Remembering the Kochi – Muziris Biennale 2012

The second Kochi – Muziris Biennale, the contemporary art festival, has been kick started recently in Kochi, Kerala, India. The festival runs from December 12, 2014 to March 29, 2015. Spread across 8 venues in Fort Kochi, this year’s festival will feature 94 artists from 30 different countries. Themed Whorled Explorations, the biennale will “bring together sensory and conceptual propositions that map our world referencing history, geography, cosmology, time, space, dreams and myths.” according to its website.

I attended the first biennale held in 2012 at the same venues and came back with some interesting images for a post. But I did not have a blog back then and posting these in Facebook seemed like a disservice to these complex renditions. Here are a few of these images since I think blogs elicit a bit more discerning audience.

‘Ways of Seeing’ by Vivek Vilasini

Vivek Vilasini’s works (and their titles, more so) seem pretty self-explanatory without a synopsis. Here, the artist explores the duality of perception through these images.

Ways of seeking - Vivek Vilasini
Ways of seeking – Vivek Vilasini

‘The Last Supper – Gaza’ by Vivek Vilasini

Yet another work that depicts the famous Last Supper painting but in an extremely unlikely setting.

The last supper gaza by Vivek Vilasini
The last supper gaza by Vivek Vilasini

‘Veni, vidi, vici – I came, I saw, I conquered’ by L.N. Tallur

Synopsis: Conquest is a basic human characteristic. At a macro level, history of mankind is full of conquering of the land, its being and its possessors. At a micro level, it is an attempt of conquer death, hunger and ageing. Hatha Yoga is the Yoga (union) of Ham (vital life force) and Tham (mental force). Hatha Yoga teaches how to conquer hunger, thirst, and sleep; how to overcome the effects of heat and cold; how to gain perfect health and cure disease without using drugs; how to arrest the untimely decay of the body resulting from the waste of vital energy; how to preserve youth even at an age of one hundred…

Vedi Vidi Vinci - L N Tallur
Vedi Vidi Vinci – L N Tallur
Vedi Vidi Vinci - L N Tallur
Vedi Vidi Vinci – L N Tallur
Vedi Vidi Vinci - L N Tallur
Vedi Vidi Vinci – L N Tallur

‘Untitled’ by Sun Xun

The Malayalam phrase reads ‘sathyathinu tolvi matram’ – loosely translated as ‘truth only loses.’

Untitled by Sun Xun
Untitled by Sun Xun

‘Untitled’ by Subodh Gupta

Synopsis: The boat suggests notions of migration and survival, experienced most acutely by the deprived masses of the society, which feature prominently in several past works of the artist. When the familiar world and home ceases to be what we know it to be, then the natural instinct of man compels him to convert that piece of boat into his home.

Untitled by Subodh Gupta
Untitled by Subodh Gupta

‘Untitled’ by M.I.A

Yes, she is a rockstar artist. True to her personality, this installation consisted of ‘ten brightly colored, 8 foot long print collages, framed with custom-built mirror mosaics. Built up of layers of saturated, digital colors and reflective, light-catching surfaces, the works feature 3D images of parrots, jungle foliage and gemstones, layered with photographs of crowds, children and cars.’ Totally multi-colored, totally M.I.A.

Untitled by M.I.A
Untitled by M.I.A
Untitled by M.I.A
Untitled by M.I.A

‘Tug of War’ by Jalaja

Duality in human identity. In Jalaja’s words: “Singly, person gains vitality; his emotions and aspirations become central to us all. When we look at him in a wider context, he is just part of a queue, a mob.”

Tug of war by Jalaja
Tug of war by Jalaja

‘The Sovereign Forest by Amar Kanwar’

Synopsis: The Sovereign Forest attempts to reopen discussion and initiate a creative response to our understanding of crime, politics, human rights and ecology. The installation seeks help from film, books and multiple media of various dimensions.

The sovereign forest by Amar Kanwar
The sovereign forest by Amar Kanwarf

 

‘The Ship of Tarshish’ by Prasad Raghavan

Synopsis: The Ship of Tarshish, while a Biblical reference, illustrates the essential deceptiveness and darkness of man’s heart. It is evil and self-seeking and in its wake are conflict and slavery. They (the British) came bearing their spiritual greatness and left bearing the wealth of the conquered.

The ship of Tarshish by Prasad Raghavan
The ship of Tarshish by Prasad Raghavan

‘Fado music in reverse’ by Robert Montgomery

“The strange new music of the crying songs of the people we left behind mixing as your boat touches stone here as my new bones touch your bones.” This poem, composed by Robert himself, is about “exile in light on the sea-facing facade of Aspinwall House.”

