Archive for October, 2013

By a happy accident, V and I arrived in Fort Kochi just as India’s first ever Biennale got underway. We knew something was up as soon as we reached Ernakalum, the chaotic hub on the mainland, across from which Fort Kochi sits. From here one must take either a ferry or a long ride across several bridges to reach the old fort on its island promontory. The queues at the ferry ticket office were beyond even typical Indian crowds and contained a high number of foreign tourists, many of whom did not fit the backpacker profile. We had a long wait in the segregated queues – one for men, and one for women – mystified by the heartbreaking openings and closings of the ticket window. I came close to cracking in the hot press for the dusty box office – not even on the Tokyo subway do people cram so close. After perhaps an hour, we finally secured passage and were waved through the exit gates onto the pier. Here the low-slung ferry was waiting, at the back of the throat of a glittering, industrial harbour.

Ferry crossing, Fort Kochi

Kochi, port

We’d had a glimpse of the peculiar geography of this place on the way into Ernakulam, on a bus from Alappuzha. Chugging across the sunstruck water offered further insights into the arrangement of this huge, natural harbour. From the air, Kochi and Ernakulam appear as a network of rivers, channels and islands, much like the rest of the Keralan Backwaters, only in this case, thoroughly developed. Fort Kochi itself sits at the tip of a long finger of land stretching roughly north – south along the coast; one of the headlands across the harbour mouth. To the west it looks out into the Arabian Sea, from whence had come the Portuguese traders who first established a European colony here.

Kochi Map 3 crop

Dutch Kochi 1665

The site of Fort Kochi, originally occupied by a fishing village, was granted to the Portuguese in 1503 by the Rajah of Kochi, after the forces of Afonso de Albuquerque assisted the Rajah in defeating a local rival, Saamoothiri of Kozhikode.

Chinese fishing nets

The Rajah gave the Portuguese permission to build a fort to protect their commercial interests – Fort Emanuel – the first association of this place with a defensive fort. In 1683 Fort Kochi was captured by the Dutch East India Company who ultimately made it the capital of Dutch Malabar. The Dutch reduced the area of both the old Portuguese town and the fort, and destroyed many of the public buildings. They developed the harbour and piers and constructed many merchants’ houses and warehouses, much of which survive today. In 1795, Fort Kochi was captured by the British, who further developed what had become a vibrant and important commercial centre on the Malabar Coast. Fort Kochi remained in British hands until Indian Independence in 1947. This rich colonial heritage has left Kochi with a mix of architectural styles which lends the old town a very European character, something immediately evident upon arrival.


Stepping off the ferry we came face to face with one of the longest and thickest queues I’ve ever seen – the poor suckers waiting to get back across to Ernakulam. This crowd was a real mix of middle class Indians and foreign tourists, many of whom appeared to have been waiting for a long, long time to board a ferry. Whether we liked it or not, accommodation or otherwise, we were not getting back across in a hurry.

Our walk into town was a two-way procession – those entering and those leaving – past tired old warehouses and administrative buildings, many of which displayed signs for exhibits within and to and from which people joined and left the procession. Away from the docks and closer to the centre of town, the architecture became more intimate and residential and even more distinctly foreign – was this some dusty, forgotten, southern European port or a city in India after all? Huge fig trees loomed over the junction of Tower Road and Princess Street – the centre of town – creating a shady and remarkably quiet space. The relative absence of the many cars, buses and auto-rickshaws that give much of India a harassed vibe, leant this place an unexpected calm.

Fort Kochi, Biennale

Princess Street was a history lesson in itself. Just wide enough not to be called narrow, the melange of styles – half-timbered frames, Dutch and Portuguese colonial – with, in places, low, terracotta-tiled awnings – offered a charmingly disordered appearance. Nothing was quite new or polished and was instead pleasingly rusticated by time. It was here that we began our quest to find a hotel room, an exhausting process that took three hours and created such a mood of frustration and desperation, that it doesn’t bear recounting. Suffice to say that we eventually found adequate accommodation right where we had begun our search, just in time to settle our fractured nerves and head off in search of more fish curries.

Fort Kochi was crawling with hipsters and art-lovers. Before dinner we stopped in at a “family restaurant”, which everyone used merely as a bar, to find a crowd not unlike that of the Newtown or Surry Hills café scene. Indeed, the people all around us seemed to be from Sydney, Melbourne, or New York. There was a positive and excited atmosphere all about the town – not just from the tourists, but from locals who found themselves with a whole new clientele.

