The Art of Inclusivity

 

A visitor takes a close look at “Missing Route 4,” a hand-stitched embroidery by Bapi Das.Credit Atul Loke for The New York Times

The history of our work in Kerala, and specifically in Kochi, has long been intertwined with Art, and how the surrounding community interacts with it. Biennales, by nature, often blur the line between street art and gallery space, as multi-dimensional and multi-media installations begin to appear on walls, pop-up spaces, cavernous warehouse buildings, and classic museum halls.

Now in it’s 4th edition, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, has grown continually in both the breadth of the artists involved, and the depth of its work toward community outreach. This sense of inclusivity extends to gender equality, a longstanding issue that India as a country has battled with;  the curator and more than half of the artists are female.

As with the previous editions, the installations are thought provoking and moving, at times asking viewers to acknowledge and honor the difficult history of a colonial past.

In India, Building Bridges Between Life and Art

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, South Asia’s biggest art show, uses interactive exhibits and live performances to help Indians connect with contemporary art.

KOCHI, India — Clad in a simple striped shirt and the white mundu of the city’s fishmongers, Bashir stood out from the well-heeled throng at the warehouse galleries and tree-filled courtyards on the first day of India’s biggest contemporary art show, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Bashir, a fishwrapper who works nearby, visited the Kochi-Muziris Biennale on opening day because entry was free. He lingered over the photographs, including these photo essays by Chandan Gomes, a Delhi photographer. Credit: Atul Loke for The New York Times

Keeping to himself, he moved from room to room, stopping to study moody landscapes by the Delhi photographer Chandan Gomes that were paired with imaginary scenes drawn by a girl who died at age 12.

“I don’t understand the inner meaning of the art,” said Bashir, who uses one name and makes a living wrapping and delivering fish. “I just like to see beautiful things.”

Bashir’s willingness to engage with the artwork, no matter how challenging, was a victory for the show’s organizers. The southern state of Kerala, and India as a whole, have very few public venues to see art. So the organizers of the biennale, which runs until March 29, strove to create an event that would appeal to everyone — from untutored day laborers to veteran museum curators.

“We are making a cultural festival,” said Bose Krishnamachari, a painter from Kerala who co-founded the show eight years ago. “We have tried to penetrate to the people’s minds so that they feel that it is their biennale.”…

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Fortune & Misfortune On Kerala’s Backwaters

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Partially submerged houses in Kerala, India last August. REUTERS / SIVARAM V

Any picture of a houseboat reminds me of our good fortune to live among the people of Kerala’s backwaters from 2010-2017. The photo below is no exception and I thank Fred Pearce, writing for Yale e360, for bringing to my attention the scale of misfortune facing our old neighbors from the most recent flooding. I knew about the disaster, but had not read in any detail until now what this implies for the future. Maybe this fortune could be applied to address those challenges:

In India, Nature’s Power Overwhelms Engineered Wetlands

The picturesque Kerala backwaters in southern India, increasingly popular with tourists, form a network of engineered canals, lagoons, lakes, and rice paddies. But a fatal monsoon deluge has highlighted the global problem of how developed wetlands often lose their capacity to absorb major floods.

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Floodwaters inundated much of Kerala’s low-lying coastal plain, including the village of Pandanad, pictured here. MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

In India, they call the state of Kerala in the country’s far south “God’s own country.” That wasn’t how it felt last August, when monsoon floods devastated its densely populated low-lying coastal plain. Around 500 people drowned, in an area best known to outsiders for its placid backwatersa network of brackish lakes, lagoons, and canals where growing numbers of Western tourists cruise the picturesque waterways aboard luxury houseboats.

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A luxury houseboat moored along Lake Vembanad near the tourist town of Kumarakom in Kerala. FRED PEARCE / YALE E360

Now that the floodwaters have abated, questions are being raised about whether the disaster was made worse by water engineering projects in the backwaters designed to feed the state’s population and attract tourists. Increasingly, Kerala residents are wondering if “God’s own country” is damned as well as dammed.

The floods came out of the Western Ghats. This chain of mountains down the west side of India is one of the country’s wettest places, drenched from June to September in monsoon. In early August, the rains there were exceptionally intense and unremitting. The rivers flowing from the mountains west toward the Arabian Sea dumped their water into the backwaters on a coastal plain that is largely below sea level.

Sixty-mile-long Lake Vembanad, at the heart of the backwaters, rose up and flooded surrounding wetlands and rice paddies, cities, and farming villages. A quarter-million people took refuge in 1,500 relief camps; 6,200 miles of roads and 115 square miles of farmland were damaged. Cochin International Airport was awash. Continue reading

Southern Roots Run Deep

Ms. Gomez grew up pulling mangoes from the trees and buying sugar cane from the vendors gathered outside her parochial school. Evan Sung for The New York Times

While Crist may have had the good fortune to enjoy a taste of Kerala with Asha Gomez during travel away from our home there, I was busy exploring the market byways for local ingredients and food ways. What a fascinating story to hear that Asha is actually experiencing that same sense of discovery and exploration within her own home state.

It looks like Crist might have gotten his wish for Asha to come to Kerala, after all!

A Chef’s Quest in India: Win Respect for Its Cooking

“I think I had disconnected myself from this place in some way by saying for so long that the U.S. was home,” said Ms. Gomez, 47, who had moved from the Indian state of Kerala to the state of Michigan as a teenager. “There is still so much a part of me here. I think I had forgotten that.”

Ms. Gomez had come to this land of ports, tea estates and spice gardens not only to reconnect with a part of herself, but also to find new ways to use her camera-ready personality and kitchen chops to lasso Kerala’s beautiful food culture and drag it back to the United States.

“I have to remove people from the mentality that all Indian food should be clumped up into nine dishes that are not really Indian dishes,” she said. “Not all Indian food belongs on a buffet line at $4.99. Indian food is 5,000 years of tradition and history, and it belongs right up there with French cuisine.”

Her frustration over American interpretations of the beloved coconut-scented fish curries, dosas and carefully layered beef biryanis of her homeland echoes the lament of countless cooks who have immigrated from countries like China, Mexico or Vietnam only to find their food mangled to meet the limitations of a new country’s palate and relegated to its cheap-eats guides.

“I wish I could say to every immigrant cook in America, ‘Why do you think your food should be any less than any other cuisine that comes from anywhere else in the world?’” Ms. Gomez said. Continue reading

Kerala’s Stars Redux

We published this post in the early period of this site, but the beauty of the subject and the timeliness of the season begs its redux…

The colorful stars that begin to grace Kerala buildings in December from homes, to businesses, to places of worship have humble beginnings despite their current flashy status.  The were originally a simple white 7 point star that correlated with the beacon leading to the Christmas manger.

Many of these folded and cut paper stars are the handiwork of a group of women in a fishing villages around the southern Kerala city of Kollam. Continue reading

Onam, Kerala, 2016

img_5224-1Yesterday, the midday meal was a traditional one for this time of year. We have written about Onam festivities each of the years that we have been based in Kerala, since 2010. Now, during our seventh such celebration, we finally hosted an Onam feast in our own home. In order to be sure that the guests at our table would have the best of the traditional foods of the season we made the only sensible decision: we ordered the feast from a local kitchen we favor.

These dishes, which we have written about in previous years, tasted as if they were the best we have yet had. Maybe because it was all so easy and pleasant. Our guests, anyway, we knew to be not high maintenance. It was a cross section, functionally speaking, of La Paz Group’s Kerala team, including (from left going around the table in the picture below) engineering, finance, revenue management, reservations, sales, design, me, and front right is the man in charge of it all, who was also the photographer. Continue reading

Figs and Ficus

Photo by Milo Inman

A past employee who used to be a regular contributor here, writing about all things Indian – and in particular, from Kerala – would publish frequently about plants and animals, among other subjects, and once, he wrote three posts in quick succession about three trees in the Ficus genus: the Elephant Ear, the Country Fig, and the Sacred Bodhi. The following month, another author here wrote on his feelings about ficus. This week, journalist Ben Crair writes about figs for the New Yorker:

