Fort Kochi: Memories of a bygone era
You see the palm fronds swaying an eager welcome even as you come in to land. Reach by rail or road and the greenery doesn’t wait for you to cross the border before gathering you in a lush embrace. Nature, it would seem, has been taking lessons in haste from the natives.
For a long time nature and natives chartered their own distinct courses in Kerala: the former charming and laidback while the latter amiable but in a tearing hurry. Life was what happened in the confusing, vibrant and graceful space between these loggerhead attitudes. Those who couldn’t conform or fathom simply left. To always come back; so overwhelming was the pull of the sinewy backwaters and sunny beaches, the verdant hills and rapturous forests the state was so endowed with. If nature didn’t have the necessary impact, there always was the heritage – strengthened over centuries. Across continents.
Sauntering about Fort Kochi, it would be easy to imagine a barouche passing by with a lady inside adjusting her corset as she leans forward to have a closer look at the voices from the beach. Her gaze lingers for an instant at the knotted muscles pulling up the Chinese fishing nets. The next moment it is distant beneath her parasol. Such scenes would have been everyday in this little sea-side town, south-west from mainland Kochi in Kerala a few centuries ago. The ruler of Kochi granted this region to the Portuguese as a token of gratitude for helping him thwart the advances of a geographically rapacious army from neighbouring Calicut. The Portuguese built the Fort Emmanuel – from which the place gets half its name – and several other landmarks including the St Francis Church and the Santa Cruz Basilica. Fort Kochi later was annexed by the Dutch and the British respectively.
A local joke goes that since the Chinese installed the cantilevered nets some 500 years ago, nothing much has been done to promote employment since. True or not, the good thing is that unlike other Chinese exports these work even today. The rambunctious guys who man these nets are only too glad to pose for photographs – for a fee. If you are feeling lucky, you can ‘sponsor’ one ‘pulling up’ – usually one hundred rupees – and keep the catch. Here is a tip if you do: if you pull up to catch the wake of a passing boat, your chances are brighter. I was filming there with my crew and we pooled in money for five pull ups. Learning our lesson after the first, we waited for a wake from the second time onwards and each time we had a pretty decent catch – even those seasoned guys had their jaws gaping. We swapped the fish for their stories.
“The new port nearby (Vallarpadam) has taken its toll on the fishes – they go elsewhere for breeding.”
“Fishermen from all over the world are complaining of a decline in their catch – they say it’s the climate or climate change.” And, “Not always does the wake of a boat give a good catch, you guys were just plain lucky.”
Over the years, numerous handicrafts and curio shops have sprung up around among which the most notable are the carpet shops owned and operated by smooth-looking and glib-talking Kashmiri youth. Their charms are not entirely lost on the visitors – tales abound of whirlwind romances, local court weddings and fairytale lives in far-off lands. Of late the numbers have come down drastically though. To cap on whatever chances, visit any internet cafe and you will find Levi-ed youngsters vicariously engaged with half a dozen chat windows proclaiming different stages of affection. From money-changing to eateries – the locals run most of the other businesses.
By 1795 when the British took over the reins of the region, Fort Kochi was already an anglicised community with the well-heeled among the local populace showing a marked inclination towards English sartorial and culinary ways. Architecture was soon to follow. There was a close-knit and thriving Jewish community, the moneybags of the area, who held on steadfast to their rites and religion. A statuesque but peeling synagogue stands testimony to their dwindling numbers today. Check out the hand-painted tiles, each unique and telling individual love stories and the oil-burning chandeliers. Coming out of the synagogue, I chanced upon an old lady who, no sooner did she see my camera began shutting the windows of her modest living quarter. The Jews who remain in Fort Kochi today are a closeted lot; they are those who opted to stay put in their ancestral homes rather than follow a child to US, the UK or Mumbai.
A walk through narrow lanes – there are numerous, each not longer than half-a-block – and you come across names like ‘Lily Street’ and ‘Mandalay Hall’ – all witness to an era that has been fading for a long time but never completely gone. Old Mercs and Morris Minors still adorn the patios of some properties. In nearby Mattancherry is the Mattancherry Palace: where the instructions and warnings are longer than the history. Proceeding along the Bazaar road you come across the famous spice market – where business continues to bristle as tourists wheeze their way through milling traders.
As a lone caique bobbed across an ochrous sun as dusk fell, I walked into the darker confines of a bustling Kathakali centre. I sat there spellbound in a packed hall as Maharaja Karthika Thirunal’s Narakasura lay dying at the hands of Lord Krishna, letting out a series of blood curdling screams. Later on backstage, I befriended the cast who explained to me in detail the finer nuances of character portrayal and preparation and dressing. I was introduced to a whole new glossary of terms like konda, chamaram, urumal, puttuvaalu…the list is endless. This rare glimpse into the world of the performing artists was an eye-opener for me. Here was a bunch of uncorrupted souls and noble intent, who shudder a mile away from hypocrites, living with an alluring candour without being judgemental about anyone or anything. Just being with them made me feel nice, surrounded by so much positivity and goodness. Packed audiences are seasonal and before long they would be reciting for a numbered few. The irony of the situation was that it didn’t have to be seasonal – patronised in equal measure by the locals, these artists would be vastly better off.
A typical performance – like the Narakasura Vadham – the one I was watching – lasts a better part of a day. Riveting though, what I saw was an encapsulated format which lasted a little over an hour.
In Kerala, it seemed like even art was in a hurry.
Kathakali recitals based on or inspired from popular cinema will be one way by which the art form can find fervour with a local audience.
The leading movie stars from the state should buy the Chinese fishing nets for and name it after them. Fan clubs should organise fishing contests which will help bring public and media attention to the plight of the fishermen. The Fisheries Department next door should be roped in to address the problem of lack of fish.