The eclectic world that is Fort Kochi isn’t demarcated by any apparent signposts or landmarks. Instead, there’s a palpable change in landscape: the narrow, often chaotic roads that characterise Kerala give way to broad, tree-lined avenues, which are dotted with naval barracks, colonial-era bungalows and former warehouses. More than any other part of Kerala, Fort Kochi exudes an air of charming mystery, leaving subtle hints of the many influences that have shaped its past.
In the early days, Fort Kochi’s strategic position as a commercial port brought many a colonist to its shores. The Portuguese were the first foreign merchants to dominate the island’s trade, followed by the Dutch and finally, the British. Each colonial power left behind a contingent who stayed on and built their lives in the city, creating their own microcosm in the Fort area. Over time, they were joined by traders from across India who came to make their fortune at the spice markets of adjacent Mattancherry.
While the city’s Paradesi Synagogue, Jew Town, Dutch Cemetery and Portuguese-influenced Mattancherry Palace hint at its storied past, renowned Indian architect Tony Joseph says that this is most evident in Fort Kochi’s distinct architecture. We’re chatting over a cup of coffee at Pepper House, where two former warehouses, linked by a charming courtyard, have been converted into a bistro and design store. Much like other heritage buildings in Fort Kochi, Pepper House pays homage to its rich history while boasting a contemporary ambience.
With its fascinating cultural backdrop of heritage hotels, cobblestone streets, spice warehouses and Chinese fishing nets, it’s only natural that this curious suburb plays host to the Kochi Muziris Biennale, one of India’s most progressive art projects. What started as a niche exhibition on the fringes of India’s art scene back in 2012 has quickly become the centre of its attention. Conceptualised along the lines of other city-wide art biennials around the world, the Kochi Muziris Biennale has given a whole slew of artists the freedom and space to express their creative vision.
In total, over one million people walked the art map of the first two biennales, while the third edition – recently concluded in March 2017 – was the most successful yet, topping 650,000 visitors. As part of the programming, the city’s dilapidated warehouses have been restored to their former glory, their spices and grains giving way to inspired – and often site-specific – multimedia installations. “Not only are the godowns of Fort Kochi rich repositories of the past; they also stand as the generative containers of future artistic exchanges,” muses South Asian art historian Kathleen Wyma. “I think that the opportunity to stage an exhibition within these historic buildings will continue to draw curators from all around the world.”
Indeed, the festival’s lineup of local and international artists has been nothing short of impressive. Notable names include India’s conceptual maestro Subodh Gupta, whose work has exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York, Tate Britain in London and the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. His installation for the inaugural 2012 Biennale featured a 60-ft boat filled with everyday utensils – part of his enduring preoccupation with transposing mundane objects into enormous works of art.
The Turner Prize-winning British sculptor Anish Kapoor, whose iconic works include Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park and Sky Mirror at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, created the harrowing Descension especially for the 2014 event. Installed at Aspinwall House, it featured a vortex of black water spinning endlessly into a hole in the concrete floor.
This year, award-winning Chilean poet Raúl Zurita’s Sea of Pain referenced the current refugee crisis in Europe, inviting spectators to wade through a room filled with knee-deep water and marked by haunting inscriptions on its walls.
“Appreciation for contemporary art has been building here for several years, primarily as a niche interest. But the Biennale has introduced it into mainstream consciousness,” says Dilip Narayanan, a Kerala-based art entrepreneur whose gallery OED, located in the historic Old Bazaar of Mattancherry, opened the same year as the inaugural edition of the Biennale. “Since then, people have been more interested in investing in art. There is now a keen international appetite for contemporary Indian art.”
This renewed appreciation for the arts has birthed a slew of creative spaces in and around town. Hot on the heels of OED’s success, Dilip opened his second gallery, Beyond Malabar, in a restored warehouse earlier this year. In the same vein, former depots like Mill House and the TKM Warehouse have also been converted into permanent exhibition spaces. These continue to attract artists and international curators like Wyma, who has held three exhibitions at the Fort since 2013. “While Kerala has always had an active art scene, the Biennale has raised the international importance of the state and secured Kochi as a new mecca of contemporary art,” she reflects.
The Biennale has also opened up another dimension of creativity in Fort Kochi – that of live music and open mics. In search of respite from the midday heat, I stumble upon a café called The Drawing Room, situated adjacent to the century-old Cochin Club. As I sit cooling off within its colourful walls, I strike up a conversation with one of its enterprising young owners.
“There are so many performance artists now, especially aspiring musicians, who only need the space and audience to thrive,” Sharath Pulimood explains. This is why he and his partners decided to start their café, providing a platform for anyone to come and express themselves through music.
When I return in the evening, I am serenaded by musicians, including Sharath himself. He joins me between stints at the drums to share his insights into the collateral effects of the Biennale. “I’ve lived in Kochi my whole life, but I’ve never seen so many people converge here for a single event,” says the affable restaurateur. “Fort Kochi is now brimming with artistic activity like never before.”
The Drawing Room isn’t the only venue to have sprung up in the Fort area in recent years. Nearby, Greenix Village regularly hosts traditional dance shows, while David Hall Gallery and Café offers a calendar of talks, plays and recitals. More places will surely open up over the coming months as the town gears up for the next edition of the Biennale – slated to commence in December this year.
Thanks to this burgeoning contemporary art movement, the previously empty warehouses of Fort Kochi have been given a new lease of life. Today, the storied streets of the fort are bursting with a creative energy that champions its colourful past, while celebrating its future of artistic promise.
SilkAir flies daily between Singapore and Kochi. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine