“Kochi, formerly called Cochin, is a former European settlement with a large Christian population and a seafaring heritage. It is a town of enormous charm that reminds some visitors of the Caribbean more than India.” – Gary Weiss

The second Kochi Biennale

Kochi, or Cochin, as it used to be called, is an international city and an artist community. It felt familiar, maybe because it was a Dutch and later a British colony. Our neighborhood has many old, dilapidated buildings mixed with funky, hip boutique shops, restaurants, and hostels.

We happened to visit while the second Kochi Biennale was taking place. Throughout the exhibit’s venues, the creative energy and enthusiastic crowds were dominant presents. It was a treat!  

Danna’s description of the experience:

We learned about the Second Kochi Biennale from a terrific group of Indian architecture students and decided to spend a few days in Kochi. It was a treat indeed, seeing the great art and, even more, getting a bit of insight into the contemporary Indian art scene and how the curators, artists, and attendees see themselves in relation to the global community.

The exhibition is spread throughout the city. The theme of Whirled Views/Whorled Explorations is set with a sprinkling of videos, including the Eames’ ‘Powers of Ten’ and different episodes of Michael Stevens ‘Vsauce’ at several venues. The curators gathered artists looking back to history, creating the future, and mixed it up with culture, science, and a little bit of magic to serve up a feast for the senses.

When science and mathematics are illustrated thoughtfully with a fine craft and whim, they hold a beauty that is beyond cultural aesthetics. There were two examples in particular that knocked my socks off (or would have if it was cool enough to wear socks)

The first is a model train installation by Ryota Kuwakubo, a Japanese artist, who placed a landscape of materials from local Kochi markets around a model train track, illuminated the locomotive light while the rest of the room was dark. The shadows cast on the room’s four walls by the various objects are sometimes evocative of forests, cities, crowds, and other times only familiar to the subconscious, but the experience is delicious and mesmerizing. (Photo is with the lights ON)

The second is an interactive piece that feels like Alice in Wonderland but is called “Between the Pages” by Indian artist Sumakshi Singh. The catalog says that the piece refers to ‘the history of Kerala, both as a protagonist in the maritime voyages of the 14-17th centuries and as a vibrant center where early astronomer-mathematicians were fiercely pursuing the problems of locating themselves and the earth within the cosmos. Singh uses paper scrolls illustrated with lyrical hand drawings and projected moving images to create a stage set that the viewer both moves through and then inhabits as the hidden cameras capture the viewers and project them onto a screen.

The exhibition runs through the end of March, but the team is already planning the next one in 2016, so there is plenty of time to make travel arrangements!

The Jewish community in Kerala

Jews have lived in Kerala since the days of King Solomon. From the 5th to the 15th century, Jews had an independent principality ruled by a prince of their own choice. Mr. George, the Cochin synagogue usher, told us about two sub-groups of Jews within the community: one kept the name Pardesi, meaning “foreigners.” They claimed direct descent from Yemeni Jewish people. Ranked below them were people who became known as Black Jews. They have mixed Indian and Yemeni ancestry. During the 1950s, most of the community emigrated to Israel, closing a circle that started over 2500 years ago. It is important to note that Kerala’s Jews lived in peaceful coexistence with their neighbors for most of those years, unlike their fellow Jews in Europe and Arab countries.

The Indian way of things, frustration, and how to deal with it?

Some say that India’s economy will rank third worldwide by 2030 – I am skeptical. India is a place of great fusion between West and East, a place of many religions and ethnicities; thus, its founders believed that the only forces that could free the people from the weight of the past are: democracy and secularism. From that perspective, India is a great success story because overall, tolerance, acceptance, and lively political life are the rule.

Unfortunately, colonialism’s wounds pushed its founders to create a self-sufficient economy void of competition and free of capital flow. A failed economy was built in the process, which only since the mid-90s is attempting to change. Yet the system is not efficient. The bureaucratic machine is slow and cumbersome. Unless one “greases” the way, not much can be accomplished. For example, if you have an electrical problem at your house and you call the municipality for service, you need to pay someone under the table; otherwise, you are doomed to wait a long time before a maintenance specialist will show up. In the West, it is considered corruption; in India, it’s a way of life.

How does that relate to my experiences of feeling frustrated while traveling in India? There is a saying, “expectations are resentments under construction.” When I apply my “American norms” to some encounters, it is no surprise that I can get frustrated. For example, business deals not getting fulfilled as promised, dealing with government bureaucracy, and negotiating a purchase price can be challenging. My advice is to stay out of your expectations and instead adjust to the Indian flow of things, use curiosity, a smile, and joy, and always remember the Golden Rule: “Whoever has the gold has the power.”