On the road

We had a bit of a drive ahead of us and our driver pulled into a petrol pump almost as soon as we got on to the highway. I looked out of the window at the truck filling up next to us. I’ve written about art work on Indian trucks many times before, but this looked different. At eye level with me was some of the usual kitsch (featured photo), but it was executed perfectly. None of the distortions of naive art. This was a master at work.

I got off and walked around the truck. No amateur, the artists who worked on this truck. Stencils had been used. This medium is becoming commercial! But just look at that swan: wonderful lines. Never seen something like that on a truck. This could be a well-trained commercial artist, one who could as easily design a logo.

Around another tyre-well, more kitsch, this time from some cartoon. But look at that repeating motif that arches around the tyre. It is not only executed flawlessly over and over (see also the featured photo), but has been designed to be easy to execute.

An elegantly executed Hanuman was spray painted on with a stencil elsewhere on the truck. There were numerous small pieces rather than a single overall theme which I’ve seen before on trucks. Is this good or bad? Am I seeing the beginning of the commercialization of truck art? Is this the end of King Rat? By all accounts small businesses have given way to large conglomerates over the last three years. Perhaps in future large fleets of trucks will be decorated by one commercial artists’ firm, instead of one truck one artist.

Art cafes of Kochi

Kochi turned out to be a wonderful place to have a relaxed holiday. The few square kilometers contains an unending supply of cafes to hang out in, art to admire, and sometimes the two together. Unlike many of our recent breaks, we decided to go with the flow: just two or three must-dos for tourists. The featured photo comes from one of our favourite relaxed places: an old bungalow turned into a cafe. Instead of asking for the espresso, we went with pots of tea as we sat and let any cares drain away. The fans kept a breeze flowing through the hall, and the lovely space compensated for the beautiful but not-so-comfortable chairs we sat in.

There are several famous art cafes in Kochi, but we found them too crowded to relax in. You can find any number of them; most have a good espresso, and many have good food. The squid was fresh in the first cafe we visited. The one you see in these photos was remarkable because of the number of masks on the wall.

I sent a couple of photos to a cousin who is quite a mask-collector, and we decided to take a trip together to this Mecca of masks. I think she’s still trying to identify the places where each of them comes from.

Another cafe had this remarkable Kerala mural version of the last supper. I don’t quite remember what we ate in this place, but I did spend some time admiring all the art on the wall.

The one time we went to one of the better known art cafes was just after lunch one afternoon, looking only for a coffee. Strange, isn’t it, to walk into a cafe for nothing but a coffee? Fortunately, it was a slack hour, and they didn’t mind us taking up a whole table for a while. I liked this space, although I could see that it would be standing room only in a while.

While on the subject of art for sale, how can one not end with the most iconic visual symbol of capitalism on the planet? We live under a shadow.

The Mattancherry Palace

There are many things about the Mattancherry palace of Kochi which one can write about: the integration of European proportions into a traditional Kerala architectural style, the beautifully worked materials used, such as the wood, flooring, and roof tiles, or the artifacts collected in the museum it now is. But every such description is incomplete because the main attraction cannot be shown; you are not allowed to take photos of the glorious murals on the walls. It is a loss in the description, but an opportunity to visit the palace and be surprised. When I stepped over the threshold of the entrance into the long rectangular anteroom, the first detail that I noticed was the intricately carved rosewood ceiling, and, through an arch at one end, the golden glow of the murals depicting the Ramayana that cover the entire wall of the king’s bedchamber

The palace was built by the Portuguese as a reparation to the king of Kochi in the mid 16th century CE, after they previous palace was looted and burnt. The overall style of architecture is traditional, the whole palace being built around a central enclosed courtyard. Visitors can look down at this from a covered verandah that runs around the inside of the upper floor. The materials used are also traditional: dark polished rosewood and fired clay roof tiles. The polished floor is specially remarkable, since it is not stone but a traditional composite material blended from charcoal, burnt coconut shell, egg white, and other ingredients. The arched doors and windows, the elongated rooms, and the external finish of the masonry is European.