Fado music in reverse by Robert Montgomery
Fado music in reverse by Robert Montgomery

‘Erase’ by Srinivas Prasad

Synopsis: At the end of the viewing period the cocoon is set ablaze at night in a ritual that destroys the structure along with the thoughts, memories and confessions uttered within. All remnants of the construction are destroyed leaving nothing behind except sand.

Erase by Srinivas Prasad
Erase by Srinivas Prasad

‘Cloud for Kochi’ by Alfredo Jaar

Synopsis: The texts are written in reverse making them unreadable but poetic signs. By looking at their reflection in the water, they become readable. A fragment from one of the most beautiful poems ever written in any language: Kalidasa’s Cloud Messenger, choosing the segments related to water and clouds, and ideally locate these texts on the wall in the shape of a cloud. On one side, the text is in Sanskrit. On the other side in English.

Cloud for Kochi by Alfredo Jaar
Cloud for Kochi by Alfredo Jaar

‘Celebration in the Laboratory’ by Atul Dodiya

Synopsis: The photo installation Celebration in the Laboratory celebrates some of the contributors who have made Indian modern and contemporary art significant.

Celebration in the laboratory by Atul Dodiya
Celebration in the laboratory by Atul Dodiya
Celebration in the laboratory by Atul Dodiya
Celebration in the laboratory by Atul Dodiya

’72 Privileges’ by Joseph Semah

Synopsis: The story of the copper plates tells us about the 72 privileges that were granted to the Jewish and Christian communities by the last king of the Chera dynasty, Cheraman Perumal.

72 Privileges by Joseph Semah
72 Privileges by Joseph Semah

Miscellaneous Wall Arts

A wall art
A wall art
Another wall art
Another wall art

Are you going to the Biennale being held this year in Kochi? Leave a comment.

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Birds of my backyard – Part I

Not until I was given the basics of birding at a naturalist program I attended recently, did I start spotting various birds in my backyard. So far it was only the odd Bulbul or the Koel but now, to my astonishment, I can hear and distinguish between calls. Not that I can recognize the birds by listening to them but I can tell one call from the other and I have developed a keen ear for different calls. That’s a beginning, I suppose.

Since then, I have invested in a bird book and used it extensively to ID the birds (some of them are in this post too). I am supposed to invest in a binocular but prohibitive costs of a decent pair of binoculars will mean that I will have to wait until that happens. Meanwhile, take a look at these birds and follow on until at least you read the Rufus treepie story. Again, apologies for the not-so-great pictures.

Red-whiskered Bulbul

Extremely common in urban spaces, these raucous birds love fruits. I have found them gorging on ripe, splattered mangoes and papayas in the backyard every so often.

Red-whishkered Bulbul
Red-whishkered Bulbul
Red-whiskered Bulbul
Red-whiskered Bulbul

Peafowl

Peafowls are dime a dozen near my house in Kerala (Ottapalam, near Palghat) to the extent that they are considered pests by farmers. I am also assuming that the abundance of reptiles are sustaining them nice and well.

Peafowl
Peafowl

Sunbird

A visitor to my mango tree, Sunbirds are swift and agile making them difficult to photograph.

Sunbird
Sunbird

Brahminy Kite

Another commoner even in the urban landscape, these kites feed on reptiles. The overgrown plot next door houses a couple of their families and they seem to be proliferating.

Brahminy Kite
Brahminy Kite

Indian Grey Hornbill

There is a recent curious phenomenon of these guys being spotted everywhere  across India. These were spotted in Ottapalam, Kerala – the backyard of my house.

Indian Grey Hornbill
Indian Grey Hornbill
Indian Grey Hornbill
Indian Grey Hornbill

Oriental Magpie Robin

Another common species that are extremely jittery.

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Oriental Magpie Robin
Oriental Magpie Robin

Green Bee-eater

These are pretty and come right out of their hiding as soon as the rains stop to feast on the insects.

Green Bee-eater
Green Bee-eater
Green Bee-eater
Green Bee-eater

Black-hooded Oriole 

Another beautiful, yet noisy bird.

Black-hooded Oriole
Black-hooded Oriole

Asian Koel

Sometimes, this guy makes such a ruckus that it’s hard to get his ring out of my head long after he’s gone.

Asian Koel
Asian Koel

Rufous Treepie

This couple was spotted in my backyard in Kerala. They were making quite a racket that I decided to probe. I found out that their juvenile was just on the ground, probably practicing to fly. The parents were keeping a watch and would try to scare away cats and other predators when they passed along. As the day progressed, it became clear that their effort would become Herculean in protecting their baby.

