Barriers that embrace: from Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016-17

Musings from my first Kochi Biennale wanderings.

Something as simple as the slow splash of waves against your ferry can meander off into an absent-minded gleeful smile when you are taking in the experience as an outsider, unlike the routine commuters – more familiar, more purposeful. But its when you step out at Fort Kochi that you’ll be surprised how easily you slip into feeling at home.

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Kochi beckons not only artists, writers, connoiseurs, students, tourists and thousands of visitors with open arms during the biennale season, but also fresh ideas that adorn her alongside the wall art from previous years that are lovingly treasures. She flanks you with colourful surprises throughout her humble streets and before you know it she has left you busy absorbing lines, forms and colours, an act of immersing you into art long before you arrive at a venue housing an exhibit. So, the more you trudge past the tree-sheltered boulevards abuzz with charming little cafes, shops, carts, hawkers, pazham pori, birds, goats and cattle; the more she lets you encounter new visuals and , perhaps, have you mentally reorder your list of favourite works all over again, tugging you to experience beyond the prevailing humidity. For the art here feels so raw, and real, unlike my fake silk scarf tied to my bag.

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You will then spot the ubiquitous RGB shades, typeforms made of strokes, and (as our auto driver described it) the windmill-ish icon: the official visual identity of the event, where spaces in Kochi welcome you to the venues you originally intended to begin your art encounters at. You will also find mildly faded hues on some wall sections with peeling paint patches from the previous few events – and between these avatars of fresh and faded visual identity lie visual and textual content to be dissected. (Anyone else who’s a fan of the old-school handpainted type? Surely lots more to love about Kochi with this edition!) What is incredible is this entire mix of elements from the event’s identity coupled with visuals and text forming a strikingly distinct and cohesive visual identity in itself, and seems to function like a lot like a compass at a certain level by letting you navigate into the heart of the place based on how densely populated the bylanes are with them.

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But there is more to the visuals that the walls of Kochi envelopes you with, both at exhibit venues and the surrounding hotels, restaurants and other spaces, beautifully overlapping with the hustling bustling daily life. Which is how she invites to you experiment with how you can document wall art, standing as testimony to the indefinite temporary presence of parked vehicles to people to cattle and birds. So, with the range of photographs that attempt to document the same can often accomplish more than just that – you can always, perhaps, spot the same piece of wall art, but never the same photograph. Can this also serve as a distinct visual identity throughout Fort Kochi, that outlives both the timeframe and the context of the biennale; merging into the thriving life and vigour her streets are alive with? For she has metamorphosed herself into an experience for you so selflessly, while she transcends containing art. You feel, she becomes.

 

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On the Nandi Betta Trail

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A revelation enroute to Nandi Betta

A tad bit later than our scheduled time, we were off riding to Nandi Betta over the weekend begun with a pleasant weather, not too hot as we whizzed past into the outskirts of Bangalore, away from fancy apartments, office buildings and deafening honking with slow moving traffic in some places, and into the Bangalore-Devanahalli highway. A quick breakfast at Nandi Grand on the way proved to be a great choice for the lip-smacking Sambar and tasty Shavige Uppittu we relished before we took off to reach Nandi Betta. A painted deity on a rocky hillside in Devanahalli (you’ll find it behind the Indian Paratha company) caught our attention with its stark blue and yellow colours against the sober brown surfaces, we decided to ride up and explore. And very early on the ride, this was our next best stop as we beheld the sight of the magnificent Shree Nakoda Avati 108 Parshwanth Jain Temple, after walking up from the sheltered parking area.

As the one of the temples within this sanctuary is still under construction, we had the wonderful opportunity of watching artisans meticulously carving on marble pillars forming exquisite patterns etched to perfection. The temple surfaces and statues are ravishing, and the left edge of the sanctuary houses a temple which opens to a little pillared courtyard with a ravishing view. After a delightful round of the sanctuary we headed back to the roads accompanied by vast stretches of land with cultivated flowers and grapes interspersed with small shops and the humble roadside worship spaces with a Hindu deity or two.

Hello hill fortress!

