Posted by: cochinblogger | July 10, 2009

The Blue-Veined Beauty

Hi, this is Cochin Blogger at your service. I’m based in a town called Cochin (officially, Kochi) in the state of Kerala, which is perched at the southern-most tip of India. It’s just a stone’s throw from Sri Lanka, and is famous for its unique natural beauty. Kerala is a slim, blue-veined beauty, with canals, backwaters, lagoons, rivers, lakes, ponds, and puddles galore, a thin strip of land caressed by the waters of the Arabian Sea.

Kerala’s trademark is tropical fecundity. It’s a paradise that is still largely unspoiled because of the low level of industrialization. Kerala first hit the international headlines when it voted the communists to power in 1957, this being only the second time communists anywhere in the world have formed a popularly elected government (the first time was in the tiny republic of San Marino).

Right, I’m signing off now. I’ll be sure to keep you posted. 🙂

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Posted by: cochinblogger | September 30, 2017

Kochi-Muziris Bienale 2016-2017: A Visit

The Bienale, since the inaugural edition in 2012, has been a cultural hotspot in the city of Cochin. The current edition was about to come to a close, and I was yet to visit it. Reams and reams had been written about it in newspapers and magazines, and the tourists in the boat jetty India Coffee House seemed, from overheard snatches of conversation, to be either headed for the Bienale or returning from it. Finally, two days before the closing day, I put all work aside and headed out to Fort Kochi, the nerve center of the Bienale. Naturally, I took the boat, which is cheaper than the bus, takes just seven minutes versus forty minutes by bus, and is a pleasant joyride, something the bus ride will never be.

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At the jetty, the notice at the head of the queue (see above) confused me. Where were males going to Fort Kochi supposed to line up?? Given the god-like arbitrariness with which rules are often framed in my beloved country, males heading for Fort Kochi could well be expected to line up at the counters at the back of the jetty. Indians have a well-developed tolerance to ambiguity and uncertainty in their lives; it's a prerequisite for survival here. I asked someone in the queue; yes, the line for males bound for Fort Kochi or Mattancherry was right here. The queue behind me lengthened to serpentine proportions in minutes. A harried looking elderly man tapped me on the shoulder and asked if this was the line for males traveling to Fort Kochi. I said yes, and offered to get his ticket too. He was grateful, having been spared a long wait standing in the queue. We had to stay together on the boat as our tickets were issued on the same slip of paper. At the end of the boat rode, we decided to see the Bienale together.

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We entered the main venue, Aspinwall House, which was crawling with visitors like ourselves. The Bienale has been a tremendous success by any yardstick, and I still marvel at the enthusiasm it generates among the largely cynical tribe of Malayalees. The first exhibit was startling. It consisted at first glance of photos of people dressed in stylish clothes, but there was something odd about the people I couldn't put my finger on. Each exhibit had a notice comprising a few explanatory lines put up on the wall, and it was from this that I learned that the people in the photos were dead. Yes, you read that right: dead. The artist is Arzamasova of Russian, her artwork is called Defile, and her motivations are explained in the following photo. I wonder how she got her subjects to volunteer. 🙂

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Emerging, somewhat disturbed, from this macabre display of the dead attired in the height of fashion, our gaze wandered around the quadrangle, which was dominated by a giant pyramid in the center of the square. The exhibition space was in the buildings lining the sides of the quadrangle. The pyramid piqued our curiosity, so we went there next. Coming close on the heels of the encounter with the fashionable dead, the pyramid experience was unsettling. It was pitch dark inside, and I had to inch forward tentatively by feeling the walls of the narrow passage. Disembodied voices, muttering something I could not discern, added to the eeriness. The floor, made of earth, was uneven, with projecting ridges. My companion switched on his mobile, and aided by the feeble light from the screen, we stumbled forward. It felt as though we were trapped inside a gigantic, malevolent womb. The unearthly voices continued to mutter like evil spirits at a haunting. Had I provoked a mummy's curse? We were dazed when we finally emerged into daylight. Only then did we learn that the voices were of famous poets like Auden reciting their poetry. In the light of this knowledge, I was tempted to return, but time was limited and there was much to cover.

