An artist and a filmmaker duo document new age perceptions of Dutch legacy in Malabar, for a show to be held in The Netherlands. Priyadershini S. learns how they are planning this rare project and new facets about the Dutch presence in Kochi

When Vaidyar Itty Achudan and the Dutch governor of Cochin, Hendrik Adriaan Van Rheede tot Drakestein collaborated and collated the voluminous and detailed book on botanical taxonomy and traditional healing system of Malabar, Hortus Malabaricus, 1678, little would they have thought that centuries later it would still remain a huge reference point in history and medicine. But with 742 plant identifications and Ayurvedic cures the book continues to inspire research.

This time the research is a fascinating journey being re-traversed by Renee Ridgway, a visual artist and Rick Van Amersfoort, a documentary film maker who are in the city researching and filming new age perceptions about Dutch colonisation in India. Their story begins with the alleged burning of the Portuguese Library by the Dutch and the subsequent authoring of the ‘Hortus Malabaricus'. The tale begins in 1663, Kerala.

And then questions come up, thick and fast. How, when, why now and what today?

Oral versions

“We are investigating the role of the collaboration between Achudan and Van Rheede who put together the Hortus Malabaricus,” says Renee, further explaining that the research is not just limited to that and will juxtapose both Dutch and Indian, oral as well as written, versions. It is to have a modern perspective, a new look at bio-patents and traditional knowledge.

A self-initiative, the researchers plan to interview scholars, Ayurveda doctors, ordinary folks as well as any lead that will help them come up with valuable information and new interpretations.

Hearsay, evidence, tales, conjectures, archival fragments, documents, structures and most of all peoples' stories told by them is what will make their artistic pastiche. Factual rightness is not the mainstay in the story as years of time and tide have added layers of fancy and folklore. “The beauty of it is that it will be peoples' stories told by them,” says Renee.

Monolita Chatterjee, an architect at Design Combine and part of the project in restoring the Mattancherry Palace, an ASI undertaking, presented one of the local versions to Renee and Rick.

“The Indian version is not documented well. We are going back to the wealth of documents lying at the archives here and we have tapped a lot of information from the royal family.”

And one from the Cochin Royal family, Dr. Kocha Varma, MD (Retd) who has a keen interest in history of Cochin narrated details about the installation of the Cochin Royal family by the Dutch and furnished fascinating tales about the strategic deal.

The ongoing interaction of Rick and Renee with prominent locals has added to the wealth of their research.

“We are looking at parallel histories through vox populi.” And popular versions that they have collected hitherto are as varied as from the Dutch being seen as villains to plain traders with profit as their bottom line.

Renee says that a common opinion across her meetings has been the view that trade was the main anchor for the Dutch, unlike the Portuguese.

Ivan D'costa, a retired customs officer who they interviewed, has given them leads to people with pure Dutch surnames in the city as Van Hatten and Van Goyen.

He believes that idea of ‘half caste' in society here can be traced to colonial times.

On the agenda for the researchers is a meeting with the Kollatt family of Itty Achudan in Cherthala, a meeting with K.S. Manilal, who has translated the book from Latin to English and Malayalam and visits to the Cochin archives.

With K.J. Sohan, the former mayor, the two are visiting the site of the Hortus Malabaricus (Garden of Malabar) at Odatha Road in Fort Kochi.

Interactive show

Excerpts from the documentary will be shown along with installation put up by Renee at Museum Beelden aan Zee, Scheveningen, The Netherlands in a group show, titled ‘The Unwanted Land'.

Her first phase of exhibit at the show, ‘Unbecoming Dutch', will be a distillation of the artisanal images collected here and the present day interpretations of a past that has brought them here.

“It will be about the construction of Dutchness through the eyes of non-Dutch protagonists focussing on migration and then disintegration,” she adds explaining that the show will be interactive and the viewers will be able to talk to Ayurvedic doctors in Kerala, through Skype.

Installation

She plans to use local varieties of foliage and other botanical evidence mentioned in the historical tome as part of her installation.

Rick gives the whole research a different supposition by interpreting Van Rheede's role as a person who , “compiled the book to help market the herbal plants and increase profit in trade.”

Both researchers are looking for local residents who have Dutch ancestry and wish to talk about it, something that with the passage of time has made them a perfect leitmotif in the fascinating tale of ‘Unbecoming Dutch'.

The show is scheduled for October 22, 2010 to January 9, 2011.

Renee and Rick can be contacted at rr@reneeridgway.net.