Our next stop was Kochi, and I was finally going to go to the Kochi Biennale, which I had heard so much about the last few years, an art aficianado’s paradise.
The jounrey was one of our longer rides, 221 KM from Wayanad.. around 7 hours including all the stops. We were initially in the hills, and it was beautiful, estates and forests and distant shola grasslands.
Once we hit the plains our old friend humidity caught up with us and we had to stop frequently for coconut water. When in Kerala its coconuts all the way. I avoid plastic straws like the plague, as they are the single most useless thing in the planet, but cause such great harm to our oceans. The number of turtles and other sea creatures who die every year due to our senseless consumption is appalling. Drinking coocnut water however proved difficult especially for someone with poor hand eye coordination like me. The other offcourse was a pro, there would be no coconut water dribbling down his chin…but it’s ok I am better at math 🙂
Had to get that in.. sorry
Kerala like TamilNadu where I come from has a very popular movie industry, where the stars are a big part of the society and are revered as more than just cultural icons, many of them enjoy a cult / demi god status. One of the most popular stars in Mollywood ( I am not making that up, it is what the Malyalam film industry calls itself) is Mohan Lal, a ageing chubby pockmarked anti theses to the six pack Ryan Gosling wannabes and he had just acted in a movie who’s poster read – my life is my wife, and this poster accompanied us through our journey in all sizes, from small flyers on the wall to larger than life hoardings. I couldn’t get enough of it, I think I made the other stop several times trying to get the perfect picture, of the perfect saying 🙂
We hit the NH66 again around Guruvayoor had a non descript lunch at a road side dhaba which firmly reinforced my conclusion that street food in Kerala is best avoided. It is a much better bet to stop in one of the many bakeries along the highways and gorge on banana chips and other snacks. The southern part of the highway is littered with these ‘ bakeries” which are snack heavens and also often sell juice and sandwiches.
Luckily post lunch it started to get cloudy, and as we got closer to Kochi, we started to cross canals and rivers lined with coconut trees. This was Kerala of the backwaters, scenic and so much more enjoyable in good weather. It even rained a little, and we took shelter in another bakery and munched on warm banana chips till the sky cleared and sun bathed the just washed earth with a gentle glow.
We reached Fort Vypin as the sun was about to set and took a ferry to Fort Kochi. I was returning after 25 years, with almost no memory. My parents had brought me here on a holiday when I was eight. I remembered a boat ride and the chinese fishing nets, and the pool at the hotel we stayed in. It was my first experience of foreigners sunbathing, and it seemed so odd to me then that they would prefer lying in the sun rather than frolicking in the water. That was before I lived in Scotland, and spent an entire winter waking up before the sun rose, walking to school in the darkness, and stepping out in the evening after the sun set. So I learnt to appreciate the sun!!
The ferry was crowded with everyday commuters, who work and live on opposite sides of the ocean. It was cramped, but the sky and distant skylines were beautiful. The barge turned towards Fort Kochi and the colonial buildings lining the water’s edge with old gigantic trees interspersed between them came to sight, it was magnificent.
Fort Kochi, surrounded by water like Kannur was ruled by the portugese for a century, and then cpatured and ruled by the Dutch for another century and then by the British till 1947 when India won her independence. The winding streets and buildings built by the europeans remain intact in small sections, like a tiny old europe. Most of the buildings have been converted to cafes and restaurants and the whole area is full of toursits. For some reason we mostly saw older tourists, a generation older than the tourists in Goa and they were mostly French !
We got of at the harbour and I couldn’t wait to start exploring, so many old buildings, cafes, restaurants and walkable streets , but offcourse there are things like checking in, and unpacking and storing our gear !!
Our home stay – the Madeleine Inn was just two streets from the harbour, a great place to stay and explore Fort Kochi by foot. Stuart and his wife rent out the two rooms on the first floor of their house, and are extremely sweet. However as they still live in the house, and you need to disturb them every time you want to get in or get out, so if you are planning to stay out late this is not the place for you.
The room and attached bathroom, are simple, clean and value for money. They also make breakfast and bring it up in a tray – bread, eggs and pot of coffee.
