Art on the road

We have recently returned from Cochin (in Kerala, South India), where every two years there is a huge art exhibition, the Kochi Muziris Biennale, that is open for just over three months. The artworks on display are supposed to conform in a loose way to a theme chosen by the chief curator. The artworks are not for sale at the Biennale.

Once a year early in each January, a one day art festival called Chitra Santhe is help along Kumara Krupa Road in Bangalore. This tree lined thoroughfare runs past both the Bangalore Golf Club and also the Chitrakala Parishadh, a leading art school.

Many artists display their works along the street. Their aim is to sell to the thousands of passers by, who amble leisurely past them. The quality of the artworks varies from highly skilled to colourful kitsch. All tastes are catered for. Many visitors wander about with their wrapped purchases under their arms.

The atmosphere at Chitra Santhe is festive. The January temperatures make for pleasant outdoor art viewing. Unlike the Biennale in Cochin, there is no theme unifying the artworks on display apart from the artists’ desire to sell. The artists are happy to discuss their works and are not pushy salesmen. Prices range from very low to not unreasonably high.

If you happen to be in Bangalore on the first Sunday in January, then an hour or so at the Chitra Santhe should prove to be a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

The Old year in flames

The ending of the old year and beginning of the new one is celebrated all over the world in a variety of ways and at different times of the modern calendar. For example, the Chinese, the Gujaratis, the Parsis, the Jewish people, and the Russian Orthodox all celebrate the start of a new year on different dates. People, whatever their personal beliefs, also celebrate the end of the year on the 31st of December.

Cochin, which is a historic port in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was a Portuguese colony for a while in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Papaanji (spelling varies!) is named after a Portuguese word meaning ‘old man’.

Every year, a giant Papaanji is erected in a centrally located open space in historic Fort Cochin. During the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, the Papaanji is stuffed full of dry straw and fireworks. The roads around the open space are closed to motorised traffic. Despite this, a few youths on motor bikes manage to enter illegally.

After sunset and during the evening of the 31st of December, the area around the Papaanji fills with vendors and ever increasing numbers of people. Some of these merrymakers wear masks and others wear glowing red devil’s horns.

During the few minutes before midnight on the 31st, unbelievable numbers of people gather. The strong tide of people resembles a powerful surge of water such as you might expect if a large dam has just been breached. The crowd adds much noise to the cacophony of sound being relayed over various loudspeakers. Several times, I was almost knocked over by this human tsunami.

At midnight, the crowd became even noisier when flames began leaping from the ignited Papaanji. First, I could only see billowing clouds of smoke. Soon, frightening flames became visible. Then, bursts of stars appeared as the fireworks exploded.

Within minutes, the conflagration and fireworks ended. The old year, represented by the Papaanji, had been burnt out to make way for the new one. The crowds began to thin out a little, but despite that, it was quite hazardous trying to leave the area.

For an hour or two after midnight, boisterous revellers created much noise in the streets. The whole affair seemed to be generally good natured.

I am glad that I have seen the Papaanji aflame, but once in a lifetime is enough for me.

Coffee with ginger

Cochin is a port on the Malabar coast. It provided a haven and home for people from all over the world, including Arabic traders. Now, it attracts foreign tourists from all over the world. This article is about a legacy of the Arab settlers.

I have occasionally drunk coffee flavoured with cardamom in Arabic restaurants. This drink is identical to Turkish coffee but is subtly tinged with cardamom.

An article, published on 28th December 2018 in the Hindu Metroplus (Cochin edition), alerted us to the existence of Kava Kada, a tiny café next to the Mahalari Masjid (mosque) in the Mattancherry district of Cochin in Kerala (India). The café is literally a hole-in-the-wall in the side of the masjid, a few feet away from the main minaret.

A small, aged glass counter-top display cabinet contains a few fried snacks including batter covered fried bananas. There are a couple of very low benches for customers to sit on. The owner of the café stands behind the counter surrounded by metal pots and a gas stove.