The palace museum contains a gallery of several interesting artifacts including European-style portraits of the kings of Kerala. I was specially drawn to the palanquins on display. The alternation of carved and polished plain panels of the covered palanquin, and the ornate brass end-piece to the carrying-pole, were enough to tell us that this was for royals. The seal of the royal house confirms this guess. In contrast, the open palanquin lined with silk cushions would have seated a functionary. We wandered into the coronation room where the murals were being restored. Seeing us spend an abnormally long time examining the paintings, a gentleman from the archaeological survey interrupted his work and gave us a wonderful tour of the paintings in the room. We learnt from him how this room had been whitewashed in the 20th century, and how the underlying paintings are slowly being brought to light again. I can’t wait for the work to be finished so that I can visit this place again.

The marriage hall

Most major temples in the Vijayanagara kingdom have a pavilion outside the main temple which was used for the ritual marriage of the deity and the consort. This kalyana mandapam in the Vitthala temple is quite as impressive as the main temple. When you climb a set of stairs to the east, you see a wonderful open pavilion with 32 pillars. As outer set of 20 make up a square with six pillars to a side (including the corner), and there is an inner square with 12 pillars, 4 to a side, including the corners. These are beautifully decorated.

The Vitthala temple was built in the first half of the 15th century CE during the reign of Devaraya II, with many additions made during the reign of Krishna Devaraya in the early 16th century. I don’t know which period this kalyana mandapam comes from. The Family and I spent a long time here, examining the pillars in detail. The gallery above contains a selection. Many of the sculptures represent couples from the Ramayana, or stories from the 12th century poem about Krishna and his affairs with gopis. Others depict musicians and dancers, and the festivities surrounding a wedding. Several still have traces of paint; I saw a green pigment for the first time in the featured photo. Imagine, if you can, all these sculptures bright with mineral and vegetable paint, lit with oil lamps at twilight. It would have been a sight.

The Vitthala Temple

The Vitthala temple was built by Devaraya II who ruled over the Vijayanagar kingdom in the first half of the 15th century CE. By his time the elements of the kingdom’s temple architecture were all in place, and they can all be seen in these ruins. The main area of the temple, the maha mandapa, stands on a plinth which is about one and a half meters in height. The outer pillars are made of single blocks of granite carved to resemble a group of more slender pillars. You can see a few examples of these in the featured photo.

The plinth is highly decorated. There are lines of horses (Vijayanagara was a major center of horse trade, you may recall from some of my earlier posts, with merchants bringing horses all the way from Arabia), of ducks (the hansa, with its multiplicity of meanings), and of the avatars of Vishnu. I spotted Balarama, Narasimha, and, of course, Krishna in many aspects (as the youngster stealing cream in the photo in the gallery).

From inside the mandapa I could get a closer view of the fired brick superstructures which make up all the shikhara in Vijayanagara. The bricks I saw here looked like they had a long square base, with a height which was about 2/7 of the sides of the square. That’s quite a different shape from the bricks that we use today. It would have been interesting to look more closely at more than a couple of the bricks to check whether these were standardized dimensions, and whether the dimensions changed over the centuries. I’m sure some historian of art and architecture has written about this, and I just need to dig a little deeper to find more about medieval Deccan’s brick-making.

The sanctum itself contains nothing any longer, but you can descend into a dark corridor that circles it. Above and around it are the more interesting things. The boxy pillars of the Vijayanagara style were designed to carry relief sculptures. We saw again the typical examples of Vijayanagara art- the studies of animals (the monkey was special), gods and goddesses, and purely decorative elements. The profusion of images takes time to absorb. I had begun to get the familiar numbness of mind that comes on you when you walk through a museum: too many beautiful things to see in too short a time. I walked out and sat on a bench at the entrance to the mandapa.


The doorway I’d just come out of was beautifully carved, with traces of paint still lingering on it after nearly six centuries of exposure to the weather. I got up to admire the sculpture around it. The door was topped by a wonderful relief of Gajalakshmi, Lakshmi flanked by two elephants. A cool breeze blew through this porch. I leant back on the stone backrest of the bench. It was an engineering marvel! The granite back had been carved just so, and was a relief to lean back on. This granite bench was unbelievably comfortable. Why is there no mention of this marvel in guidebooks?

Entering the temple of Vitthala

We reached the ruins of the Vitthala temple in the late morning. The day was building up to be hot, and I was very happy that there were golf carts which would take you along the long, dusty, and shadeless road from the parking lot to the entrance of the old temple complex. The entrance did not give you immediate confidence in the declaration on the information board which said “The Vitthala temple is the highest watermark of the Vijayanagara style of art and architecture.”

