Img 1. In front of Tal Mahal
That was the first sounds I heard upon walking into one of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale venues near Fort Kochi Beach. I had no idea what to expect, or what I was expecting. All that was in my mind when I got on the transfer flight from Mumbai to Kochi, was the tremendous amount of naans and cold kappi I just had over the past few days… a little too obsessively, while refreshing the weather app on my phone a little too avidly, and guarding my bag a little too alarmingly. But here in Kochi, it feels different from the dazzling spice markets where I got bags of teas to bring back for friends. It feels different from the solemnness that was present at monuments in the cities. It feels different without cars, trucks, tuk-tuks, and people on bikes racing against each other all at once. The sun seemed to be hitting my skin like a playful mosquito that hadn’t bitten yet, but was just lurking around. There was a sense of relaxation in the air that was lowering my guard.
Img 2. A friend interacting with an installation at the OED Gallery for Kochi Biennale.
Counting on the vibrant colours of postcolonial performances I was expecting behind the black entrance curtain at David Hall, the rhythmic sound came from a piece by contemporary dancer, Padmini Chettur, who runs her own dance company in India. As if I was a ghost audience in a masquerade, I find myself quietly residing in the corner of the room, wishing I could go into a world that had never existed in mine, while coexisting in the world with other audiences and tourists in the room. A world that could only be created by minds that have grown up being constantly stimulated and influenced by the daily confrontation of spices and local assortments in their surroundings.
Shortly after visiting multiple venues on the island occupied by works from the Kochi Biennial, I went to see a different side of this island where another kind of sound was presented. In Kalikotta Palace, performers spent five hours at a time to apply makeup and put on costumes in the way that was passed down from years ago, to present an intense two hours performance, Kathakali. The time went by quickly as I got lost in how the coconut and colour powder mixtures transformed the performances’ aura and character completely; I got lost in mythical characters that seemed zoetic and very much alive. The organizers were kind enough to offer a short introductory performance before the dance began, demonstrating the nine core emotions and thoughts used in the play that could be transmitted to the viewers. Through a set of particular gazes and magnified facial expressions from other parts of the body, trained performers could perform a complex narrative discourse with sheer movements that I would never otherwise imagine. Halfway through the show, a boy in a green shirt around the age of seven or eight grabbed a chair and sat himself right in front of the stage.
He seemed to know every move the performer on stage was about to make, swinging his limbs into all the same positions, while his tapping feet still showing the sign of a child entertained by the tempos of music in the background. I later found out that the performer on stage was, in fact, the boy’s mother. I can’t help but wonder what was going through the boy’s mind when he watched his mother practice and perform, and if he saw himself following her steps one day, covered in the layers of rice bags as part of the costume and stomping on the stage with the most intense glare as the story progressed.
Img 3. Kathakali performance in action.
By the time I left Kochi, my brain was already washed by another audio and visual artwork presented in the Biennale that featured a lively but dark tune of the song “Shout” by Tears for Fears.
/Shout/Shout/Let it all out/These are the things I can do without/Come on/I’m talking to you/Come on/
/In violent times/You shouldn’t have to sell your soul/In black and white/They really really ought to know/
Ing 4.A Kathakali performer is getting layers of folded rice bags strapped onto her body in preparation for providing a sufficient structure for the costume that is required for her part.
Waving goodbye to the intense Kathakali music, waving goodbye to the rhythmic da-da sounds that occupied most of my mind for the first few hours of Kochi, waving goodbye to the sweet staff at my homelike hotel. I return to the Kochi Airport with more than just tea leaves in my bag, but a journey I will never forget. I have yet to read the go-to inspirational India trip pocket-read novel, Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert during this search for self in the land of India as an outsider, and I did not expect myself to want to. Nonetheless, my body, my taste buds and my other senses had all been voluntarily and involuntarily stimulated in all ways possible during this wanderlust and bewildering trip. I guess this is why India will be a country I definitely visit and discover again.
Sonia Cheng is a Hong Kong-raised artist who works in a variety of media. She is currently pursuing her Dual Bachelors Degree in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, learning something new every day while enjoying the humid-free Chicago breeze and exploring her own transnational narrative.