Biennale, Kochi

9737 Biennale, Kochi

Everyone seemed friendly and energetic; all sharing in this curious combination of place and venture. It was at this point that it struck us just how exciting it actually was both for us and for India that this event was taking place right here and now. As wanky as it sounds, I do firmly believe that art has a vitally important role in bringing people together and getting them to think – whether you like the art or not doesn’t matter so much – it’s a great stimulus to look at the world in a fresh way, however briefly.

Biennale, Fort Kochi

9711 Biennale, Kochi

0195 Fort Kochi

The next two days were dedicated to visiting the various exhibits of the Biennale – all covered by the same cheap ticket. Fort Kochi is an ideal place for a public display of art, full as it is of cavernous old colonial warehouses and administrative building in varying states of repair. After an excellent street breakfast, we began our wandering between these echoing, dusty places. Many of the sites appeared to be disused; cobwebs removed and floors swept, art installed and people invited in.

0080 Biennale interior space

0023 Violins Biennale, Kochi

0095 Pendulous

Much of the time the location was as much of an attraction as the art, which varied significantly both in scale and quality. We wandered up ladders, down long corridors, through unexpected courtyards and cloisters, in and out dusty old doors, at times completely taken by something, and at others indifferent but never really disengaged or disappointed.

0037 Kochi

9806 Biennale

0062 Staircase, old warehouse, Biennale, Kochi

9969 Biennale, Kochi

Without a doubt the highlight for both of us came ironically from a Sydney-based artist – Angelica Mesiti – whose high definition video installation called Citizens Band on four walls of a dark wooden warehouse room absolutely blew us away with its intimate portrait of four public performers and their incredible performances. The combination of the space and quiet, with the moving, intense music created by these individuals was mesmerising. Bukhchuluun (Bukhu) Ganburged, in particular, with his Mongolian horse fiddle and traditional throat singing, left us both in tears of wonder.

Even without the Biennale Kochi is a place worth visiting. It has a quaint and pleasing homeliness to it and many curious aspects on account of its history and geography. We ended up switching hotels three times in three nights, on account of the scarcity of accommodation during this busy time, but this also gave us new perspectives on the town, coming at it from different angles, so to speak.

0304 Pretty autorickshaw

9677 Photostat

9951 Friendly bloke on the bus

9625 Fort Kochi 3

0160 Fort Kochi

0273 Jewtown, Fort Kochi

9902 Gardener plus cricket game

0394 Beach, Fort Kochi

0413 Fort Kochi, beach 2

0339 Beach, Fort Kochi

On our second day there, we took a rickshaw down to Jewtown – a place whose name rather too deliberately makes plain its origins. There is a beautiful old synagogue and warren of streets, and it is likely the one Jewish community in the world in which the swastika is displayed publicly – often with the names of local businesses. This must seem a most confronting and bizarre juxtaposition for any visiting Jews, and one is forced to accept that, after all, it was the Nazis who appropriated this symbol from its far more peaceful origins in and around the subcontinent.

0299 Holiday planners

0242 Jewtown, Fort Kochi

0267 Jewtown, Fort Kochi

On our final night there we dined at a place called Oceanos, famous for its seafood. I mention this as we had, over the past week, been on a quest to find the best fish curries in India. By this stage, we had been very successful on Varkala beach – discovering a restaurant whose name escapes me – where one could, whilst listening to the plash of the surf, eat juicy Kingfish Marsala that, flavour and texture-wise, ranks as the best dish I have ever eaten. On that final night in Kochi, we again struck gold with all three fish curries we ordered. Again, the fish was fresh, cut into large, tender chunks, and cooked to perfection in astonishing marsalas and the Spicy Syrian Catholic Fish Curry left us reeling in paroxysms of pleasure. I could not recommend this dish more highly, and quite literally, for I do not think there is any dish in the world that can top the orgasmic joy that flooded us both as we savoured every last morsel.

Chinese fishing nets, Kochi

0396 Fort Kochi beach

0330 Beach, Fort Kochi

9765 Chinese fishing nets, Kochi

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Ancient Faces

It is haunting to look into the faces of ancient people long dead, especially when they appear to be looking back at you. There are many thousands of examples of ancient and medieval portraits surviving from past civilizations for whom depicting the human form was acceptable – almost all, for that matter, prior to the rise of iconoclasm. Many of these portraits, however, are either stylised or idealised and whilst they may display certain individualistic traits, they often lack the convincing sense of having captured an individual as they genuinely appear.