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From this point onward, however, the shadows retreated, and what I as a layman understand to be art asserted itself. From my visit to the first Bienale of 2012 I knew that the concept of art has expanded far beyond framed pictures in galleries viewed at arm's length. Many works of art are now complex enough to be described as installations. Of course, framed pictures have their place.

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The Mayor of Cochin, Soumini Jain, was also visiting the Bienale with a small entourage. I took this photograph along with the photographer who accompanied her. Indeed, the whos-whos of Kerala have visited the Bienale, from movie stars to politicians.

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The next exhibit was a 12 meter scroll, Ye Tan Tu, by the Chinese artist Yang Hongwei. It had some explicit content. According to the blurb, the scroll "examines the way sexuality and society's problems have been shut out of a historical narrative in China."

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In the spirit of art as a full-body sensory experience, Johansons, a Latvian artist, produced THIRST, which is a video recording of a stormy North Atlantic. We sat in a darkened room and gazed at a large screen on which foaming waves drew themselves up high and came down with a ear-splitting crash. If we were adrift on a small boat, alone, in such waters …

For me, the pick of the exhibits was Multiple Choice by the Austrian artist Martin Walde. You enter a dimly lit room, to behold a human figure reclining backward on small chair. A spotlight is trained on him. He doesn't look at ease; in fact, he seems to be in torment, in great pain. The exhibit blurb reveals that the figure is made of a single block of wax and the beam is an infrared ray whose intensity is increased by the movement of the spectators in the room. As the intensity of the beam increases, the heat generated by it also increases, causing the figure to melt. The beam is switched off only when the spectators leave the room. To me, the man slumped in the chair perfectly symbolizes the predicament of the human species today. Anything we do as a species only seems to accelerate our impending extinction on Earth. This creative use of technology to capture our existential dilemma in an interactive work of art will live with me for long.

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Orijit Sen's Playces was where we spent the most time, in fact, much, much more time than we had budgeted for. The artwork was bright and sunny, like the panels in the Tintin comics I became addicted to as a schoolboy. The overarching theme was places, specifically, Punjab, Goa, and Hyderabad. We did not get beyond the Goa exhibit, which mesmerized us. At the entrance was an irresistible offer: Answer five questions based on the exhibit, and we could take home an Orijit Sen artwork (that explained the "play" in Playces, a portmanteau word that combined "play" and "places"). I picked up five slips of paper and got to work. Some of the questions could be answered easily, but others were more difficult. There were a handful of us playing this game, and we were rushing to and fro between the two rooms that housed the Goa exhibit. Team spirit was much in evidence, as we helped each other answer our respective questions. It was great fun — and time consuming. By the time I had won my prize — after which my companion insisted that he had to win his prize — there was little time left for the remaining exhibits. But who cared? We had an exhilarating time.

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The most moving exhibit was by the Chilean poet, Raul Zurita. To read the poems, one has to walk through knee-high seawater. One reads the poems standing in seawater. The aim of the exhibit is highlight the Syrian refugee crisis, in particular, its most heart-rending frame, the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying on a beach. The Sea of Pain is dedicated to Alan's brother, Galip Kurdi: "I'm not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son."

I wondered if a similar concept could be applied to help us experience the horror of, for example, a suicide bombing. Imagine the visitor forced to step into a scene with mangled bodies on a devastated street, blood dripping on us from the high ceiling, with audio from real-life bombings playing in the background. That, I imagine, would disrupt our phlegmatic terrorism-as-newspaper-headlines mentality.

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After this, it was time to head back home. I took leave of my friend (who told me he had retired from UC College, Aluva; afterward I deduced his identity, but that is neither here nor there), who wanted to visit another Bienale site, and went the delightful bar overlooking the backwaters, Seagull. There, over a beer, Kerala parotta, and Kerala beef roast, I reflected on what I had seen, heard, and touched. The Bienale has to be taken in small doses. It has to be consumed and digested slowly, as a python ingests a deer — else one would be overwhelmed.

For the next edition, I resolved to spread my visits over the duration of the event instead of trying to cram everything in one visit.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | August 31, 2017

Despair and Hope in the Newspaper Classifieds

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I go through the newspapers thoroughly, scanning each line for something of interest, and sometimes I'm rewarded with pure gold for my pains. This photo in the classifieds, though, invited attention to itself. The words are plaintive, pleading, tearful. The boy in the photo is so young.