I spotted a huge snake (rat snake, I presume) trying to find the baby for a meal. The parents, however, put up a brave fight chasing the snake for a long time with their catcalls. Did the snake succeed? I am not sure but I did not see the juvenile after that and the cackles of the adults subsided as well.

Rufous Treepie
Rufous Treepie
Rufous Treepie Juvenile
Rufous Treepie Juvenile
Rufous Treepie Couple
Rufous Treepie Couple

Like what you see? Or don’t? Why not let me know? Leave a comment.

 

Five ways to enjoy monsoons in Kerala – Photo Essay

As I sit hunched over typing this out, monsoon is finally reaching the shores of Kerala. One week too late but be that as it may, monsoons are an eternal source of joy for a rain driven economy like India. The fresh, earthen fragrance of the first rain, the blooms, the rain-washed trees, the swelling water bodies – the visions these torrential rains bring are none less lyrical. Most of all, as the season has long since wound up Kerala is free from the tourists that haunt its length and breadth during the rains. If you are an intrepid traveler, you will be rewarded for braving the rains. Few tips if you are a monsoon chaser.

1) Drive to Munnar

The quintessential tea country of God’s own country is awash with rains. The rain-kissed tea bushes are further embraced by rain carrying clouds. You will also witness rain-fed waterfalls along the way. Take a break at lakescapes when the rain stops briefly and enjoy photo-ops or unpack your picnic lunch.

Munnar's lush tree gardens
Munnar’s lush tree gardens
The drive to Munnar is as breathtaking as the location itself
The drive to Munnar is as breathtaking as the location itself

2) Rent a houseboat

They are not expecting tourists during rains so houseboats will be available for you at a bargain. Hire one but only after you negotiate. While on it, listen to the pitter-patter of rains on the roof while savoring delicious fish cooked by the staff. Or simply sit out and watch the rains fall and splutter into the backwaters.

floating cottages - poovar
floating cottages – poovar
Fishing in the rain
Fishing in the rain
Backwaters in the dusk
Backwaters in the dusk

3) Walk along Kochi’s marine drive

Look out for such aquamarine evenings during the monsoons while walking along Kochi’s marine drive. Carry an umbrella to avoid getting soaked in the rain but if that’s your thing, who am I to suggest otherwise?

Evenings in marinedrive
Evenings in marinedrive

 

Sights of the rain
Sights of the rain

 

Sights of the rain
Sights of the rain

4) Take a drive

Agreed Kerala’s city (even small town) roads are not in great condition and monsoons can only spell further doom to the already troubled roads. But get a little far away from the over-used roads and you will see what getting away means. You could even spot viewpoints and when the rains let up, enjoy the view.

Drive to find picnic spots like this
Drive to find picnic spots like this

5) Watch the monsoon at the comfort of home(stay)/hotel

If getting out of your accommodation proves tiresome, just relax at home over a hot cup of chai watching the monsoons. Or curl up with a book, plug yourself to you ipod. If you are keen enough, you can hear diverse birdcalls once the rains take a brief break. They come out to hunt for insects as soon as the rain is over.

Welcoming rains at home
Welcoming rains at home. Pic: Satheesh

Do you have plans to be in monsoon country this season? Leave a comment and let me know.

All pictures courtesy: Philip Mathew.

Pedals and the Pachyderm – Cycling in Wayanad

Harsha’s instructions with the precision of a cabin crew about the two-day long cycling trip in Wayanad feels repetitive to me – keep yourself hydrated, follow the map, tag along fellow riders, it’s Kerala so it will be hot and humid. Perhaps sensing my mild disinterest, he tells me, ‘you’ve travelled with us before.’ I have but this trip was unlike the ones before, I’d realize not too later.

the road

After a long night’s journey that involved detours and navigational complexities – because the driver trusted the lone strangers at bus stops in the middle of the night to ask for directions while a few fervent passengers among us tried to convince him Google maps is a better idea – we reach the town of Mananthavady in Wayanad district from where our two-day, roughly 160kms long cycling trip along the elephant corridor would begin.

Freshening up is followed by breakfast where I meet fellow riders over breakfast – Mike from Texas who reveals that he went on a bicycle trip looping South India twelve years ago starting and ending in Chennai traversing Kerala and Karnataka in the process. Pratik and Anuj are weekend city riders who are new to this kind of trip while Param and Phaneesh seem their sole purpose in coming on the trip is to dwarf every other rider’s efforts by reaching the finish line first in every single portion of the ride. There is also a family of four on the trip with two children, aged not more than 10 who, I would later find, spiritedly finish the trip.