This tiny outlet is famed for its Arabian style ‘kava’. This coffee is served in small thick-walled glasses. I have never tasted coffee like this. At first, I thought I was drinking biryani flavoured sweetened coffee. It was delicious. Quite unlike any other coffee that I have drunk, this kava is flavoured with dry ginger, cloves, sugar, cardamom, black pepper, and other spices.

The café is located close to a bustling intersection of two main roads. Cars, two-wheelers, autorickshaws, and small trucks whizzed passed us a few inches away from where we were sitting. Two goats wandered past, seemingly unconcerned by the traffic.

The coffee shop was set up long ago by the now aged Kochumuhammad, who, as a boy, was taught by Arab migrants how to prepare the special kava. For the past 20 years, the shop has been run by one of his 26 grandchildren, a man called Riyaz.

We spent about 10 minutes sipping our coffee, which is good for the throat, so an autorickshaw driver told us. During our brief stay, there was a steady stream of customers buying kava.

I am very grateful to the intern Amala Rose Boben, who wrote the newspaper article, for alerting us to this fascinating little coffee house.

Disabled drivers

During our very recent stay in the Cochin/Ernakulam region of Kerala in the south of India, we encountered two drivers with disabilities.

The first was in central Ernakulam. He was the chauffeur working for a friend. His right arm was encased in surgical plaster of Paris from above his elbow to his finger tips. He drove well despite having only one functioning arm. Luckily for him, he was driving a car with automatic gear changing.

We met the second driver twice in picturesque Fort Cochin. He wore a surgical support collar around his neck. It was khaki in colour and matched his khaki autorickshaw driver’s uniform jacket.

The first time we were driven by him, we noticed his collar, but made no reference to it. The next time he stopped to pick us up, we asked him about the collar, guessing that he might have been involved in accident. We were not expecting his explanation.

The poor fellow related that when his wife had deserted him for reasons that he did not tell us, he had tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, his attempt failed because now his wife has returned to him.

Tired

The Kochi Muziris Art Bienniale is back again. We have attended two of the three previous biennales, those in 2014 and 2016.

The biennales run from mid December to the end of the following March. A joy of this biannual exhibition is that artworks are displayed in many heritage buildings that are not normally accessible to the public. Visitors get a chance to view many fascinating buildings that form part of the history of the port of Cochin.

Today, we visited the main base of the Biennale, which is housed in the buildings of the former Aspinwall company compound.

Works by many artists are on display in the various spaces within the extensive compound. This year most of the works on display are either video installations and/or conceptual art. There are a few works that are otherwise. I was disappointed by this year’s showing as compared with what I saw in previous years’ biennales. The selection of artworks seems unexciting, tired.

However, one work in this year’s show at Aspinwall stands out way ahead of the rest. It is “More Sweetly Play the Dance” made in 2015 by the South African artist William Kentridge.

Moving images are projected onto eight large screens. These images are both drawn (as in cartoons) and photographic. A procession of figures, both drawn and photographed, move from one screen to the next, travelling through a drawn landscape that changes continuously in subtle ways. The motion projected on the screen is accompanied by a brilliant musical soundtrack that is inspired by African music. The result is a spectacular audio visual experience that is both joyous and slightly sinister. I felt that the ‘white’ Kentridge was portraying the experiences of South African Black people, both their joys and their tragedies. His work, on display in a large warehouse with a tiled ceiling at Aspinwall, is truly artistic at all levels of appeal, from the sensual and emotional to the intellectual. It is a positive contrast to much of the other art on display at Aspinwall, which requires explanation before it might possibly be enjoyed.

I look forward to visiting many of the other places connected with the Bienniale. I hope that I will be seeing art that grabs me emotionally as well as intellectually.

PS Since writing this, I have visited many other parts of the Biennale. Some of these, especially the places housing the works of current art students (The Students Biennale) and the artworks in the TKM Warehouse, are outstandingly good. If you are in Cochin for a limited time, skip Aspinwall and head for Mattancherry where the most exciting works are on display.