Hot and steamy Kerala is better known for its backwaters, beaches (see my post on Marari beach), kathakali dance and elephant processions than for its avant garde art. However the Kochi (Cochin) Biennale, now in its fourth edition which runs till March 29 2019, offers a stimulating, often surprising spectrum of Indian and international contemporary art. Scattered around peeling colonial edifices of Fort Kochi, the exhibitions lure visitors to places they wouldn’t otherwise see. Altogether it’s an electrifying voyage of discovery – of art and of the city backed by a strong sense of democracy – art for all.
Most exhibitions take place in Fort Kochi, the atmospheric peninsula and heart of Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial history attached to burgeoning modern Ernakulam where the population has now hit 3 million. On the peninsula, relics of the Malabar Coast’s spice trade, its distressed colonial warehouses, seem virtually to tip into the waters of the Arabian Sea constantly plied by ferries, fishing-boats and cargo-ships.
Installations and video art, in my view, were far more arresting than paintings and graphics, and harmonised brilliantly with their often peeling backdrops. Indian social politics played a major role, echoed by the works of the foreign artists – perfect for the Indian state of Kerala which has long been ruled by the Communist Party.
The kernel of the Biennale is in the grounds and colonial setting of Aspinwall House, a grand old Victorian building on the tip of the peninsula offering peerless views over the harbour, and with those photogenic Chinese fishing-nets just a short walk away. Nearby stands Pepper House, a stunning old warehouse that was also filled with artworks – though less impressive.
At Aspinwall House the vast courtyard hosted several installations – from Santha KV’s trailing ribbons of handwoven fabric attached to a mango tree, above (whose leaves were much loved by roaming goats) to the Water Temple of Beijing artist, Song Dong (below) where glass panels came complete with paints for personalised graffiti by any passer-by.
Best of all though for a foodie like me was Keralan artist Vipin Dhanurdharan’s outdoor community kitchen – a project to encourage shared cooking and eating. Whenever I stopped by for an occasional cuppa I was offered a delicious sampling of a dish whipped up by a volunteer. Kerala’s ongoing Communist sympathies must lie behind this brilliant community project. In fact the Communist Party headquarters are just across the road, so I couldn’t resist a snap of that either; Che and Fidel would have approved.
At the very back of Aspinwall House on a terrace overlooking ferries, fishing-boats and distant harbour installations, was Sue Williamson’s evocative installation of cotton shirts hanging on a line, each one inscribed with the identity details of a slave from the Malabar Coast (Kerala’s spice coast), echoing her stirring installation inside referencing 300 years of slavery in South Africa, her home country.
Upstairs, in a soaring hall, Heri Dono’s Smiling Angels from the Sky, was composed of 10 winged creatures, part aeroplane, part god, suspended above the viewer, optimistically smiling into the future, and a clear reference to wayang shadow-puppets of Indonesia, Dono’s home country. Push a button and they winked and blinked playfully – I really loved this piece.
Tracking down art in Fort Kochi is a pleasure as it leads to endless discoveries of the city itself – even across the water at the majestic Durbar Hall in Ernakulam. Best of all were the part hidden exhibitions which formed Collateral, a fringe event dotted around the streets and cafés, some of which were in Jewtown, near Fort Kochi’s synagogue. Most striking here was Rajesh Kulkarni’s ethereal and obscure installation, Thought (below), where terracotta vessels threaded onto wires filled a stunning space – a reminder of those little chai cups once used by vendors on Indian trains, so much more ecologically friendly than the plastic ones used today.
Equally moving were the personal accounts of descendants of people caught in the horrors of Partition, another of Britain’s political shames, when Muslims and Hindus were forced to abandon their homes to suit a random new border drawn between India and Pakistan. This exhibition (below), curated by Manisha Gera Baswani, took shape in large panels of photos and moving stories, suspended in yet another artfully abandoned building.
There was plenty more – but suffice to say, if you can’t get there in time this year, make sure you put Kochi / Cochin in your diary for 2021, sometime between December and March, when the 5th Biennale will take place. It’s exciting, stimulating, a key to the city and only costs 100 rupees for two days (that’s £1 – or $1.30)! A bargain and a pleasure.