Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Breathless in Fort Kochi

(This is a pic-heavy post, and as our template is terrible with pics have had to upload them tiny. For a closer look, please click on the pics – they should open up in a larger size!)

For about six years after we got married, Amit and I only took small holidays to Goa and to Junagadh. One year, we decided to shoot for Kerala, where my family comes from. 
 In 2010, in rain-soaked, post-tourist-season Kochi, the streets were empty. It was just us, the locals and a few Kashmiri salesmen. That week the Synagogue was shut and the Mattancherry Palace murals were being restored. We only caught unintentional glances of the homes of Paradesi Jews – still occupied by families who seemed to embody Kochi’s fascinating and diverse history (in 2014, we saw that their homes were souvenir stores). The Kayal or the ominously swollen water body that flows by Kochi was surreal, and we stood at the jetty in the noon drizzle and watched it. The humped backs of a school of leaping dolphins – darker than the dark grey waters – were a surprise treat. I recently found a postcard we had got N to write and post to my mom about it.

This time was totally different. We had an agenda. No more being cheap dates. We had just a night and a morning there, and this time we had to see the Mattanchery Murals (if I didn’t, what would I say to Amrita Sher-Gil, who loved them so?) and catch bits of the Kochi Muziris Biennale too.

The first evening we were in Fort Kochi was a pulsating polar opposite of our last, quiet visit. Amit and I stared at each other in shock. Wait, had we time-and-space-warped back to Chembur Station on a Sunday evening? The entire sea-front was chock-a-block with people. I looked around, and asked a man in Malayalam why there was such a crowd. ‘Beeenaaalay...’ he replied in a drawl. Who needs the pretentious ‘Bi-enn-aa-lay’, when there’s the much more sensible ‘Beenaalay’ at hand?

Walking ahead, we were startled by a ‘family’ of tightrope-walker-dolls which popped up suddenly, among a bunch of vendors selling laser-light-flower-pots and lighted yoyos. Standing under it, a father explained to his wide-eyed son, ‘Ida beenaalay kya vendi aana’ (‘This is for the Biennale’). Gulammohammed Sheikh’s ‘Balancing Act’ references a miniature painting from Rajasthan and has figurines of world leaders like Obama, Sonia Gandhi and Modi as tightrope walkers. Very striking – and poignant, I thought – given the times we live in. 

Kochi, I realized, had grown up and become slightly self-conscious. Hosting a Biennale is serious business, and it takes a fairly mature government to even attempt to scramble on to the bandwagon. 
The Kochi Muziris Biennale, with all its quibbles and problems, is pretty awesome. It’s awesome that 95 artists from 30 countries presented their works during the KMB, across 12 venues; that the location was faraway Kochi, and not the more accessible Delhi or Mumbai or Goa; that the artists were commissioned to work around Kochi’s maritime history; and that they were displayed in these monumental, semi-industrial spaces; and that the postal department was excited enough to create a special Biennale cancellation stamp about it (yes, lame-ish, I know, but still, imagine talking to the Post Office about Art!). Amazing it is that the KMB’s been organised by three artists and individuals (not by a governmental or corporate body, though there is a significant amount of government-corporate sponsorship). The above photo, incidentally, is of P Sreekumar, Postal Assistant at the little Post Office in the grounds of Aspinwall Hall, one of the Biennale’s venues.

The artist-organisers were evidently keen to rope in locals and there are these self-conscious signs everywhere, proclaiming that ‘It’s our Biennale!’ And going by the number of locals we saw, Kochi seemed to have decided – in its slightly sleepy manner – to agree with them. Sajan Mani’s banners declared (oddly in English): ‘My grandfather is not an artist’ – the hand-written bit in Malayalam, my mother surmised (because the print isn’t clear), says ‘Art doesn’t belong to anyone’. Which, as we will see later, is exactly the problem that some people have with the KMB.

Kochi has the most gorgeous historical mercantile buildings. Aspinwall Hall and the Pepper House and the Durbar Hall and the Spice Godowns and the Mill Hall – all impressive and all tainted by history, because they are, after all, symbols of ruthless colonial rule, of commerce and exploitation. It’s a large, evocative canvas of a city that was probably just waiting to be painted on. (I decided to let go of my political problems with those symbols for a change, and gasped in suitably middle-class awe at the architecture. These marriages of form – between vernacular building idioms and European ones – and how they differ across India are so interesting.) 

Kochi’s people – across class and religious lines – seemed interested in the Biennale. And if that isn’t delightful, what is? There were families all around us, and I heard one young student point out to Bose Krishnamachari and say to his friend, ‘Ada Beenaalay de main aal aana!’ (‘That’s the main guy of the Biennale’). Their faces were so bright, you’d think Mohan Lal and / or Shah Rukh had just walked in. Young couples with kids had travelled all the way from Vypeen Island across the Kayal and from the fishing settlement nearby to give the whole caboodle a look.

What works for the KMB is how the spaces meld with the objects on display – definitely a result of conscious choice. So while the 2.5 tonne steel bell put up by Gigi Scaria, called Chronicles of the Shores Foretold, is monumental, it also resonates with local history and environmental issues. The bell was hoisted up by the Khalasis of Malabar, I read in The Hindu. Apart from the holes in the bell’s sides that are supposed to symbolise punctured time, and the bit of Khalasi history that it brings to mind, I just loved the fact that to see it you have to come to the back of the building. Below the giant, shining bell are the plastic-bag-pitted coastline and the human beings who are employed to clean it endlessly; while looming up at you from the across the bay is Kochi’s container yard. Put it all together, and there’s a sharp, unmissable rap on civilization’s knuckles for you! 