Srirama was apparently born on August 18, 1983. That would make him 34 years old today. "Twenty-fifth birthday without you" indicates that the parting occurred when the boy was just 9 years old, in 1992. What happened? Did the boy run away? Was he abducted? Did he go missing in a large crowd?

I then remembered that I had seen the same ad last year. Yes, it was there among my photographs of last year (see photo below). Every year without fail someone puts out this ad in the hope that the boy, now a young man (if he is alive), will see the ad and respond.

It's heartbreaking.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | July 31, 2017

Touchings

I was in a bar. Sitting opposite me was a regular with whom I had developed a casual acquaintanceship, amounting to nothing more than a few words exchanged each time we happened to bump into each other at our favorite watering hole. Bars used to get crowded in the evenings (no longer true with the semi-prohibition in force today), and one often had to share the table with strangers — which is how conversations began, sometimes producing a companionship of sorts.

The man opposite me was describing the virtues of the bar we were in, contrasting it with the bar we used to visit before the advent of the semi-prohibition, which restricted most bars to serving nothing stronger than beer. "The touchings here are great!" he exclaimed. I was puzzled. It wasn't a word I was familiar with. He must have read my face, because he elaborated by listing his favorite snacks served in this bar. It was then that I understood what "touchings" meant. Food. Subsequently, I heard others use the word and was able to home in on a more precise meaning: "Light snacks." The precise English equivalent, I suppose, is hors d'oeuvres. "Touchings" is the word below "CLOCK" on the signboard in the photo above.

One of the favorite English words used in Kerala in everyday conversation is "glamor." It is the word tossed teasingly — sometimes even mockingly — at someone who is dressed to kill for the evening. "Glamor" is a right-proper English word; "touchings" is not in the dictionary. I wondered about its etymology. Why "touchings"? Perhaps because they are typically small pieces picked up with the tips of the fingers and deposited in the mouth in one rapid movement; so quick is the passage from plate to mouth that the food is barely touched in the process.

Hence, touchings. If you have a better explanation, I'd like to hear it.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | June 26, 2017

Eid Mubarak 2017

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28 June Update:

It occurred to me after posting this that the photo tells a little story. The man looks away from the camera. He seems a little aggrieved. Moments earlier, camera in hand, I'd asked his permission to take a photo. A little aggressively, he asked: "Why?" I smiled to try and disarm him and said, "You all make such a nice picture." He then gave his grudging assent and nodded to his sons to look at the camera. But as is clear from the photo, it is an instruction he himself did not follow.

The boy at the extreme right is not looking at the camera either; he is looking at his father for guidance on what he should do. He knows that his father is not at ease. The youngest boy, in the center, is not sure what to make of this unexpected entrance of a stranger-cameraman in his life, but he gazes at the camera with the innate curiosity of the very young of all species. He is reassured by the firm grip of his father on his hand. The boy on the left is secure of his place in the universe — he welcomes this deviation from the routine with a warm smile.

Let me make it very clear that I am not annoyed bythe father's "civil disobedience" — I would be as suspicious if I were in his place. One cannot be too careful these days. I thank you, sir, for rising above your natural caution and allowing me to take this beautiful photo of a father and his three young sons, resplendent in their new clothes, on their way to a prayer or celebration on an Eid morning.

Eid mubarak!

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Posted by: cochinblogger | June 21, 2017

Relentless Search for the Perfect Adjective

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Posted by: cochinblogger | June 16, 2017

The Reluctant Spidermen

Houses in Kerala have traditionally been built with sloping tiled roofs. Then the British came and built their bungalows the way they did back home, with flat roofs. The result was perhaps predictable: flat roofs became a status symbol. Locals began copying this new style, and houses with flat roofs proliferated throughout the state. However, it soon became evident that the flat roof was an unwise choice: rainwater accumulated on the roof, causing seepage and leakage problems. Our ancestors must have learned from bitter experience that in a wet state like Kerala, the sloping roof is a wise design choice.

Our house is old and has a flat roof, with the result that we had a serious leakage problem on our hands after we moved in. Water dripped onto the dining table, and walls became damp. We called experts, who came brandishing magic potions which they applied on the roof, but nothing worked. Water invariably found an invasion route. Bitumen sounded promising, but its application was a prohibitively messy affair. Finally, I took the easy way out: an aluminum super-roof was erected over the flat roof. This was a technique that was then becoming popular in the city as a reliable solution to the leakage problem in houses.

