of Kerala that its shops almost all stock handicrafts from Kashmir, which is at the other end of the country, rather than local items. Perhaps it's because Kerala's landscape is so exquisite the people have never felt compelled to create their own things of beauty.

On my last day in Fort Kochi, I stumble across Heritage Arts, on Jew Street. This is more a museum than a shop, with gorgeous antiques from the mansions of former royals. It also boasts a traditional snake boat that takes up the entire length of the shop. Usually about 42 metres in length and made of wood, the snake boat, or chundan vallam, is named for its resemblance to the raised hood of a snake and features in annual races around Kerala. A snake boat normally carries about 10 singers and more than 100 oarsmen.

Even better, the shop has a cafe overlooking the harbour, with the sights and sounds of steamers, fishing boats and ocean liners to digest along with an excellent fish curry.

The spices this part of the world has long been associated with have, naturally, inspired some of the biennale artists. One of Martorell's installations consists of aluminium pots with speakers inside and handfuls of ground spices on top. As the volume increases, the vibrating speakers send up clouds of perfumed spice.

Indian artist Vivan Sundaram reassembled hundreds of thousands of pottery shards he found at Muziris inside a shallow pit, to create a fantasy lost city. He threw peppercorns onto the installation to symbolise the flooded city's links with the spice trade.

The biennale is on until March 13, adding a whole new zest to the wonderful sensory experience that is Fort Kochi.

 

Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Mumbai, from where Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) runs several flights a day to Kochi.

 

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