Greek idealism

This, however, is not the case with Roman realism. Whilst the Greeks tended to make the features of their sculptures and reliefs more uniform and ideal, the Romans were into warts and all verism.

Roman realism

People are too often ready to criticise Roman art as somehow secondary to Greek – at worst, they are seen as a bunch of unimaginative copyists and imitators, who never had an original idea of their own, whilst at best they are considered to have adopted and perfected existing styles and techniques. Inevitably the Romans borrowed heavily from their predecessors – both Greek and Etruscan – just as any artist of any time is guided and influenced by the artistic context in which they operate. After all, their empire spread from a city once ruled by Etruscan kings in close proximity to the long established Greek colonies in southern Italy. The Greeks had taken landscape painting, mosaic design and sculpture to such a level, that there was little room left for progress so far as technique was concerned. Take a look at this life-size Hellenistic bronze of a boy jockey and racehorse from the 2nd-3rd century BC.

Perhaps, despite the astonishing skill and beauty of Roman art, it is for these reasons that we think of the Roman contribution as far more pragmatic  – architectural, technological, logistical. After all, the Romans invented concrete, the arch, aqueducts, waterwheels, the monumental dome, the force pump, greenhouses, hydraulic mining and the multifunctional pocket-knife to name a few.

Yet the ancient world was by no means all Roman hardware and Greek software, so to speak. The Romans invented glass-blowing, for example, and, despite its fragility, we have countless examples of astonishingly fine Roman glassware to admire.

It is also important to remember that by the end of the 1st century BC, the Roman world incorporated all of Europe, West and East, including Greece of course, North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East – a world rich in artistic traditions including and predating Greek contributions and refinements, and one that blurred the boundaries between “Roman” and other artistic traditions. The vast international, multicultural enterprise that was the Roman Empire, the world’s first truly global superpower, continued to thrive for centuries beyond this, during which time the blending of these cross-cultural influences continued. The Roman “Baroque” of the thriving second century AD is the technical high-point of this multicultural enterprise. In AD 212 Emperor Caracalla passed an edict extending Roman citizenship universally across the Empire. From thereon, where can one truly draw the line across this huge cultural melting pot as to who was Roman or otherwise? Consider traditions such as the Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits of Roman Egypt – a classic example of this cultural blending.

0149 Ancient face

0087 Romano-Egyptian portrait

0090 Late Romano-egyptian portrait

Yet, irrespective of all this, there is one outstanding and significant and distinctly Roman contribution to art – veristic portraiture. Whereas the Greeks were dreamers who preferred idealised figures and faces – most of which appear post-coital – the Romans tended towards an almost painfully acute realism.

Frowns, double chins, jowls, bushy eyebrows, laugh lines, stern expressions, baldness, all abound in Roman realist portraiture. And the portraits themselves are hauntingly life-like. This is no approximation of an individual’s appearance, but rather an exquisite rendering of a person’s insecurities, burdens, life experience and temperament.

5203 Ancient Roman

3992 Roman matron

5201 Living ancient

5209 Roman realism

Roman matron

0142 Ancient faces

5219 Roman matron

5197 Cicero

4289 Augustus

5217 Cicero in profile

5218 Roman realism

Artistically the tradition derives from an early Republican habit of keeping family death-masks in the house, usually displayed in niches in the walls. Wax portrait heads of ancestors were also displayed in public processions. With the early Romans being so focussed on discipline, both within the family and public life, one can imagine how effective being watched by ones ancestors might be as a means of keeping one in line. There was also a certain distaste for the indolence of Greek and Etruscan life and Roman realism was not merely a reflection of their austere virtues and military traditions, but also a reaction against the rendering of people with a divine aspect. The Romans, despite their love of Greek art, liked to keep it real when not romanticising the mythical past.

Part of the appeal of Roman realism is that it constitutes an appreciable form of commemoration to which I can relate. These days, we probably wouldn’t be happy if the only image we had of our parents looked nothing like them, but rather some stylised, or idealised representation. Sure, we want them to look their best, but we do want them to look at least somewhat like they did in life. So it was for the Romans.

Consider this head of Julius Caesar, for example.


