Art behind bars

FORT KOCHI IN Kerala was occupied by three European powers: first by Portugal, then ny the Netherlands, and then by the British until 1947. It was whilst the British were in charge that a small jail was built on what is now Tower Road. Next to a police station and close to a string of roadside seafood restaurants, there is a gate that leads into the Jail of the Freedom Struggle. This prison was built by the British at a forgotten date during the 19th century. One clue to its age is that some of its roof tiles can be dated to 1865. The prison has a row of eight cells, each equipped with a 6 foot long concrete bed.

The prison, which might have been used as a transit establishment for prisoners waiting to be taken elsewhere, is said to have held leading freedom fighters such as Mohammed Rehman, Accamma Cherian, and K J Herschel,  A K Gopalan, E M S Namboothiripad, and Abdurahiman Sahib. However, this is not known for certain. The prison, which had become disused and dilapidated, was restored in 2009, and opened as a museum.

In February 2023, we visited Fort Kochi to explore the 2022 Kochi Muziris Art Biennale. Unconnected with this major event, we visited an exhibition of artworks being displayed in the former prison. This included both paintings and sculptures. What made it an usual exhibition is that the exhibits are all contained within the cells behind strong iron doors with vertical bars. The doors that once prevented the prisoners from leaving the cells now prevent visitors from entering them.

Unintended tranquillity

THE COCHIN CLUB’S main, long, single-storey building is a lovely example of British colonial architecture. The club, located near the sea in a large well-maintained garden was officially recorded as having been established in 1914, but might have been in existence before that.

Originally established as “The English Club”, its members were mainly the British elite of Kochi and European tea planters. Some individuals, high level Indians, might have also been welcome. The Club’s Presidents all had British surnames until at least 1969. However, there was one exception – Honourable Justice P Govindan Nair who was President 1963-64. After 1969, the Presidents had Indian surnames.

Today, the Club is a tranquil spot. Usually, there are more crows and egrets than humans in its compound. The Club has five spacious, bedrooms, which can be hired. Their occupants are almost the only people using the Club. There are plenty of staff members, but few people for them to serve.

The Club has a splendid bar with windows overlooking the sea in one direction and the garden in the other. But it is a bar with a difference. Instead of shelves being lined with bottles of booze, they are used to display cups and other prize trophies. And this might be a clue as to why the Club is so often so empty.

The Club does not have a liquor licence. Therefore, it cannot sell alcoholic drinks. The cost of buying an annual licence is so prohibitively high in Kerala that the Club might not be able to break even. The availability of alcohol is one of the factors that brings life to the exclusive clubs of India.

On special occasions such as Diwali and Christmas and Onam, the Club buys a costly 24 hour licence. The rest of the time, the Club is ‘dry’. However, food and soft drinks are available in the bar. The South Indian filter coffee served there is the best we have found in Fort Kochi (Fort Cochin).

Largely because liquor is not available and because there are few members (about 500), this charming Club has acquired a certain unintended (undesired?) tranquillity.

Art and documentaries at the Kochi Muziris Art Biennale 2022

ASPINWALL HOUSE IN Fort Kochi is the epicentre and largest exhibition space of the Kochi Muziris Art Biennale. We have attended this event four times to date – 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2022. Outside the main entrance to Aspinwall House, there is a list of those companies, organisations, and individuals, who have donated money to the Biennale. The current (2022/23) list has the following heading “Principle supporters”. Is this wording an undetected typographical error, or is it intentional, or is it a Freudian slip? I ask this question because the sentiments expressed in many of the exhibits question the consequences of the activities of some of the donors.

Far too many of the exhibits in Aspinwall House are more like well-made documentaries than what has until recently been regarded as art. The documentary exhibits are mostly well put together with superb still photography and cinematography, and quite a few of them are highly informative – akin to, for example, National Geographic productions.

The majority of the documentary-like exhibits have elements of political protest, often leftward leaning. Now, I have no objection to political protest in art, but I wonder whether some of these exhibits have strayed too far from what used to be considered art, and have become more documentary than artistic. In the past, to mention but a few, artists such as Picasso, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Joan Miró, Subhi Tagore, Diego Riviera, and currently William Kentridge, have made artworks with political content. These artists and some of their contemporaries produced artworks which are not purely political or polemic, but can also be enjoyed as purely visual experiences; knowing the message is not important to the impact the works make on the viewer, but can add to that. Much of what is on display at Aspinwall House during the current Biennale simply thrusts political messages at the viewer. There is little else to appreciate but often depressing messages and images.

As for the abundance of photography it is mostly superb. Since the invention of photography, it has been used highly creatively by some photographers. Examples of these include Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Dodgson, László Moholy-Nagy, Ansel Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz. Artists like these were competent photographers who exploited the camera to create original images that would have been difficult if not impossible to produce with other artistic materials. In contrast, many of the beautiful photographic works in the current Biennale seem to be aiming at documentary or archival accuracy rather than creative images – works of ‘pure’ art.


Having blasted at what I did not like about the Biennale, I must point out that there are many artworks that satisfied me purely visually. Some of them are in Aspinwall House, but many of them are elsewhere, notably in the Durbar Hall in Ernakulam. The works that impacted me positively because of their purely aesthetic 7characteristics might also be conveying political sentiments, but the nature of these did not impede my immediate, visceral rather than cerebral enjoyment of them.