I though, am never competitive but my tactic is to start at least half hour before everyone and reach the finish line at least to avoid being the last one to reach. So I set off, after checking my rented cycle for its fitness into the pleasantly chill dawn of Mananthavady’s roads. We are provided with a printout of a map, though the rider demography suggested that many rather use Google to find their way around. I lay my phone to rest back in the hotel room and seek help from the locals owing to my familiarity with the local language.

The first day’s ride involves riding up to the ancient Thirunelli temple in a thickly wooded area surrounded by the peaks through the north Wayanad wildlife sanctuary. Given how you see it, that poses one problem – at least for me. The thought of wildlife sighting when you are unguarded and on a bicycle already makes me feel jittery. Though I have sighted wildlife while cocooned in the confines of an automobile while driving through areas such as Bandipur, encountering an elephant herd on my own, exposed in all probable ways is never a pleasant proposition.

As if to mirror my contemplation, I hear affirmation of this piece of information from one too many locals I enquired while I pedaled into the road that cuts across the spine of the wildlife sanctuary. “It is an elephant region. Watch out when you ride,” I was told. Upon further questioning, I was also reassured that they won’t harm unprovoked and that I was to be careful. Careful, while exposed to the elements of nature? That I don’t know how.

Though those predictions gather collective fear in my belly and the often recurring signboards in yellow and black exacerbated my fear of an encounter with elephants, none happens. I hear birdcalls, smell crushed forest leaves and persist riding for the fear of elephants push me on. I finish the ride soon enough and arrived at Mananthavady to commence the second section that concludes at the Banasurasagar dam. An important tourist attraction and that being a Saturday, I wasn’t particularly enthused about the dam itself but the ride promised allure.

Banasurasagar dam hosts islands in the midst of its sprawling reservoir – said to have evolved from the submerging of land when the dam was built back in the 70s. Weekend revelers of school kids on excursions, couples and families populate the dam’s premises. The silent waters of the reservoir is ripped apart by speeding motorboats with tourists in orange lifejackets while the sun is a soft yellow in its crepuscular charm, getting to disappear behind the peaks.

The next day’s insouciance was a result of the largely descending landscape. The journey to Kuruvadweep Island from Mananthavady, roughly 20kms, takes all of two hours with good roads in order. But confusion ensues upon reaching Kuruva. Some of us want to take the bamboo raft and visit the island but the boat services do not open until after 10 a.m. The coordinators provide two options – one for people who want to ride back to Sulthan Bathery, the final destination from where our bus would pick us toward the return to Bangalore. I opt for the second, load my bicycle in the truck and board the bus to reach the other entrance of the Kuruva islands – roughly 16kms away from the main entrance.

While at least three fourth of the riders continue on the ride, I walk along the tall trees with barely-there roads towards the Kuruva’s entrance where tickets are sold and take the bamboo rafter ride that lasts all of 10 seconds. Kuruva turns out to be crowded than a mall in Bangalore with Sunday traffic in full attendance. But the walk along the awning of evergreen trees with birdcalls for company by the side of the river where signboards say ‘danger, watch out for crocodiles’ makes me forget the crowds. Entrance to the island is heavily monitored with plastic bottles being numbered before they are allowed to be carried inside. The island is also home to numerous varieties of birds, orchids and herbs.

I amble around for some time and return to the mainland. I find a tiny restaurant shack that sells the famous Kerala staple kappa and meen curry (boiled cassava and fish curry) and top it up with sliced pineapple in brine for dessert – my share of carbohydrates before boarding the bus and getting back to reality.

This appeared in Deccan Herald and can be accessed here.

Birds of paradise – birding in Thattekad, South India

The merits of off-season travel almost always outweighs the demerits, I have come to discover. Tropical India’s extreme summers are not conducive for travelling in the plains. After all, there is a reason why nobody would dare the unpitying sun – dying of sunstroke is not a pretty idea. The story during monsoon, however, is somewhat different.  You are left at the mercy of the whims of the monsoon, holding your breath – for a few hours of breather from the pouring rain.

Image

Malabar Gray Hornbill. Pic Courtesy: Abhilash Nair.

Either way, the tourist-sparseness of Thattekad is a completely different story. And it’s not because it is off-season at the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary or that the rain is beating down fairly heavy through the thickets of Thattekad’s rich vegetation. “We only get Indian tourists rarely and the ones that come are birding enthusiasts. But there are a lot of foreign tourists and every season they are constantly present here,” Vinod the owner of my tiny, two-roomed homestay tells me. Vinod and his family are among the few who live inside the sanctuary that is spread across 25 km² – of which 6 km² is occupied by families like his.