The man who fabricated and installed our aluminum roof, Joseph, did it single-handedly. Today, more than twenty years later, the roof is still going strong, and I have not had to repair it even once. I'm thankful to Joseph for his recommendation to use the more expensive aluminum rather than iron, on grounds of long life. A neighbor has had to replace several sheets of his iron roofing on account of rust; I thanked Joseph mentally as I saw this work in progress.

Joseph was a small-statured man, very nimble on his feet. He sprang and swung like a monkey around the roof as it came up. I remember the alarm I felt when I watched him once walk on a newly erected sheet to its very edge, lie down, and work on a truss below, more than half his body dangling over the edge, sometimes holding onto a post with one hand and sometimes wedging a foot behind it. He had no safety equipment. When I asked him about the risk, he just laughed. This is typical of the lackadaisical attitude to safety in India: we'd rather cut a few corners than do it the right way. Joseph, thanks to his years of experience, could get away with it, but the construction sector in Kerala today employs young migrant workers, many of whom have very little relevant work experience and are trained on the job instead. Sadly, tragic accidents happen regularly. A momentary lapse of concentration, a misstep, a sweaty palm — any of these can precipitate a deadly plunge from the heights. Joseph operated on my roof like the man in the photo below, who is doing the same job: erecting a metal rain shelter for the house.

The photo that tops this post shows a young worker at a dangerous height without safety equipment. This is not bravado; he has no choice, as he has a living to make. If he is a migrant, an outsider, he is at the mercy of the contractor and is even more helpless than a local. Today, migrants make up much of the labor pool in the state. With the current construction boom, all you need to do to spot a reluctant Spiderman when walking the streets is to look up.

And the rules on worker safety? Ha, ha, ha! They are not worth the paper they are written on; contractors flout them with impunity, and those charged with enforcing the rules must have been given good reasons to look the other way.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | June 13, 2017

A Conclave of Monsoon Clouds over Willingdon Island

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I shot this from Subhash Park. Yes, the monsoon is well and truly here!

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Posted by: cochinblogger | May 31, 2017

A Game of Chess on Marine Drive

Posted by: cochinblogger | April 30, 2017

Mobile Bath

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We are in the midst of a burning summer in Cochin. Many rivers have dried up, and the state has been declared drought hit. The land of 44 rivers is parched. That one of the wettest states in the country — indeed, the state where the monsoon is born — should be reduced to this ignominy underscores the seriousness of the problem.

In this kind of weather, one must be careful about venturing out without protection. Heat stroke is a real danger. I always carry an umbrella, and on a hot day when the autos were on strike, I had to walk to a distant shop to make some purchases and then return home on foot. It was a daunting prospect, and as the first wave of heat hit me when I stepped out, I felt like turning back. But I was on a vital provision-stocking mission and so had to plough on. Provisions purchased, I was trudging homeward, perspiration seemingly pouring from every pore in my body, when I spotted the van (see photo above).

My first thought was these good samaritans were offering baths to people like me battling the heat on the roads — and indeed, if that were the case, I'd have signed up for a mobile bath, so great was my need for relief from the relentless heat. However, after reading the fine print, I wised up. No, the van was on a mission alright, but not the mission I'd imagined. The van, operated by the Sehiyon Missionaries (a Kerala-based ministry, as I learned by Googling), offered a bath and haircut to the homeless on the street.

Within a few minutes, I was witness to the operation, as illustrated in the photo below.

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The poor chap seemed grateful for the haircut. After the haircut, he would be treated to a bath in the van and a change of clothes. Truly a noble endeavor!

A few years ago, I'd posted on something similar: The Hobo Washers. I now regret the critical tone I used in that post.

As long as the haircut and bath are not imposed on a person against his or her will, it's a service to those whose home is the streets.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | March 28, 2017

Viva Fidel!

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Fidel Castro is hugely popular in Kerala, so this should not have come as a surprise. Still, it was an unexpected, startling sight. I pass that building often, and the last person I expect to see on the balcony is — Fidel.

I applaud the creative spirit of whoever placed it here. This looks like a scene from Havana. The dilapidated building adds to the effect.

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