The massive gopuram, the gateway, was in the usual south Indian style- intricately carved stone pillars and a stone lintel above it holding up a towering shikhara of terra cotta, decorated with stories from the life of Krishna. Most of the temples in this vanished city were dedicated to aspects of Vishnu. I looked at the shikhara and tried to imagine it painted and colourful as it must have been in the early 16th century CE when it was added to the complex during the reign of Krishna Devaraya. It would not have been painted in modern colours, and until I found more about the pigments that were used, it would be hard to imagine.

There were handy guides to other customs of the era. On the flagstones at the gate were carved signs which told you where to stand and genuflect. There seemed to have been separate lanes for families and single people visiting. I was struck again by the coincidences which determined the technology of the kingdom. The abundance of granite in this area meant that it would always have been used for construction, no matter what tools the civilization developed. The coincidence of diamond mines being discovered and worked meant that tools could be developed to carve granite. Without this combination Vijayanagara’s art would have taken a different form.

The first thing that you see in the immense forecourt inside the walls is the iconic stone chariot of Garuda. This is apparently a reproduction in stone of an older wooden processional chariot. Images of this chariot appear in the fluorescent blue currency note for fifty rupees which was released in 2017. The image on the note does not do justice to the actual chariot. It was amazing that this had been carved out of granite. This single object could well represent the “highest watermark” of the kingdom’s art.

If you look closely at the details, you realize that the chariot would have been brightly painted when the temple was in use. The red mineral pigment still clings to surfaces which are not protected from rain. If I hadn’t bent to take the photo you see above, I would have missed the line of warriors carved into the sides of the slab of stone on which the whole chariot rests.

The whole thing is enormously decorative of course, and you can spend a long time looking at it. But once I bent down, I realized that it was also a good idea to bend, kneel or sit near the chariot. The lower part was as exuberantly decorated as the rest of it, and also retained some of the original pigments. I suppose that as usual the colours that were used would have been white, black, red, yellow, and green. The lower surface retains red, some of the yellow, and traces of green.

There is a recess in the chariot on the side which faces the main temple, and I looked inside. An image of the Garuda, Vishnu’s vahana, is carved into this recess; hands folded in prayer to the reigning diety of the temple outside which the vahana waits. Colours have lasted much better in this niche, and you can see the predominant red and yellow natural dyes. The dark patches seemed to be either a moss or a fungus. We had this chariot to ourselves for a while now, but more people were coming to look at it. It was time to move on.

Guerrilla art

You wouldn’t expect a sign for a toilet to be a piece of art but this mischievous piece that I saw on a wall in Fort Kochi brought a smile to my face. Just to eliminate other possibilities (“awful pun,” The Family assured me) I looked for the toilet, and it wasn’t there, This piece was exactly what I thought it was: a piece of deliberate fun. Not Guerrilla art really, more Guerrilla cartoon.

But Kochi does bring together two of its main cultural obsessions, politics and art, into true Guerrilla art. Who or what is Guess Who? Is it a person, or a collective? The style could be a single person’s, and the wit behind its political satire is evident. I could laugh out loud at the construction of a phallic symbol for censorship. The juxtaposition of an enormous mosquito and a comment on news could be interpreted as straight out Guerrilla art or as culture jamming, if you consider how TV news is now a brand, pitched at finely sliced audiences.

Some of the other pieces occupy a space between Guerrilla art and straight out graffiti. With so much energy on display, the underground art scene in Fort Kochi seems to be in great shape. Art of this kind is utterly ephemeral, so between the time you see this and you visit Kochi, the pieces will have changed completely. I hope a curator somewhere is putting together a web site of this most ephemeral of media.

I finally leave you with a piece of street art, not in the sense that it takes now, but in a more ancient sense. Once, the street truly belonged to the community living there. Its look and feel determined by local aesthetics. This little decorative panel, hidden between layers of posters is an earlier form of street art, with a longer life.

Sunset at the river

Our last walk in Hampi was along the Tungabhadra river. The previous afternoon in the museum I’d looked at a scale model of the capital city of Vijayanagara and noted some structures which we hadn’t seen. Now, looking carefully at the map I found a walking route to them along the river. The heat of the day had dissipated when we reached the calm river. There were people about, but it wasn’t crowded, and the walk was pleasant.

