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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.