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The ride up to the charming hill fortress Nandi Betta was smooth with freshly tarred roads sheltered by trees throughout the hairpin bends give you a great view of the elevated land, apart from spotting gigantic Eucalyptus trees, monkeys and plenty of birds. Arriving at Tipu’s Fort was relieving in more ways than one, especially as you’d be dying to stretch your legs. You will find a parking area as you enter the fort, followed by stairs to walk up further. We found an unusually large number of vendors selling water, juice, ice cream, cut fruits and veggies and other quick bites, perhaps cashing on the festival rush. Oh, and is anyone else a fan of cacti? You’ll totally love the ones you’ll come across as you climb up from the entrance. The climate at the hilltop has been of avid interest to horticulturists as these forests act as substrates for cloud condensation, highly favourable for the growth of moist plant and animal species. The Horticulture Department is working on setting up a large-scale exotic botanical garden among other renovations. My disappointment was scores of names scratched onto the fort wall surfaces, and on the large cacti stems as well. Further from here, you can ditch the cemented steps for a while and head up the hilltop through the foresty clearing an ideal spot for bird watchers and photographers- we definitely spotted Flycatchers and Warblers. Beware of monkeys snatching eatables and water bottles though!

It was annoying to have a bunch of youngsters storm into these clearings where many were engrossed quietly spotting birds, only to scream out and make loud intrusive noises in the otherwise peaceful natural setting. Not sure if staff appointed to dissuade this behavior, like the ones regulating traffic at the fort entrance would help or if people need to be sensitized to respecting our rich biodiversity and environment – and so thought, perhaps- the flock of flycatchers that flew away with the manmade ruckus. We reached the Amruth Sarovara, a pristine water body formed by perennial springs enclosed on its edges by steps (temple pond, also referred to as Kalyani, Pushkarini, Tirtha, etc), in which large fish swam forming ripples in the tree laden reflections. The bamboo tree houses greeted us as we reached higher up, but were unfortunately closed for entry unlike the adjacent children’s play area teeming with children, adults and the occasional monkey exploring someone’s backpack.

On top of the ascend

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The final leg – walking up to the Yoga Nandeeshwara Temple, constructed by the Chola dynasty and dedicated to Lord Shiva – was flooded by devotees and vendors with carts of fruit, water and other snacks without a waste disposal system to accommodate the capacity of the generated scraps, it was extremely disheartening to see paper and plastic strewn all over the alluring hilltop. Also surprising to see the ‘Gili Shastra’ folks or soothsayers using parakeets to pick out cards and read the future, as I am not sure if it is a legal practice. Jolting through the crowd we reached the sunrise view point which is an absolute delight to walk through and be mesmerized with surreal puffs of clouds and misty air against the lush green landscapes and brown hills. Walking back is the Tipu’s Drop, known to be the spot where ruler Tipu Sultan had the condemned prisoners thrown to death. This compelling but fatal monument has a spectacular view of the hilly landscape it oversees, and these two spots seemed to be the hottest selfie spots for visitors.

Our walk downwards was blissful, flanked by the gorgeous bursts of seasonal yellow Tabebuia and  lavender Jacaranda blooms, the trees interspersed with sheltered spaces for resting. We rode back for a late lunch at the Indian Paratha Company, (just ahead of the Jain temple we explored during our onward journey) before gazing through sunsets reflected on glass windows we passed by on our way back, while I reflected on the day’s experience.

It seems to have become an ‘in’ thing to post pictures of travels although I am unsure how many of us are travelling with responsibility towards the environment. A bunch of us hope to have a clean up drive to clear out the plastic and paper waste to the capacity we can, both at the hills and within the city if possible, and we would love to know if there are volunteers up for the same.

‘Buri Nazar’ for Bengaluru’s trees?

With citizens enthusiastically protesting against the proposed steel flyover on Bellary Road and the road widening of Jayamahal Main Road in Bengaluru, I join in with ‘Buri Nazar?’- a Performance art in public space. The local custom of using ‘Nimbu-Mirchi Totka’ hung from entrances of homes, offices and restaurants to protect them from unwanted attention and strengthen their prosperity is ubiquitous to many Indian cities. So is ‘Buri Nazar Waaley Tera Muh Kaala’ painted vibrantly behind lorries. The act of stringing together these two representative elements to the tree bark is a metaphor in my performance, a visual representing much needed protection for these trees that await their fate.

It is shocking to note the numbers associated with the flyover project- 2244 trees, and 205 saplings from 71 species and 26 families are to be felled. This could result in severe ground water crisis, rise in pollution levels and summer heat as well as a tragic loss of substantial urban biodiversity habitats.(Source: Report by APU and Project Vruksha). While clogged roads and increased commute time are current problems, improving connectivity with the public transport system operating at regular frequencies could be a solution worth being considered instead.

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A date with Jonathan Koshy

No mushy candle-light dinners here, as the weekend swooshed between pages of my freshly autographed copy of the book. Commonwealth Prize nominated author and 6-times Pushcart Prize nominee Murzban Shroff launched ‘Waiting for Jonathan Koshy’ (published by Independent Thinkers, INR 295, 186 pages) at a private gathering with the lively Sumeet Shetty, President of Literati, India’s largest corporate book club hosting it at the British Council Library on October 1, 2016.