Returning to the predominantly documentary exhibits, those that made most impact on me were housed in the TKM warehouse complex in Mattancherry. Some of the works there are not only political or polemical, but also highly creative and artistic (in the old sense of the word).

As for the odd use of “principle” on the list of donors mentioned above, I found this not only careless but ironic. Many of the artworks in the current Biennale question the principles of some of the donors, who funded the show.

Having read this, you can call me ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘politically incorrect ‘ if that makes you feel better. I might well be both, but I was brought up by my artistic parents to appreciate the works of both old masters and contemporary artists equally, be they works by Piero della Francesca or JMW Turner or Brancusi or Barbara Hepworth or Rachel Whitehead or Anish Kapoor.

Visit the Kochi Muziris Art Biennale if you can before it ends in early March 2023, and judge it for yourself. Almost all of the exhibits are housed in heritage buildings, which are alone worth seeing. I look forward to the next show in 2024/25.

A letter box in Kerala

I VISITED INDIA at least 50 times over the last 29 years. It was not until this trip (2022-2023) that I began noticing letter boxes of historic interest. I spotted three of interest in Bangalore, and now I have found one outside the post office in Fort Kochi in Kerala.

Painted green with some gold coloured details it is hexagonal with a decorative top. Between the words “Post” and “Office”, there is a British royal cipher with the lion and unicorn. Beneath this is a V and a R entwined, a logo I have seen on Victorian letter boxes in the UK.

The old letter box, now sealed up so that nothing can be put in it, stands close to the verandah at the front of the post office. Within the verandah, there is a panel giving some information about postal services in the former Kingdoms of Cochin and Travancore

Postal services began in the Kingdom of Cochin in about 1864. It was known as the Anchal Service. The letter box described above might have been an Anchal post box originally, although it is unlikely.

According to an article (https://englisharchives.mathrubhumi.com/news/offbeat/last-anchal-runner-of-kerala-passes-away-1.3462681#:~:text=Anchal%20Post%20was%20the%20postal,on%20which%20bells%20were%20attached):
“Anchal Post was the postal service system started and existed during the Kingdom of Travancore to transfer official letters and documents. The post man of this system was called anchal pillai. He used to run carrying the dispatches in a bag with a stick on his other hand on which bells were attached.”
He used to run eight miles a day. People were required to make way for this important courier, and not to impede his progress. The last surviving anchal pillai, Kannan Chapli, died aged 90 in 2019.

The post office outside which stands the historic letter box is on Ridsdale Road opposite the east end of the church of St Francis (Church of South India), and was constructed in May 1928. At that time, Fort Kochi was in the Kingdom of Cochin. In 1949, it and its neighbour, The Kingdom of Travancore, were integrated into India and merged to form the State of Thiru-Kochi. In 1956, this state was renamed Kerala and its postal service became incorporated into the Indian Post system.

Interestingly, the post box outside the Fort Kochi post office bears the intertwined V and R. The information panel has a drawing of an anchal letter box. Similar in shape to the Victorian post box, the one in the drawing bears a different logo and the words “Travancore Anchal” and something in Malayalam script. If I am not mistaken, Cochin, unlike Travancore, became a British Protectorate. In which case it might well have become part of the British Indian postal system. This could explain why the historic letter box in Fort Kochi has a British logo instead of that used in the Anchal system. There might also have been Anchal boxes in the Kingdom of Cochin, but I am uncertain about that.

Today, letters are posted in a simple red cylindrical letter box not far from the historic one. The Victorian letter box is one of a huge number of interesting historic survivals that can be seen whilst wandering around Fort Kochi.

Cloud with a silver lining

AFTER A VERY DISAPPOINTING experience at a café we have often enjoyed when staying in Fort Kochi, we went to another eatery, which had been recommended by our friend Sharada S , when we visited Kochi at Christmas in 2019.

Our friend had introduced us to Oceanos. In this pleasant but unpretentious restaurant, we have enjoyed some of the best prepared sea food in Kochi. The dishes served at Oceanos are not only tasty but also authentic, by which I mean that they are not prepared to be ‘fine dining’ fancy; instead they give a good experience of genuine Keralan food.

Currently (February 2023), In addition to an á la carte menu, there is a seafood set lunch – a seafood thali. This included deep fried mackerel; clams (vongole) out of their shells; Aleppey fish curry; roasted prawn curry; sardine steamed in a banana leaf; Malabar paratha; rice; chhaas (buttermilk); and payasam (a local dessert). Every item was exquisitely prepared and tasted very fresh. This wonderful, faultless meal was 390 INR (£3.90) per head. We plan to explore the rest of the menu at Oceanos in the next few days.

Had it not been for the incompetent management at Kashi Art Café today, we would have eaten lunch there. However, as we had not been served our food for almost one our after ordering it, we asked for an explanation of the delay, and were told that there was a problem with the gas in the kitchen. Having been told that we would have our food “in about 10 minutes”, we walked out. If we had been served our food sooner, or been given an explanation without having to ask for one, we might have missed out on the superb lunch at Oceanos.