In this part of the old capital, the only things still standing seem to be some temples. The first one as we turned in towards the ruins of the Sulai bazaar was one dedicated to Lakshmi. Next to the entrance was a lovely carving of her consort, Vishnu, lying down with the Seshanaga coiled protectively above him. The temple interior was too dark for a good photo of the main idol. In any case parts of it had been chiselled off by thieves a century or more ago.

Still at the foot of the bazaar was another temple, blocky and square. I peeped in. I had had my fill of temples for the day. We’d started with the Hajaramu temple, gone on to see the remains of Anegundi north of the river, with its temples, and now we were back for more. On another day I would have walked in.

This is called the Varaha temple, because of the boar carved on the walls next to the entrance. The usual relief sculptures of Ganga and Jamuna flanked the door with water cascading down on them in picturesque whorls. The woman who you see in the photo above represents Ganga. I turned back and walked through Sulai bazaar and into the grand temple at the other end. That’s a story I’ve written about earlier.

On our way back we saw two people on a haragolu in the river. This is a coracle made of woven reeds with a tarred cloth stretched over the bottom to make it waterproof. They resemble the Vietnamese coracles in shape and design so much that I wonder whether there is some cultural exchange here. The Champa kingdoms of Vietnam were intermediaries in the trade between India and China in the 10th and 11th centuries. So it is not unlikely that the Hoysala empire, which held this area before Vijayanagara, and Champa had cultural exchange. I’d seen coracles in the area around Da Nang, which is the region where the Champa capital of Indrapuri was in those days. Are these haragolu that old? And if they are, then which way did the coracle technology go?

It was getting dark, and the path had no lights. A crowd was now streaming past me, going back towards Hampi. I wondered where they had been all this time. During the evening I’d seen few people. I took a last couple of photos of the river and rocks. It was time to go. Our train back to Bengaluru would leave in a few hours.

Street art of Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi has been home to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a very large art exhibition, for almost a decade now. This was a deliberate attempt by the state government to renew historic Fort Kochi, with the help of some of Kerala’s best known contemporary artists. The four month long event in the winter of every even year draws several hundred thousand visitors. We visited in an off-Biennale year when hotels rates have not gone into orbit.

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The Biennale leaves a residue of interesting art on the streets of Kochi, and we had great fun spotting these commissioned works. There were pieces executed in 2018, and the remnants of works made in earlier years. Art is ephemeral, and street art is an urgent reminder to enjoy it while it lasts. The enormous wrinkled faces and the protraits of ordinary people seemed to be no more than a year old. The birds soaring over bare concrete was older and will be gone in a few more months. On other walls we saw guerilla art, unlicensed work. That will take another post.

Knock knock, knocking on Kochi’s doors

Another week, and it is time again for a guest post in spirit by The Family. This time it is about the doors which she saw while walking about Kochi trying to spot its street art. The featured photo is an icredible chrysanthemum door: a work of art in wood. We stood in front of it, and as we admired it I couldn’t help thinking about how spice wealth must have flowed through this community even as little as a century back. This wealth would have nourished a school of craftsmen, builders and the wood workers who put these doors in place. Kochi is an art destination now, and was an unremarked art destination even then.

Doors within doors! That’s a specialty of Kochi. The decorative ceremonial doors sometimes get too large for comfort. For a person or two, why make the effort to open the big door? Cut another door into it, the size of a human, and you are done. This door wasn’t as immense as some of the doors that we saw; hardly big enough to admit a horse-drawn coach. What caught The Family’s eye here were the bright colours and the semi-pillars flanking the door.

There’s more than houses in the spice bazaar. There are also warehouses behind which boats could dock. Some of these business premises have moved down-market into construction spaces. If you cut openings into the wall near the roof for ventilation, then the vast interiors of spice warehouses can easily be turned into spaces for fabrication. Here was a gate to one of these places, inviting us to walk down a short road to look at the harbour. We hesitated, but then found that the place was busy, and decided not to ask for permission to walk in.

But there are warehouses which have turned to tourist trade. Some of them are now art galleries and cafes, just right for tourist who want to spend a day or four doing nothing useful. We thought that this brightly painted structure with lovely wooden doors would lead to something like this. It turned out to be a hotel. The landing stage for boats had been converted to a breakfast space; a peaceful way to begin the day. The large entrance to the warehouse had been converted into a grand lobby, with a vintage car gleaming as a centerpiece. I wondered about the rooms. If they were done well, those facing the harbour would be quite good. “We should keep this in mind for the future,” The Family said. I agreed and we resumed our hunt for more street art.