Streets lined with colourful colonial buildings, quaint little eateries, and stores that sell souvenirs and spices. The fourth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale is expected to go on until April. The Biennial exhibition is a celebration of art and its evolution. Heritage buildings hosting the works of contemporary artists is the true ethos of this Biennial art festival. It turns the forever lively Fort Kochi into an art exploration project getaway. Having been to previous editions of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, there was no chance I was missing it this year.
Meeting Jose, the artist behind the wheels
The plane touched down and I woke up from my short little slumber with a jolt. It was a quarter past eight on a bright morning in Kochi. I got to the conveyor belt and waited for my baggage. I have been lucky that way – my baggage always comes at last. Booking a cab is not on my to-do list after I land. I stand there fully aware that my Savaari is waiting for me at the arrivals to take me from Kochi airport to Fort Kochi. I took out my phone and doom-scrolled on Instagram until my baggage finally arrived. And then picked up my bags and proceeded to exit the terminal. I called the driver- this was the first time we spoke.
Until then, it was a seamless experience on the Savaari app. My driver Jose and I spotted each without any difficulty. I got into his sparkling clean Innova. Jose could tell from my face that the humidity was already taking its toll on me. He politely opened the backdoor and asked me to sit in the air-conditioned car while he loaded my luggage into the backseat of his car.
Artsy roads leading to the Art Festival
Kochi greeted me with lots of sunlight. It was bright and humid. Getting to Fort Kochi would take at least ninety minutes or more from the Kochi Airport, the delay is owed to traffic. As Jose drove his car, I kept looking out the window and going back in time as I saw things from the past that invoked some sense of nostalgia in me. Finally, the moment had come for me to engage in small talk with Jose in Malayalam, a language I love so dearly and grew up speaking. Like they say, when two Malayalees meet, there’s instant brotherhood. So my new Jose Chettan (brother in Malayalam) and I discussed movies, favourite actors and a little bit of politics.
On the way, I started feeling hungry. I had been craving some good ‘puttu’ ( steamed rice cakes with grated coconut filling). Jose knew exactly where to take me, it wasn’t on the way, but I decided to let Jose take that call. We reached ‘Shibu’s Kumbalam Puttu Kada’. “This place is famous for its puttu and mutton curry,” beamed Jose. I decided to trust the man and boy was he right! With no space left for lunch, we continued our journey to Fort Kochi with an assured feeling that Jose was going to make the weekend a memorable one.
Getting to Fort Kochi from the airport is an adventure by itself, there’s the weekday morning chaos, but there are also picturesque views from different bridges you pass along the way. Finally, the best of these views is when you pass Cochin Shipyard. On one side there’s a harbour for fishing boats, the harbour is filled with people that have come to bid for the day’s fresh catch, and on the other side, you see the river making its way into the Arabian Sea. This is one route I would recommend that you take by road. Jose told me a lot I did not know about these rivers and how Kerala braved not one but two devastating deluges in the last five years.
[Also read: A local’s guide to exploring Kochi]
What is the Kochi Muziris Biennale?
I was heading to Fort Kochi for the Kochi Muziris Biennale, an eagerly anticipated international contemporary art exhibition held across multiple points in Fort Kochi. The exhibition, held once every two years, showcases the works of artists from around the world, presenting a rich tapestry of contemporary art across various mediums, including painting, sculpture, installation, performance, and new media. The first edition of the biennial exhibition was held in 2012. The ongoing fourth edition of this exhibition is expected to go on until 10 April 2023.
The Biennale almost certainly keeps Jose and many others who depend on tourism in Kochi busy for the four months that bring the streets of Fort Kochi to life and thereby attracting thousands of visitors from India and across the world. The walls take new shape, the streets begin to bustle with people walking from one exhibition site to the other. This edition of the Biennale constitutes 15 centres spread sparsely across the mazy streets of Fort Kochi.
What awaits you at the Kochi Muziris Biennale
The theme of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022 is “Reclaim“. The exhibition invited artists to explore the idea of reclaiming one’s identity. This also includes reclaiming the past in the face of evolution and globalisation. This theme is particularly relevant in the Indian context, as our nation is undergoing rapid social and cultural transformations. The exhibition features works by over 100 artists from over 30 countries, including India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and many others. The works on display ranged from large-scale installations to intimate works of art, and visitors can engage with the artists and learn about their creative processes.
One of the biggest highlights of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022 was the performance art program, which showcased works by a diverse range of artists and performers, including dancers, musicians, and theatre groups. The program offered a unique opportunity for visitors to experience the vibrant energy of contemporary performances, art and to engage with the artists and their work in a live setting.The performances and art displayed at this festival explore modern day issues and trends in society. Art forms are used as a bridge to connect the past, present, and future.
The Aspinwall House is the most important exhibition site in the history of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Aspinwall House is a historic building located in Fort Kochi, Kerala, India. The building was initially used as a spice trading centre and later became the headquarters of the Aspinwall & Co. company. While you can cover all the sites of the Biennale in a day, I recommend you take at least a day to explore the different exhibits here. To truly appreciate the work that is displayed, one must spend considerable time observing not only the art but also people’s reactions to these installations. ‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’, as the saying goes.
