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Buzz from Kochi's antique bazaar

KOCHI'S JEW Town and antiquity are synonymous with each other. While its history laden streets tell many tales of the past, the `antique' shops here, fittingly complement the ambience, overflowing into the two parallel streets, each with a story to tell. A must-see place for the tourists who swarm the area, these shops are as appealing as the feel of history. But it will surprise many to know that while the tourists are much sought after customers, many of these shops are mainly export oriented with strict laws often controlling their business in genuine antiques. What the tourists buy then, generally are not antiques, as is commonly believed.

Close to the famed synagogue are some of the old establishments, like the Pereira family shop.

It is one of the oldest in the area. Mathew Pereira who was a dealer in curios in the 1920's had shops in Fort Kochi and Thiruvananthpuram. He stocked among other things, artefacts made from materials imported from Africa, which were fashioned into art objects locally. Resident Englishmen as well as visiting foreigners formed his main clientele. His grandchildren, who today have a number of shops in Jew Town, carry on this trade in curios and sell everything from restored pieces to genuine antiques.

With a home near the synagogue andcoupled with the fact that the area was growing into an important tourist centre, the Pereira family converted the place into a curio shop.

The boom actually began in the 1960's when the synagogue celebrated its 400th anniversary and visitors to the area increased. Today, like many other shops in the locality, they stock and export handicrafts, furniture, doors, pillars, X'tian artefacts and old and beautiful items sourced from all over.

Buzz from Kochi's antique bazaar

As genuine antiques cannot be exported, all old items have to first go through a process of checks and a non-antiquity certificate is required from the office of the Archaeological Survey of India. Antiques can be sold after clearance of antiquities and treasure rules, which includes information regarding its age, mode of acquisition, price, etc. A photograph of the piece is also required. In fact, add the Pereiras, that there is an examination meeting held, every month.

Alfy Cyriac, Secretary of the Kerala Handicraft Dealers and Manufacturers Welfare Association of which most of the Jew Town shops are members, states that the government has to be informed about the objects that are exported, and while his shop here has many old pieces such as utensils and furniture, dealers are generally very careful about authentic antiques.

Their main customers are Indians, especially those from the North, though he believes that there is a growing local interest. The art objects in his store are all purchased through dealers and agents. Says Mr. Cyriac, "If we do not buy these old things many of them would be destroyed". Kochi, he states has the largest number of curio dealers in Kerala and the Association has about 35 members. The Association helps to promote business and is bound by rules that bring about some method, in this business.

Buzz from Kochi's antique bazaar

While there is some grouse about the fact that in the recent past some big traders have closed shop, here, there are some like Majeed who has started a store in the area, and thinks that this trade has a good future.

In fact some dealers, like Mr. Johny. L. Malayil, have consciously expanded their business. He has added a new store, to his existing ones and hopes to open another. Mr. Malayil is old to Jew Town but new to the trade, which he is very enthusiastic about. Originally into the spice trade, his family decided to bifurcate into the curio trade and he converted one of his spice warehouses into a store. While he too, like many big dealers has a licence to deal in antiques he prefers dealing in exportable objects. "After all," he states, "the tourists who come here in hordes do not buy only antiques and very often are only interested in souvenirs." Mr. Malayail, who has a state-of-the-art warehouse at Mundamvelly that large shipments of exportable objects are being done from Jew town and plans to open a new showroom says, "for Indians prefer to see the finished products displayed in a store and not in the warehouse."

But the export market is a big one, even though Kerala is a small market accounting for perhaps only 0.1 per cent of the Indian market. If items like pepper and ginger provided the spice of life to Jew Town once, the 40 odd `antique' shops here have given it a distinctive identity. "We have added life to Jew Town", says Mr. Malayil.

So amidst the aroma of ginger and turmeric, Jew Town is suffused with the scent of old, new and beautiful artefacts too.

PRATIMA ASHER