The produce section of the grocery store is a botanical disaster. Most people know that a tomato is technically a fruit, but so is an eggplant, a cucumber, and a spaghetti squash. A banana, which grows from a flower with a single ovary, is actually a berry, while a strawberry, which grows from a flower with several ovaries, isn’t a berry at all but an aggregate fruit. The most confusing classification, though, will start showing up on American shelves this month. Shoppers will find mission figs with the grapes, kiwis, and other fruit, but a clever botanist would sell them at the florist, with the fresh-cut roses. Although many people dismiss figs as a geriatric delicacy or the sticky stuff inside bad cookies, they are, in fact, something awesome: enclosed flowers that bloom modestly inward, unlike the flamboyant showoffs on other plants. Bite a fig in half and you’ll discover a core of tiny blossoms.

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Pepper’s Historical Place

A painting of Muziris by the artist Ajit Kumar. In 2004, excavations in Kerala sparked new interest in this lost port. Illustration: KCHR

A painting of Muziris by the artist Ajit Kumar. In 2004, excavations in Kerala sparked new interest in this lost port. Illustration: KCHR

Our first exposure to the name Muziris was during the planing stages of the 1st edition of the eponymous Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012. The flurry of activity in Fort Kochi not only brought Kochi into the spotlight of the international Art World, but added focus to the archeological works at Kerala’s ancient port.

Lost cities #3 – Muziris: did black pepper cause the demise of India’s ancient port?

Around 2,000 years ago, Muziris was one of India’s most important trading ports. According to the Akananuru, a collection of Tamil poetry from the period, it was “the city where the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Yavanas [Westerners], stir white foam on the Periyar, river of Kerala, arriving with gold and departing with pepper.”

Another poem speaks of Muziris (also known as Muciripattanam or Muciri) as “the city where liquor abounds”, which “bestows wealth to its visitors indiscriminately” with “gold deliveries, carried by the ocean-going ships and brought to the river bank by local boats”.

The Roman author Pliny, in his Natural History, called Muziris “the first emporium of India”. The city appears prominently on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a fifth-century map of the world as seen from Rome. But from thereon, the story of this great Indian port becomes hazy. As reports of its location grow more sporadic, it literally drops off the map.

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Kerala Beef Fry

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The Kerala beef fry is the stuff of legend

Last week, sitting with a new colleague for lunch–I had ordered a classic north Indian version of the ubiquitous biryani served across the country; she had ordered a very Kerala dish, one with beef–I wondered why I had not ordered what she ordered, since it is the more local dish, and I am still not vegetarian. The BBC makes me wonder again:

The Indian state that is obsessed with beef fry

Not many people would associate India with beef. Spirituality yes, perhaps even vegetarianism, but certainly not beef.

But then they have probably never been to Kerala, the south Indian state that loves its beef – preferably fried.

The Kerala beef fry is the stuff of legend. Continue reading

#10 Of One Dozen Love Letters About Xandari

ADXHArchitectural Digest is not the reason we do what we do. But when they take note, in any manner, we feel the love. Xandari Harbour soft-opened, and within a very short time got an inordinate amount of good press even before the formal opening. Yet the AD mention, which was neither a cover story nor even a particularly huge feature, had a different level of impact on those of us on the team that developed it.

George M George, the visionary who saw the potential in the run down property and particularly the crumbling godown (waterfront warehouse) featured on the left above post-restoration, was that team’s source of energy, inspiration, encouragement–this would not have happened without his excellent leadership. Continue reading

#8 Of One Dozen Love Letters About Xandari

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Photo and pendant by Milo Inman

While we were in the early stages of shaping the look of Xandari Pearl, we had a team of design interns, and these highly creative collaborators sent us a constant stream of design feedback on the evolving Marari pearl concept. Little did I know that at that same time Milo, who at that time I thought of as a photographer-to-be, was developing another artistic talent. The photo above shows one example of that talent.