Day 1 – The Kochi Muziris Biennale adventure beckons…
We got to the Aspinwall House at around 11:15 AM. I made my way in and walked around for a bit. I observed the exhibits and interacted with some artists to get a deeper understanding of their work. Two hours into this, my stomach began to mumble. A few metres from the Aspinwall House was Hotel Seagull, an old restaurant famous for its seafood delicacies. The restaurant is situated by the side of the sea. You could see ships pass by to the nearby port. Jose also told me that if you look close enough, you will find dolphins in the water. Lunch was grand with some seafood with an occasional sitting of a dolphin far away. I headed back to the Aspinwall House, and Jose to his car for a siesta.
If you feel like contemporary art needs a lot of artistic knowledge and prowess, you’re wrong. You just need to put on your thinking hat and interpret art your way (this is simply the mantra that will help you demystify art) by around 5 PM it was time for coffee, I headed to the Pepper House Café, which housed both a cafe and also was a Biennale exhibition site. I decided to head there, get myself some refreshments and also cover the exhibits that were on display at the venue. The exhibit here was by none other than Bose Krishnamachari, the cofounder and president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation. The idea of the Kochi Biennale was conceptualized by Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, who was approached by the Kerala State Government and Ministry of Tourism to start an international art project in the state.
By around 6:30 PM Jose and I headed to my hotel which was on Willingdon Island, which happened to be the largest artificial island in India. The Kochi Naval Base and the Port of Kochi are situated on this Island. Once I checked in, it was enough exploration for the day and I decided to call in room service and get a good night’s sleep.
Day – 2 at Kochi Muziris Biennale, with Jose the driver/dealmaker
The next morning, Jose picked me up from the hotel at around 10:00 AM. We first headed to the spices market in Mattancherry. I could begin to smell the spices in the air even before I got to the market. Jose had offered to come to help me pick up spices. He did this to avoid getting fleeced by the sellers. Jose is the best bargainer in the world. Period. I was later dropped off at the Vasco Da Gama square. This is where I continued the rest of my Biennale adventures. The roads to some of these centres were very narrow, and I honestly wanted to scale these streets on foot. You can find the complete route map with information about the different centres and the work it houses.
It was a very humid day, so it was a good idea to carry enough bottles of water, a hat and sunglasses, and a dollop of sunscreen can go a long way in keeping you comfortable. I was advised to wear airy clothing and wear footwear that doesn’t cause any discomfort. It is always a good idea to carry enough loose change of the local currency in case you want to hail auto rickshaws to go from one centre to another. Lunch was again grand that afternoon, thanks to Jose. We headed to Kayees Rahmathullah Cafe, a little biriyani joint in Mattancherry with a very loyal patronage. The Malabar biryani isn’t necessarily my favourite, but the biriyani here was delectable. It is a must-visit if you are keen on checking out places that aren’t just pocket-friendly but also serve great food.
After lunch, I had a glass of humble Sulaimani tea and proceeded to continue my Biennale adventure. Walking into some of these buildings with so much historic relevance and old worldly charm to see exhibits depicting the contemporary world is an indescribable feeling. You begin to simply appreciate the way that mankind has evolved from an artistic point of expression. My prowl for art continued till dusk, followed by a silk screen painting with an air ink workshop at the Cabral Yard. I then headed to the Kashi Art cafe, the last centre, and also my favourite cafe that serves the best chocolate cake and coffee. I sat there and began to write this article and perhaps ate more than just one slice of cake. Jose dropped me off at the hotel in time for dinner.
The next morning was rather glum. The only thing waiting for me was an early morning flight back to the mundane world. I bid adieu to my brother/driver Jose, I went back to work and Jose perhaps home for a break. Until the next Kochi Muziris Biennale 2024.
Here are a few helpful pointers:
While walking through the streets from one site, or hailing an auto is advised. It’s always good to book a full day cab. Jose really knew the streets of Fort Kochi. Because he grew up in Kochi, there was a very [very] personal touch to the trip.
- To find more information related to the Kochi Muziris Biennale, visit their official website.
- There are guides available at the venues to explain the displays in depth. I preferred to go ahead without one and interpret art on my own.
- It is advisable to carry a face mask and sanitiser.
- Tickets to the Biennale are available online on BookMyShow.
- Tickets are also available offline at the Aspinwall House. Click here to find the address.
- I booked a daily pass for the day that is priced at ₹150 per day. This pass lets you access the Aspinwall House thrice and other centres once.
- There are concessions for senior citizens and students. The tickets are ₹50 and ₹100 respectively.
- A weekly pass is priced at rupees ₹1000 and a monthly pass at ₹ 4000.
Things you absolutely need to do at the Biennale
When at the Biennale, here are some things you simply cannot miss out on –
- Make sure you reserve at least half a day for viewing the exhibits at the Aspinwall House.
- Interact with the artists for newer and better perspectives.
- Do make sure you visit the Cabral Yard where there are fun workshops and sessions being held. Click here to find the monthly calendar.
- Jim Lambie’s floor based artwork series ‘Zopob’ at the Dutch Warehouse.
- The Anand Warehouse, an old building previously owned by Gujarati families of Kochi, has some great exhibits on display.
- For those interested in language and publishing, the TKM warehouse is where you will find your heart.
To conclude, the Biennale at a glance may look like an exhibition only for connoisseurs of art or intellectuals. However, that isn’t true. Art is a form of expression in which we all indulge in. In 2023, the festival will take place till the 10th of April. So, if you happen to travel to Kochi in the spring, book a cab and witness Asia’s largest art exhibition.
Last Updated on February 21, 2023 by blogadmin