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How the sleepy little Fort Kochi is reinvented every two years by the art world

Visitors walk past ‘It’s my Biennale’ posters in Fort Kochi   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

I am standing on a cobbled pavement that goes on forever. All around me are colonial buildings, and centuries-old churches with Portuguese, Dutch and English influences. The absence of sound strikes me. It is almost eerie. I hear neither man nor machine. Everybody walking, eating, hawking or loitering observes a code of conduct, a special decorum. This can’t be the loud, brash, opinionated, political Kerala, surely? But it is. This is Fort Kochi — the venue of the world’s longest duration contemporary art festival, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

“Art is in the air,” says Edgar Pinto, owner of Old Harbour Hotel and Kashi Art Gallery. He should know. A serious art aficionado and a Fort Kochite himself, Pinto acquired in 2006 the 300-year-old Harbour building with its lime-washed walls, high-ceilings, tile roof and wooden flooring, and restored it to its current beautiful state. Today, every room has paintings, bronze sculptures and stone installations from his own private collection, chosen thematically by designer Karl Damschen and curator Tanya Abraham.

“Fort Kochi carries with it an enigma of antiquity and history,” says Abraham, also the author of Fort Kochi: History and Untold Stories. “The space that houses art is as important as the art itself. Imagine a centuries-old spice godown showcasing art and installations? The very thought is alluring!” Indeed, what better canvas for an art event than royal court buildings, renovated warehouses, 19th century English company quarters and Dutch bungalows?

Myriad languages

The communities that have been living here — from the Jewish and Anglo-Indian to Tamilians and Pattans, speaking a myriad languages and dialects — also add to that inimitable flavour of Fort Kochi.

When the Kochi Muziris Biennale began in 2012, the entire neighbourhood came forward to support it with time, money and effort.

For the German-Spanish couple Joerg Drechsel and Txuku Solana, owners of The Malabar House, Biennale was their one chance to pay it back to a town that “adopted them like a sponge” when they first arrived here in 1994. The Malabar House conducts a programme called Beyond Malabar where local artists showcase their work at ‘Passage Malabar,’ a corridor that doubles up as an artisan deli and bakery.

All across and inside its open spaces, Purity, a 14-room award-winning boutique hotel under The Malabar umbrella, shows works of local artists Reghunandan Nair and Bhagyanath — paintings, sculptures and artworks — that Drechsel bought for exorbitant prices at the Biennale. Not that there weren’t other national and international artists to choose from, but Drechsel did what any real patron of the arts would do — encourage local talent.

Two women artists

CGH’s David Hall gallery, a historical building, is a live, breathing space for art lovers throughout the year — but come Biennale, the gallery is rented out by artists. This year it is hosting the works of two women artists — Zanele Muholi and Vanessa Baird. Kashi Art Gallery has two collateral events this year for the Biennale. One is ‘Red Crown, Green Parrot’ which remembers the history of the Malabari Jews living in the Jew Town, Mattancherry. The other is an all-woman exhibition about concerns of a social and transitional nature of all that is ‘unsaid, lost and forgotten.’

“How can we possibly not be open to an event like this?” asks Pinto. “Every one of us should be proud and grateful to have some of the world’s greatest artists come to our very doorstep.”

And the business is brisk. “Our busiest time is when the Biennale kicks off,” says Manoj Nair, General Manager, Hotel Brunton Boatyard. The high-end property had a near 100% occupancy rate for the first few days of the festival that began December 12.

“It wasn’t just the rooms but our F&B bookings also hit the roof those four days. Then we had corporate events hosted by Biennale sponsors, also an everyday affair. Some of these events include a guided day tour of the venues with a cocktail dinner.” Auctioneers from Mumbai’s Christie’s visit too. This year, the hotel’s celebrity guests included the French ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler, and his daughter.

ndonesian artist Heri Dono’s installation ‘Smiling Angels From the Sky’ in Pepper House.

ndonesian artist Heri Dono’s installation ‘Smiling Angels From the Sky’ in Pepper House.   | Photo Credit: NYT

The Bienalle generally sees a lull after Christmas and New Year, but the season picks up again in the second week of January. Every hotel, high-end or regular, prepares its personnel to host Biennale clientele. “We keep maps on the counter, give them post-card versions of art collections, and keep updating the information on our notice boards,” says Nair.