Because the tourist influx is low during monsoons and the season is no longer conducive for bird-watching, Vinod could offer me off-season rates, throwing in three meals a day. Though the single room with a toilet and a wash area is more than basic and clean, I didn’t care much for it because my room’s verandah overlooks the sanctuary and I could see the pale greenish waterbody, the Periyar River’s catchment area, beyond the house’s garden that is amply shaded with nutmeg and cocoa trees. The catchment area itself is home to very many cormorants, pond herons and white-throated kingfishers all looking for the obscure fish in the water. That apart, you could hear the calls of Indian cuckoo; it’s not for nothing the sanctuary is often referred to as the Cuckoo Paradise by birding enthusiasts.

Kayaking for water birds

On a sunny day, I set out for kayaking at the Hornbill Camp, by the banks of the Periyar River. Even during the summer season when the region receives extreme heat, Periyar has water to the depth of about 25mts since the waters in the Bhoothathankettu dam is not released, holding it up until the monsoons. The guided kayaking tour takes me through various lagoons formed by the reservoir water that also houses numerous birds and other wildlife. The Malabar Hornbill makes its belligerent voice-debut when I paddle along a lagoon but remains elusive until much later.

But you are guaranteed to spot plenty of other water birds – greater cormorants, darters, river terns. While the cormorants bask in the sun spreading their wings with their bills wide open, the darters otherwise known as snakebirds, plunge their bodies under water and swim with their long slithering neck that gives them the name. I also spotted black-headed oriole, Asian open bill and crested honey buzzard.  There are also the most common pond heron and egrets.

Discovering lagoons

As the rowing tires your shoulders out and the sun threatens to incinerate you, if you have a passionate guide with you who loves surprising his subjects with little explorations, he will take you to secluded lagoons of bamboo trees submerged in water.  Since the lagoons house a lot of fruit bearing trees, monkeys have made them their home and the curious of them will hop out of their comfort zones and swing dangerously on branches to peer at the human visitors.

Much of Thattekad’s sanctuary is off limits for tourists. The government of Kerala state, where Thattekad, is located has declared most of it as a buffer zone and hence the guides of this area have discovered secluded spots bordering the forest that has an abundance of bird life. I would set out on a bird watching trip one dawn with a naturalist hailing from Thattekad who has been taking people on such trips for a decade now.

Bird watching for novices

That morning’s bird watching, although started a little disappointingly, would convalesce slowly. The Malabar hornbill cackled from the high rise branches of tall trees, yet proved evasive to sight. But a little later, as if it was done playing peek-a-boo with us, the hornbill makes reappearance and proceeds to hop in nearby branches providing us photo-ops. This being the breeding season, with his glossy grey coat and yellow beak, that little fellow is looking for fruits to feed his partner who is hatching the eggs by sealing herself in the nest with just a narrow opening for feeding on the food.

The rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats is one of the reasons for the abundance of endemic bird life. I spotted the Pompadour Green Pigeons, Grey Headed Bulbuls, Pittas, Woodpeckers, Fairy Bluebirds, Chestnut Tailed Starling, Hill Myna, Great Tit, Sunbird, Plain Flowerpecker, Purple Sunbird and Orange Minivet in a short span of time.

The highlight of the trip would come a little later when Abhilash, our guide, spotted the nocturnal male Sri Lankan Frogmouth perched inside dense vegetation. Frogmouths are usually found in pairs and it’s rare to spot a single one, Abhilash claims. His claim is corroborated when we spot a female, just yards away from the male.

As the day wore on and the sun made headway, it was time to go – leaving the jungle to its ruminations. Only that luck would favor me yet again and one last sighting of a Great Back Woodpecker, distinguished by its egregious call. He would perch on a tall tree trunk and proceed to knock on it with his sharp beak until distraction arrives momentarily.  In a second, the Woodpecker vanished into the woods responding to the call of his mate leaving me with my camera aiming at an empty branch.

Fact File

Thattekad is about 60 km from the nearest airport, Kochi. Jet airways has regular flights to Kochi from all metros. A taxi ride will set you back by about 1500 rupees. Taxis are available in plenty from Kochi. Though the sanctuary could be visited throughout the year, monsoons season (June to September) gets unpredictable with regular rains and sparse sun. Not to mention, if you are lucky you can still spot birds like I did.

Stay:

There are a few home stays, like the Sanctuary View I stayed in, operate inside the sanctuary. Basic accommodation with all meals at Rs.700 (off season price, in season the prices could go up to Rs.1500 per night). Hornbill Camp is a highly rated eco-friendly lodge (Rs.5000 per night with all meals) located by the banks of the Periyar River.  The price includes a kayaking trip, cycling and a visit to the spice plantations.

This appeared in JetWings magazine in Oct’13.