Travel Diaries: Highlights from Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016

If Kochi is on your bucket-list of places to visit in India, be sure to plan a trip sooner rather than later as for the next three months it will be playing host to the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale…


Showcasing 97 artists from over 30 countries, the dizzying display of contemporary and experimental art is set sprawling across 12 venues dotted around this quaint port-town of Kerala (a.k.a. God’s Own Country).

In fact as I experienced, the striking settings are as much a highlight as the artworks housed within… From the old-world colonial architecture and elegantly decaying bungalows and warehouses to the quirky shops, cafés and galleries, the inherently unique culture and heritage of Kochi is a natural playground for the thrilling explorations that the Biennale entails.

The theme for this year ‘forming in the pupil of an eye’ invites viewers to move between time and space, between the seen and unseen to embrace different concepts of reality and reason (so easily distorted by sound and scale). What ensues is a thought-provokingly multi-faceted journey, enlivened through performative and interactive pieces.

It can be a tad overwhelming if you’re not quite sure where to start – so here are a few suggestions based on my recent visit… including a slight detour off the beaten path!


Aspinwall House

Rather conveniently, we were staying right next door to the main venue, Aspinwall House, and were able to easily pop in and out of the sea-facing compound – a gargantuan space encompassing a number of warehouses, residential bungalow and smaller outlying structures.

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Highlights here include “The Pyramid of Exiled Poets” by Slovenian poet, novelist and essayist Aleš Šteger – a mysterious pyramid-like structure in the central courtyard, beckoning passers by to wander into its pitch-dark interiors, guided only by the poignancy of poems voiced in a foreign language…

The medium of text and sound is powerfully channelled by Chilean poet Raúl Zurita as well, through her immersive installation “The Sea of Pain”.

“Don’t you hear me?

In the sea of pain…

Won’t you come back,

Never again,

In the sea of pain?”

The haunting words are printed on a side wall of the warehouse, to be read as you walk barefoot through the long body of seawater – an action that pays tribute to Alan Kurdi, a three-year old victim of the Syrian refugee crisis, whose body washed ashore a beach on 2 September 2015.

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Other memorable works include a wall dedicated to the works of painter Sunil Padwal…

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… And a life-sized model of a bathroom set, painstakingly created by artist Dia Mehta Bhupal using only recycled magazine paper – a technique that puts a preternatural spin on the familiar!

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Aspinwall, River Rd, Fort Kochi, Kochi, Kerala 682001


Heritage Art, Jew Town

A charmingly offbeat warehouse housing old antiques and  colonial furniture is another venue, showcasing the only design-based exhibition at the Biennale, Kissa Kursi Ka – a chairy tale, by Gunjan Gupta.

It was interesting to learn that the chair was only formally introduced in India by Vasco de Gama when he arrived in Calicut near Kochi, in 1498. Elevated seating at the time was symbolic of power, while Indian society primary sat on the floor or on mattresses… So it is this context in which one her main installations, the “Totem Pole”, features a pile-up of objects used as seating prior to the arrival of the chair!

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The series of sculptural seats is a canvas against which she explores the broader interaction between contemporary design and traditional Indian arts too… it’s definitely worth a quick walk-through, followed by a meander along the other antique shops beguilingly lining Jew Town road!

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Heritage Arts, Jew Town Road, Mattancherry, Kochi, Kerala


Gallery OED

A little further up the road in the historic Old Bazaar of Matancherri, you’ll stumble upon Gallery OED – a unique space, promoting contemporary art in a manner that is accessible beyond just art circles.

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Don’t miss the maze of large mirrored pillars installed right outside the gallery, which reflect the surrounding juxtaposition of old decaying banyan trees against the younger shoots, and the modern line-up of cars and motorbikes against the old abandoned warehouses which have since been converted into modern galleries… Visitors are encouraged to walk inside, with their reflection thus seamlessly moving between these old and new worlds!

Gallery OED 5/600, Bazaar Rd, Mattancherry, Kochi, Kerala 682002


Durbar Hall

While most of the Biennale hubs are situated in the historic pocket of Fort Kochi, key venues in the main city include the recently renovated Durbar Hall, which was originally built in the 1850s by the Maharaja of Cochin to host his Royal court.

We’d popped in on our way back from the airport, to find ourselves walking right into our dreams with video/ language artist Gary Hill’s media-based installation, The Dream Stop.

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Blurring the lines between mirage and reality, the focal structure – a dreamcatcher – caught us in the moment (courtesy 31 embedded cameras), projecting the live feed onto the surrounding walls… A hypnotically surreal sight to behold, for sure!

Durbar Hall Rd, Ernakulam South, Ernakulam, Kerala 682011


Other key venues include the waterfront heritage property, Pepper House with its ‘godown’ architecture and courtyard set sprawling over 16,000 square feet – expect to find a library, TV room and cafe here too alongside the art gallery.

The Dutch bungalow-style David Hall is worth a visit too if you fancy rifling through the boho-chic rails of Nico Bar’s pop-up shop (think stylishly comfy clothing and Anthropology-esque home accessories), followed by fresh-from-the-oven wood-fired pizzas in the garden cafe.

And then there’s Kashi Art Cafe (another former Dutch property) – a focal point in the city’s contemporary art scene with a permanent collection of artworks on display and an irresistible array of cakes on offer too. This foodie cannot recommend it enough, if you’re looking to cool your heels and refuel between hopping across venues!


Of course, this was just a short snapshot of the art and cultural extravaganza that the Biennale represents. If you’ve visited as well, please do share your recommendations/ highlights in the comments below!


The Kochi Biennale runs for 108 days, from December 12, 2016 until March 29, 2017. For more details on exhibitions, venues and the line-up of performances (poetry recitals, dances, instrumental music, theatre etc.), have a look at their website

For more on what else to do, see and eat in Kochi, do read the next chapter of my Kochi Diaries, here.


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