The only downside is that theirs is an old street and the buildings rise of the street, so there is no parking. The other made sure buttercup was parked outside our window so he could keep checking on it. Well I now know that he will be a good father if we ever feel grown up enough to have children.
We were supposed to have met our friends – the crazy crab and her husband here, and they were going to ride with us on their bullet till Varkala. But as ill luck would have it, Mr. Crazy crab had some sudden work and they had to cancel. I was so disappointed, she is one person I am sure I will enjoy travelling with. You can ready about her travel adventures at acrazycrab@wordpress.
It was almost dinner time by the time we freshened up, and we were ready for the one thing most restaurants in fort Kochi boasted about – Beer !!! Due to prohibition this is a scarce commodity, and those restaurants which have the license advertise it widely. But you will not be served any other type of alcohol and be prepared to pay a lot more than the cost of regular beer. We stepped out onto the tiny alleyway and walked into the first bar which was on our street. We ordered a beer each, some munchies and people watched as various tourists flitted in and out. Young friends with tattoos and piercings, older artsy women with big bindis, cigarettes , khol lined eyes and beautiful clothes… so many people so many stories.. all in my head offcourse.
We moved onto the next bar, which was in a hotel, a old red building called the Koder house. This Jewish family came here for trade centuries ago and established this house. The red façade was apparently visible from the sea. They serve great food too and had some live music. This was our bar ! We stayed here for a long time, and would have stayed longer but there were so many more places to explore..
After a couple of more beers here and there we decided to get dinner at this vibrant open air food court, a line of shops selling pizzas, chinese dumplings etc. The wooden benches are packed back to back and you can reach over and eat from your neighbours table, but there was music, chatter, happiness and great food. Any city in India which recieves a ot of international tourists usually serves good international food. We had some fantastic pizza baked in a wood fired over and strolled back to the madeliene inn.
The next day was my art day, the Other had to go to the main city 45mins away to service buttercup, but I was going to spend the day at the biennale soaking in all the art. The Kochi Biennale is based on the Venice Biennale, and has been widely successful in bringing modern art to the public. They charge a nominal fee which allows you into all the exhibits spread across the island but on Monday’s its a free day. And as luck would have it I was there on a Monday 🙂
There was a lot of art, and a lot of exhibits I wouldn’t consider art. I think we live in a world now where a very relevant question is , what is art ? Most of us agree that the rennaissance paintings, the impressionists are art. Then with the invention of the camera, artists didn’t have to stick to making real like still life / landscape and potraits, they started experimenting. But on an average most of us still find Picasso, Pollock and perhaps Souza appealing. But the art of today in my humble opinion is a hit or a miss. I enjoy art, and thanks to my grand father’s and mother’s passion for the subject, I could recognise and differentiate between Renoir and Rembrandt by the time I was 6, though the disturbed Van Gogh was and is my favourite.
But even for me, today’s modern art is sometimes not art, though I try and look at it with an open mind. But how open does your mind have to be accept a framed piece of toast as art ? I am not kidding, I saw this in a gallery at SFO. Modern art doesn’t make it easy at all, it is difficult, not always appealing, and brings about a range of emotions in the viewer. I think the big difference is art is not just for viewing pleasure anymore, it makes you think, it makes you feel. I once very hurriedly left the Tate once as the room was full of paintings painted with blood and urine, a very confusing kind of art, for me atleast.
For the less initiated, it can be repulsive and even annoying, and overall as a society I think we lack art appreciation. I remember wandering around MoMa, NYC with my cousins a few years ago, and he was flummoxed, and perhaps regretting the entrance fee he paid. He would peer at three tubelights tied to form a triangle, and ask me in surprise, ” is this art ? “, we moved onto other exhibits that included stockings stuffed with sand and a basket ball floating in water, and now his question became a bit of a joke, every gallery we entered he would rush to the exhibit which seemed the most unlikely to be art and ask me if it was art, and we would giggle. I had to agree with him on many of the exhibits, though he was suitably impressed with Van Gogh’s starry starry night.