Buzzing with activity

Events are organised everyday at the Biennale Pavilion at Cabral Yard. There are dance and music performances and inter-active sessions with artists and art workshops. The place is buzzing.

It’s not just the hotel owners and home-stay entrepreneurs, but vendors and auto-drivers too who look forward to the Biennale.

I count 16 vendors outside the Cochin Club. “We have no idea about the art or artists,” says one of the 16 vendors I see outside the Cochin Club, too shy to share his name. “Once I saw a guy pick up all the plastic bottles in the area and make music from it. I thought that was smart. But we are happy the Biennale has come to our town.” Living within a 2 km radius of the venue, Fort Kochi locals earn ₹800 to ₹100 per day selling everything from pyjamas and palazzos to kurtis, kaftans, handicrafts and curios not just to foreign tourists but also to Indian visitors. Between mid-January and early February, shops get business from the passengers who get off the luxury cruise ships that dock at Fort Kochi harbour as well. Now, businesses are looking forward to the period between mid-February and March 29, the last day of the Biennale.

Flood havoc

The floods last year had dealt all these small shops and business a sharp blow. “If it weren’t for the Biennale, 2018 would have been the worst year in our lives!” a vendor tells me. “Last year, there was also the Nipah scare, and then the floods. Even the domestic tourists who should have come in October for Pooja and Diwali stayed away from Kerala.”

An auto driver tells me: “If you ask us who the curator this year is, we don’t have a clue. But we do know which of the venues are most popular, which ones are a hit or a miss, where to get authentic Kerala food, and where the stay is cheap.”

No wonder then that the Kochi Biennale is now called the People’s Biennale: be it discounts, concessions, freebies or simply going that extra mile, the tourism machinery is geared to receive its art-loving guests.

Influencing the future

Saji Joseph, CEO of Malabar House, recalls his first experience in 2016 as the official F&B partner. The venue was Aspin Wall, the biggest venue, and the most visited. Cooking was not allowed. “So we had to cook here at the restaurant kitchen, pack it, seal it and transport it to a makeshift café there, catering to hundreds of people every day for three months.”

The Biennale is not all about money. “Culturally, the Biennale is going to have a tremendous influence on our future generations, their thoughts and their lives,” says Abraham.

There’s another happy fallout. Fort Kochi heritage buildings can no longer be neglected. Dilapidated, , run-down or neglected, many of them are now being renovated, restored and preserved to serve a new role as dramatic show places for international art.

“What makes any tourist destination great today?” asks Saji, veteran in business re-engineering and change management. “It is an event.” Like the film festivals for Berlin or Cannes, for Fort Kochi it’s the Biennale.

And as for Fort Kochi, the the giant show has injected into a sleepy little town a verve and vibrancy that both visitors and locals love. And every two years the historical site is reborn as an art town.

The Kottayam-based writer lives in a coffee plantation.

Here are the cafes, former godowns and colonial homes refashioned as exhibition spaces at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. —

ASPIN WALL HOUSE - A large sea-facing property

CABRAL YARD - Once had a hydraulic press for coir yarn

DURBAR HALL - Built in the mid-19th century by the Maharaja of Cochin

KASHI ART CAFE - An old Dutch property converted into a cafe

KASHI TOWN CAFE - Once a family home in the heart of Fort Kochi

ANAND WAREHOUSE - Previously owned by Gujarati families

MAP PROJECT SPACE - Once served as a warehouses to store spices

PEPPER HOUSE - Has two godowns and now houses a cafe and gallery

TKM WAREHOUSE - The building is part of a working dock

DAVID HALL - Built around 1695 by the Dutch East India Company

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 8:44:40 PM |

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