Aspinwall Hall, where we started, had Natraj Sharma’s Alternate Shapes of the Earth: tall stools, with bizarre models of possible earths at the top, and dusty mechanical works at the bottom. Very steampunk. I believe the series is a response to the 2002 riots in Gujarat. With a child in tow, one can almost never gaze patiently at art. But then one also tends to see more of the few things one does look at. N and I had a deliciously pointless discussion on sustaining human life on top of the odd but highly symmetrical shapes, and it was entertaining to listen to snippets of all the other kids ‘arguing’ around us too. 

If N weren’t there, discovering that the Pors and Rao’s black teddy bear (which looked like it was made of solid plastic), was actually made of faux fur wouldn’t have been quite as thrilling. The pinpricks of light woven into the sooty fur thrilled her heart.

At Sushanta Mandal’s kinetic steel and soap sculptures, we paused to watch how bubbles were made by the ten or so incredibly crafted mini-mechanisms as they interacted with air and soapy water. We were suitably puzzled by Mona Hatoum’s exposed wires and bulbs, which were interesting, and made me wish I could have read up more on it.

Hew Locke’s Sea of Power, with its marriage of history, art and craft, was just delicious. British-born Locke makes massive ‘drawings’ on walls using black cord and beads. The sheer craft and detail of his work are startling and beautiful. In this interview, he says that he thought – like most Westerners – that Vasco da Gama was an explorer.  He learned during his research that ol’ VdaG was, in actual fact, a bandit. He calls his work ‘a rambling narrative’. But honestly, huge, delicate, detailed drawings made of black cord and beads? Just unbelievable is what it was!

 We walked past the film maker Madhusudhan’s Logic of Disappearance – 90 intricate black-and-white drawings, all three walls of them – and loved this one the most. 

Stepping out into the sun, how could I not laugh out loud at Shanthamani Muddaiah’s Backbone, a sculptural installation in the shape of a large spinal column? With my back brace on, carrying my cushion, I had to selfie!

Sahej Rahal’s Harbinger was a whole lot of strange inside a sanitised, white-tiled, spice-sorting space within Aspinwall Hall. I loved the giant randomness of some of Rahal’s clay and hay works. Especially when they are placed next to the whimsy of his smaller ones. Overall the pieces were puzzling – is that a pterodactyl or a kite, the child asked before walking out to the swing tied to a giant tree outside. Amit and I lingered, simbly louving Rahal’s completely barmy and defiant pieces. 
Pepper House had, to my mind, the really yummy exhibits. I loved Benitha Perciyal’s The Fires of Faith, a rather melancholic assemblage of broken and damaged religious icons. What should one do with an idol that one used to pray to but that has suffered some damage? Is an imperfect idol an effective deity? That’s the sort of question that only makes sense in India – where so much rests on the perfection of an idols’ form. The one-armed, broken-legged, damaged icons seem so human, so sad. 

Bharti Kher’s giant wooden triangles loomed at us from inside a large room in the Pepper House. Like a giant baby’s cradle toys, they hung from the ceiling and reminded me of the huge wooden dividers and protractors our maths teacher used to bring to class so that all 64 of us could watch her plot an angle on the board. Not surprisingly, Kher’s display is related to navigation and geometry. Called Three decimal points, Of a minute, Of a second, Of a degree , it’s great fun to look at. The Penrose Triangle  is one of the geometric entities Kher’s work refers to.

Like a thumb tack bang in the middle of the lawn in Pepper House, stood N S Harsha’s Matter. It is a solid and life-sized monkey holding a ball and pointing to the sky with some urgency. Each time we walked in and out of the corridors of the House, going from room to room, from abstract installation to beams of light, we passed by windows through which we could see this fellow. Something about the solid real-ness of the monkey made me feel that he was the fulcrum of everything on display here. Like he was holding together all the swirling mini-universes of the other displays.

The last bits of the KMB we saw were the street art – the mind-blowing Debtor’s Prison by BC or the Backyard Civilization. I don’t think the piece was commissioned for the KMB specifically, but truly, what a treat it was to turn a corner of a road and suddenly see the colours and details of the mural!  

But the best of them all – the really clever things – were the anti-Biennale posters, stencilled and then stuck on to the walls of the Fort Kochi area using wheat paste. We were not there at the KMB long enough to see all of it, process it, love it and then question it. But others were, and Guess Who (an artist or a group of artists who feel that the Biennale is just an elitist exercise) is definitely perturbed enough to take to the streets themselves. The #heavymeaning image is particularly sharp! Please do read more about Guess Who and their anger and their efforts in the TOI (who of course tried to ‘out’ them) and the BBC. Here are some of the brilliant images we did not see.

Having bought our tickets for the boat ride to Ernakulam, we were hanging about the jetty when Amit spotted these trippy gents – brought to you by the irreverent folk at Guess Who! I’m not sure, but I think this image of Che now nestled among newspaper readers was Guess Who’s work from a Biennale past.
So delightful, and such fun to see this mash up of Indian and Western icons (Mr Bean and his eyebrows as an upper-caste Malayalee gent is perfect and I wondered how I’ll ever look at him again and not think of Kerala).

If you’re a true lotus eater, this is most excellent – fantastic art pulled together by one set of hard-working people, and fantastic graffiti drawn by another set in protest. What’s not to love?

Pic credits: Mostly to Amit, and a few to me. 


Deepa Krishnan said...

I cannot believe I did not read this earlier. Sigh. Reading your take was more fun than going to the Biennale.

Anita said...

Ha, Deepa, that's funnyyyy! Thanks ;) You went to the Beeenaale?