 

‘Waiting for Jonathan Koshy’ by the ad-man turned writer is the second book in his trilogy of writings set in Bombay. ‘Breathless in Bombay’- the first in the series, was subjected to court cases on the mistaken context of one of its regional lanuistic terms, and ironically, the book won many prestigious accolades abroad at the same time. Sensing these contradictory facets, Murzban weaves a larger than life personality dwelling in discrepancies in this character-driven piece. Explored through the eyes of his closest friends Anwar, Prashant, Dhruv and Gussy, we experience Jonathan’s audacious, outrageous and yet vulnerable presence.

 

The narrative brims with Bandra’s heavily contradictory essence, sheltering vastly different faiths and economies as an aggregation that is intensely shocking, witty, idiotic, right and wrong, all at once. There is a lively description of Anwar’s residence in Pali Hill, the default adda for scores of explorations and journeys, where friends create memories out of their own free will. Jonathan jokes,”104 Pali Hill is like Hotel California. You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.”

 

Jonathan is in murky waters of his turbulent personal life from a broken family. He manages to help friends, acquaintances, prostitutes, their kids and many who he encounters on the way; everyone except himself. For instance, he convinces the madam of the brothel to allow for a small party for Shabnum, the prostitute who had broken down to him, for a memorable birthday surprise. Trysts with Kavita Desai heading Manshakti, a non-profit organization counseling prostitutes and their children, inspires Jonathan to volunteer for constructive and meaningful work to uplift the boys there. He is conscious of a sense of responsibility dawning on him, devoting his time in teaching them to remain updated with recent happenings from news, sports and history channels on TV, engaging them in debates, imparting basic knowledge on Word, Excel and the internet, and everyone’s favourite – his drama classes.

 

There are entertaining instances that can leave you smiling baffled, like when Jonathan turns into a fictitious Prem Kotiyal, son of a shipping tycoon from London, a non-resident Indian who was a life member at the club, paving the way to getting himself and his friends live it up by the luxury poolside of “The Palms”, a club patronized by the upper crust of Bandra. Or when he feigns being a journalist working on a tip off to report the drug-ridden rave party that the cops had just bust into, covering up for being part of it in the first place. Add to this his exile from home, his distraught family, an inconsolable actress, two henchmen, from a politician and a multitude of interesting characters and situations.

 

On varied perception of people, Jonathan says, ‘This country is an original wonderland. It never fails to amaze me.’ For the creatives that he conceptualized using the visual of a snake in their HIV awareness campaign, the sponsors were impressed with it being a universal concept that instilled fear and encouraged people to take action. However, when the symbol was launched, people came up and prayed to it with folded hands and lowered heads, the context being that locals in India worshipped the snake, and had turned it into a symbol of their devotion. There seems to be a parallel to the people he meets, and the community at large itself, as in his words – ‘India is a woman, a puzzling, enigmatic woman. Try as you might, you can never figure her out. You can love her, yes, or feel frustrated by her, but you can never fully understand her.’

 

Personal demons that constantly catch up with him leave him with sticky decisions that are reflected upon later, like backing off from his otherwise great relationship with Ruchita wondering if he took the right decision leaving her when she had got pregnant. His strong feeling of burdening himself being in a serious commitment lead him to leaving the hapless girl left out quite suddenly. What brings the book together beautifully are the importance of all the minuscule acts of great love and care in our relationships that are otherwise taken for granted, like the stance taken by his mother Karuna Koshy after Priti uses her former husband Thampu Koshy for her professional benefit and then divorces him, leaving him shattered and suicidal. It lets Jonathan reflect on prostitutes he encounters, doing in the role of being mothers so that their kids can leave a better life, and people like Kavita, relentlessly fighting her hatred for a father who abandoned them, in working for the upliftment of the society in all the ways she can.

 

My takeaway from this reading is the witty and spirited attitude Jonathan rebounds adverse situations with, coupled with his dynamic sense of humour. And the journey, the passing, emphasizing redemption for those who persist till the end. Also on the ideation and effort behind the book itself, every land accommodates mindsets of all kinds of people, and that shouldn’t be a setback for any unbiased creative work, I think to myself as I await the third book.

Homebound

The sky was a washed blue with wishful slivers of clouds lost in its infinite expanse, and the sun was mild like a joyous dream. Amidst the mighty unmoving mountains, calm waters and the wildflowers waving lazily, the fragrance of the Earth enveloped my being, my throbbing soul. And in that instance, all I could do was smile, acknowledging our very insignificance in this world.