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March 15, 2017

Tracing The Histories That Bind Venice and Kochi

Text by Madhu Jain

Venice and Kochi are more than just haunts for biennale-goers

Legend has it that Marco Polo was so bowled over by a dish he ate at the palace of the Emperor of China, that he stopped in India on his way back to Venice after being told that the ‘meat’ in the preparation he had so relished had come from Kerala. It would take an enormous amount of suspension of disbelief to swallow this story, told to me by an earnest-eyed artist whom I recently met in Kochi.

So, I ask how the meat could be shipped all the way to China (more likely, if at all, to the court of Genghis Khan) and still be edible in pre-refrigeration days after such a long journey. Evidently, the Kerala-based artist I meet at Aspinwall House — the main venue of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) — half-believes the tall tale. “Perhaps they sent the live animal to China. We were told these old stories in my school, in the village which is not far from Ezhimala in North Kerala where Marco Polo disembarked in the 13th century.”

When my right eyebrow arches even higher, he quickly adds, “My teacher wanted to show us how important Kerala was — how connected it was to the rest of the world.”

Marco Polo mentions going ashore in Ezhimala in his travelogue Book of the Marvels of the World. In the 12th century, ships from China and elsewhere sailed past this ancient port. However, the Venetian merchant-adventurer was a bit of a braggart; many historians believe that he concocted at least a few of his tales. Probably. But they were good stories. Kochi is also fertile soil for myths and legends.

My passage from Mumbai to Kochi is far less exciting. But when I join three friends at the airport, there is a palpable sense of excitement in the air. Two planes from Delhi and Mumbai touch down a few minutes apart, offloading scores of people headed for KMB, which is to open the next evening. We are four, but feel like the adventurous five from the Enid Blyton stories which nourished our childhood and fed our collective imaginations — turning us into explorers of the Kochi of today and of its past.

The city appears like an excavation site: history pops up at every turn as centuries-old and abandoned warehouses on the waterfront keep getting transformed into venues for the Biennale, as it expands its tentacles and becomes more assured about its ambitions. Piggybacking on its ancient avatar as a centre for global trade and well-documented cosmopolitism, astute entrepreneurs and Kochiwalas are converting historic buildings into hotels and homestays.

The range of places where history lies, almost unstirred under the ground beneath your feet, well perhaps even your bed, is huge. You have the rather modest Vasco da Gama House in Fort Kochi; the Portuguese nobleman and explorer who was the first person to sail directly from Europe to India in the late 15th century is said to have lived here. He was buried in the nearby Saint Francis Church — where his body rested for several years before it was removed to Portugal.

Brunton Boatyard, the tastefully plush watering hole for the elite, resurrected from a Victorian shipbuilding yard, is at the other end of the ‘posh’ scale. It is, inarguably, the most coveted. The crème de la crème of the art world and an increasing number of groupies, who hop from one biennale to the next and ‘lit fest’ to ‘lit fest’ in their quest for an intellectual cachet, converge here during KMB. Breakfast at Brunton is the thing to do, where women and men come and go while discussing the coming of age and vibrancy of the Biennale. Not to forget the new boutiques which have opened on Princess Street and where you get the best organic spices.

Our home in Fort Kochi, Fort House — a stone’s throw from Aspinwall House — has not been resurrected from a distant past. But it is enchanting, our every whim taken care of by forever-smiling staff: who always appear freshly bathed and dry while sweat dribbles down our faces. The first evening, we dine under a star-studded sky on what must have been a jetty for small boats. The fish moilee is to die for, as is the mutton fry. But what really transports me to another time is watching the ferries, fishing boats, trawlers and ships passing by on the Arabian Sea.

Even more than observing the traffic on the aquatic highway, it is the resonating sound of the foghorns that mesmerise, as if you were nestling in the womb of history. Horizons disappear. Close your eyes and you could be at the Bosphorous in Istanbul. Or in the Lagoon in Venice, serenaded by the foghorns of the vaporettos. Like sirens, they beckon you towards the sea and other eras. I can’t stop thinking of Venice. Kochi could not be more different. Yet, there is something similar about their biennales. Both take place in heritage buildings in historic cities located by and on the water. They were long open to the rest of the world — one on the Adriatic Coast, the other on the Arabian Sea. The two events have to compete with the places in which they unfold. Actually, the more I think of it, Venice and Kochi are like metamorphosing installations. In both, the city spills over into the biennale and the biennale into the city.

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