And just for this the biennale is great, bringing art to the masses, especially in India where most of us have no access to galleries, and know Picasso but not Raza.
I first walked around a few of the outdoor sculptures and installations by the beach and admired the Chinese fishing nets before heading to the main gallery by the harbour. Of the outdoor exhibitions the two that I really liked were a bamboo installation which resembled slum houses from Bombay in scale, with some brilliant photos from the slums as well. It was curated by some architects obviously 🙂
The other one was a scuplture of metal fishes with plastic waste on top to emulate where most of our waste ends up – the ocean.
Thanks to the biennale, there have been a huge number of tourists every year, and the area is peppered with cafes. I took a break in a corner cafe called the loafers cafe and had a deconstructed cold coffee. Forgot to tell them that I didn’t want a straw though :(. For stuff like this however the duty doesn’t lie with the consumer IMO, the government and restaurants need to ban or charge for single use plastic items. If a straw was a choice, if it wasnt dunked in your drink, if you had to buy it.. how many of us would ?
I walked around the quaint streets, there was art everywhere, tiny shops and cafes and slowly made my way down to the main gallery near the harbour.
As it was the free day there were loads of people, giggling college kids, tourists, locals and offcourse the artist community themselves. I wandered from room to room, and saw some art that appealed to me and some which didn’t. I understand beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but watching videos of a man mouthing guttaral sounds doesn’t cut it for me. The three pieces I liked best were;
(i) A room full of photos and everyday objects of the artists growing up years in Mumbai
(ii) A scuplture of a man, who every once in a while throws out a little silver ball from his belly button. The concept exploring what I feel sometimes, the artist creates art out of nothing, and sometimes calls nothing art.
(iii) The last one was the most poignant.. called the sea of pain. It made me feel so many things, heaviness being the principal feeling. I had to take of my shoes, roll up my pants and step into knee deep sea water in a large industrial looking shed with very subdued lights. On the sides were suspended large white panels with a single line written on each of them. You have to read them in sequence as you wade along, till you reach the end, where the poem makes more sense. It is dedicated to Kalip Kurdi, the 5 year old brother of Alan Kurdi who drowned at sea. It made me feel so helpless and selfish for being alive and doing nothing when so many children were dying. The art is immersive, after reading the poem, wading through the sea water intensifies the heaviness.
The sea of pain was the last piece of art that registered, I walked around the rest of the exhibition in a daze, seeing but not seeing. Luckily the Other rescued me by getting back to town and we went to this quaint yellow cafe called the last tea pot for a late lunch, the food was fresh and healthy, with toned down spice. The sort of eclectic food you get anywhere in India where there are a lot of foreign tourists- Goa, gokarna, varkala with a mild local twist.
Post lunch I finally got my Kerala massage in loads of oil :). I didn’t feel very confident about the spa at our hotel in Kannur and the Vythri Resort let me down by offering only swedish massages. So I had to wait till Kochi. I found this place Ayurville on trip advisor, it had great ratings and was affordable. Its no spa, there are no scented candles, the sounds of running water or faint instrumental music between silences. It was an old house that had been converted and was simple and clean. The massage was perfect, both the other and I were happy oily campers. The only downside is that they don’t accept card payments. I wished we were staying another day to just go back but we still had two more pit stops before we reached the end of our trip.
We were oily, but it was our last evening so we went to watch a kathakali performance. Ever since I read mistress by Anita Nair a few years ago, I have been dying to watch a kathakali show, to be enthralled by the ” veshakarans” and to lose myelf in their story telling. The kathakali centre is not that place of a 9 hour overnight performance. It is however a great place for a first time kathakali viewer, we saw the artists wear the make up followed by a performance of a story from the Mahabaratha, the one where Arjuna gets into a tiff with a hunter who is actually lord shiva, but even I could tell this was more a show for tourists rather than a performance of art.
It had been a great two days at Fort Kochi, there is so much more I could write about ,t the old churches, the prison, the art cafes…. but I shall save it for the next leg of our trip – the giant salt lagoon of Ashtamudi.