Why Fort Kochi and Mattancherry became the venue for the Kochi-Muziris Biennial

The Chinese fishing nets, centuries-old spice storehouses, old houses of worship and colonial bungalows that line the cobbled streets of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry all speak of a bygone era.

However, from December 12th to April 10th next year, these streets, warehouses and old mansions will be transformed into galleries of amazing art as part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, with installations by more than 90 artists from around the world.

Watch | What makes Fort Kochi and Mattancherry unique?

But why an arts festival here, in this derelict old commercial center on the outskirts of a modern metro city?

As a space for art

Bose Krishnamachari

Bose Krishnamachari | Photo credit: ASWIN VN

Bose Krishnamachari, co-founder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennial, says that when the idea for India’s first biennial was conceived more than a decade ago, Kochi was the obvious choice of venue. He says: “Location plays an important role when you set up a festival like a biennial and not only are Fort Kochi and Mattanchery an ideal place for creative projects, but also from a sociological point of view its multiculturalism gives us so much confidence .”

    A tourist walks past a building with graffiti art drawn for the 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennial in Fort Kochi

A tourist walks past a building with graffiti art created for the 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Fort Kochi | Photo credit: THULASI KAKKAT

Shubigi Rao, the Singaporean artist curating this edition of the Biennale, agrees with Bose’s view but adds that the Fort Kochi and Mattancherry warehouses can also present an artistic challenge. She says: “It can be difficult for artists who are used to working in White Cuban or museum spaces. However, for those who prefer to be responsive to the environment, these venues are beautiful.”

A story associated with Muziris

Built in 1568, the Paradesi Synagogue in the Jew Town area of ​​Mattancherry is a symbol of the area's cosmopolitan history

The Paradesi Synagogue, built in 1568 and located in the Jewish Town area of ​​Mattancherry, is a symbol of the region’s cosmopolitan history | Photo credit: ASWIN VN

Located at the mouth of the Port of Cochin, this country’s history stretches well beyond colonial times. The port is believed to have formed naturally after the great flooding of the Periyar River in 1341 AD. While the disaster set the stage for a new commercial center in Cochin, it is also said to have destroyed the mythical port city of Muziris, which used to be about 30 kilometers north of present-day Kochi.

A Chinese Fishing Net Fact

The parts of the nets are still known by their Portuguese names – for example Kalasandhi, Bolsa, Othara, Bras, Savaya, Arolla, Arasa and Armusan.

Chinese fishing nets (cheenavalas), the iconic cantilever nets brought to Kochi by the Portuguese in the 15th century, became the indelible trademark of Kochi

Chinese fishing nets (cheenavalas), the iconic cantilever nets brought to Kochi by the Portuguese in the 15th century, became the indelible trademark of Kochi | Photo credit: H VIBHU

Later, in 1503, the Portuguese built Fort Emmanuel, which gave Fort Kochi its name. However, it was later conquered by the Dutch in 1663 and by the British in 1790. Author and arts curator Tanya Abraham, who was born and raised in Fort Kochi, believes her hometown holds a unique place in Kerala’s history. “It’s a place that has brought multiple cultures from foreign lands. We have other places in Kerala where there have been traders. But in terms of having so many different communities that have settled down and survived all these generations and their food cultures and religious traditions that endure, what makes Fort Kochi very special,” says Tanya.

She believes that every single aspect of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry is unique – from the different architecture to the colors of the buildings, there is an unspoken mystery in the air due to the diverse communities that have lived here throughout history.

Challenging the western myth

Shubigi Rao

Shubigi Rao | Photo credit: ASWIN VN

Shubigi says that the existence of kochi and muziris also refutes the notion that cosmopolitanism is a product of colonialism and colonial trade. “There is this notion in Europe and the United States that they are the masters of globalization, and they are the ones who have produced cosmopolitan ideas through rather vicious means like colonialism and also through trade and so on. But there was a pre-colonial cosmopolitanism. The port of Muziris has apparently already traded with Mesopotamia and Babylon,” she says, adding that the Malabar coast has always looked out for the world and not inwards.

Therefore, this time she wants to bring together ideas from the colonial and especially the pre-colonial period to dispel this myth and show that there has always been a discourse between places like Kochi and regions around the world. “For example, the works of Vivan Sundaram that I have selected are works that he did decades ago when he first traveled to Latin America, and I just wanted to remind people that it’s not me when I talk about the discourse between South America and South Asia do something new. There is a legacy and a story here and this is just one example.”

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