Bearing in mind the skill of Roman realist sculptors, one gets the sense that this is actually what Julius Caesar looked like (though the amount of hair atop his head might be an exaggeration.) How many ancient figures, apart from certain prominent Romans, can we convincingly recognise as clear and distinct individuals and feel we have a real sense of their features? With the exception of some excellent earlier Greek examples – take Socrates, for instance – we have very few life-like portraits from antiquity outside the Roman period. Alexander the Great has a recurrent uniformity to his images, yet still they look like a gloss – an idealised, air-brushed image of a god-like youth.

Head of

His face contains some pathos, yet I remain unmoved by it.  Only with Roman realism do I feel convincingly that I have come face to face with people from the classical world.

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Photo Bomb

I just returned from three and a half weeks in Europe to find that most of the photos I took are worthless. It’s one of the worst shocks I’ve had in ages, and have only got myself to blame. You may wonder how, in this day and age, shooting with a digital SLR, it might be possible not to realise that the photographs you were taking were substandard, but that’s the truth of it, I didn’t actually notice. Shoot me.

Just prior to leaving – indeed, the day before – I went into town to buy a new lens. My old 18-55mm had gotten dust or mould inside and was producing shots with scattered blotches. These were hardly noticeable, if at all, in night shots, but alarmingly clear and unattractive in every other context. I didn’t intend to spend a lot of money, but rather was happy to get another standard Canon kit lens, which had worked fine in the past. I prefer shooting with a 70-200mm L-series lens anyway and wanted the 18-55 mostly for landscape, interiors and night shooting.

Once inside the shop, feeling rarely flush with cash, I decided that now was the time to upgrade my camera as well, which would, after all, provide a new lens or two anyway. Having been for so long using a Canon 450 D, I was inclined to stick to the same series that had served me so well in the past and bought the 700 D. It was at this point that fate intervened in a way that I initially thought was fortuitous, but was ultimately to bring about my downfall. The store had no remaining cameras with the 18-55mm lens, but only the 18-135mm, which would come at the same price. This seemed fortuitous in that I liked the versatility of being able to shoot more open, landscape shots, and, where necessary, zoom without having to change lenses, which can be a bit of an impractical ball-ache in opportunistic moments. This lens, it seemed, would be superior to the other anyway. It felt like a score.

Cut to Europe a few days later, and me happily snapping away with my new camera and lens and feeling pretty pleased about it. So far as I could tell from the screen on the back, things were coming up clearly and smoothly and there was nothing to be alarmed about. Despite travelling with my laptop and backing up all my photo files onto it each day, I didn’t actually look at the photos at all. This might seem kinda careless and crazy, and in retrospect, I’m kicking myself for not doing so, but in truth, because I was travelling with V, I didn’t want to agonise about my shots and spend time going through them each night, and anyway, I was confident from having had only positive experiences with Canon lenses before. I had done this on my last two trips to India, and did it all the time in Sydney – shoot first and ask questions later, confident that I would find good shots when I got back and sorted through them all. I even recall zooming in on several images on the viewfinder and feeling satisfied with what the camera was doing. It seemed to me that the upgrade was, in fact, an upgrade. When I got home I would find the usual mix of good shots and bad shots, dictated not by the standard of the lens, but by my choice of compositions, angle and the like… So much for blind trust.

Unfortunately, on returning, I found that this so-called lens is in fact a total and utter turkey. I do not have one positive thing to say about it at all – I don’t know what kind of second-rate glass they use in it, but it can’t handle anything in low light at all, it does not focus properly, has an awful depth of field which means that, in most cases, one very small section of the image, at any range, is in focus, and everything else is not – leaving an ugly blurring effect like a badly out of focus shot for most of the image, rather than the charming, heat-haze effect of quality glass; its colour reproduction is appalling flat and dull, with thin, glaring skies and dirty ochres, it lacks contrast and silkiness in shadows, the edges of things are not crisp, it can’t deal with movement at all… in other words, it’s a total and utter bucket of shit and Canon should cease production and sale of this lens immediately.

Canon 18-135mm

What makes this all so bloody awful is that for me is that, lulled into a false sense of security about this lens, I shot with it most of the time because of its apparent versatility range-wise. Many times I thought about changing lenses, but decided it was unnecessary on account of being able to achieve the required range with the 18-135. How I wish I had made those changes! Now, instead, I find that almost 95 percent of the shots I took, including all night shots, all interior shots, and pretty much everything else, are unusable swill. It’s a dreadful blow and I feel gigantically disappointed to say the least. It’s not every day that you get to travel through the Greek Islands and spend a week in Rome on an eating, drinking and shooting spree. I guess I shall just have to go back and do it all again… bugger.




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