I consider that pendant as good an artifact of Xandari’s aesthetic legacy as any.  Continue reading

#7 Of One Dozen Love Letters About Xandari

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Dear Xandari Pearl circa 2026,

I hope the day this photo was taken (yesterday as I type this) will be remembered. Amie wept. Saji shared some wisdom–and we all embraced in the hopeful spirit of looking forward to this lovely property’s prosperity. I shared recollections of my first visit to this property  years before moving to India, and wanted each of the team members to know why this property is the most important work so far in my lifetime. It had to do with this location’s personal meaning to George M George, and how that meaning influenced the design process. Xandari Costa Rica was a big part of that process as well, and the Xandari community should be aware of that special link. Continue reading

#5 Of One Dozen Love Letters About Xandari

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Photo credit: Milo Inman

When the conversation about bringing the Xandari concept to India was in the early stages, Milo was in the early stages of mastering the camera. We spent a large percentage of our time in the backwaters in those days, working with our team at River Escapes, and this gave Milo time with his craft in an astounding setting. My father was a photographer, and his father painted landscapes, but for some reason their visual acuity skipped a generation and Milo got it. He saw in composition and captured with camera what escaped me. A  collection of these photographs has adorned our office walls since they were taken in 2011.  And they have influenced our thinking about what is now called Xandari Riverscapes.

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Photo credit: Milo Inman

The houseboat operation has been written about many times in these pages over the years, but in the archival diving of the last week I discovered some fascinating correspondence related to my first visit to Kerala.

George M George had taken me to the backwaters and showed me the first houseboat under construction. The craftsmen were doing something I had no idea was possible, stitching together a hull with no nails; and then afterwards the artistry of the upper deck, and all that we have written about elsewhere.

I have just reread a letter I wrote to Sherrill Broudy after that first visit to Kerala a dozen years ago, and had shared my snapshots with him, saying that what I saw reminded me of Xandari with the curvaceous, organic feel.

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#4 Of One Dozen Love Letters About Xandari

The Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, in Trivandrum, has been amassing gold for centuries. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHIARA GOIA

What I love most about Xandari is this fact: over nearly two decades, several tens of thousands of guests have trusted Xandari with their valuable vacation time, and that faith has been reciprocated with such authentic hospitality that Xandari has one of the most loyal clientele of any hotel I know of. Most guests coming to Xandari today are related through kinship or friendship to guests who have already been at Xandari before. That loyalty is like treasure buried deep inside of Xandari. Continue reading

Roots and Anchors

Anybody can welcome you to a destination. Tell you about the must-do and the must-see. Weave you through its facts and fables, seat you through its culinary journey. At Xandari, we welcome you to our people. And the living stories they are. From what’s cooking to an effective cure for colds, good ol’ ways of growing with the land to dreams by the beach, we hear them loud. And, are part of them.

Here’s to our pride. Here’s to our people. Here’s to our family.

Rosanna Abrachan

Community, Collaboration and Conservation are the “3 Cs” that we stand by, and crafting these videos felt like a large family gathering with a smorgasbord of experiences to choose from. Thank you Anoodha and the RAXA Collective –Xandari Pearl teams!

Stay tuned for more!

Walking In on the Sari

Walk. That’s my one-word gospel for all who will listen in on the best way to discover. Meander. Be curious, the good kind. Because stories wait around corners, discoveries often plonk themselves on one-way streets. And some are found in messy backrooms of squeaky clean shops lined with mannequins and smiles. Like this woven tale of the people, history, and fabric that go into the making of the Indian drape. There’s more than just five yards to the sari, trust me.

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Nutmeg – from Table to Design

You must have heard the phrase in a nutshell. Well, this post is not exactly that. It’s going to border on being a story in a nutmeg. Yet another tale to add to Kerala’s legacy of having a heart of spices. The nutmeg, though not as glorious as its cousins pepper or cinnamon, is integral for its medicinal, herbal properties and its place in the kitchen.

For me, it’s the embrace that links spending holidays with a grandmother whose heart had nutmeg all over it and a design sensibility at Xandari Harbour. The wispy haired grand lady is long gone, but the wind rustles up her memories among the nutmeg trees. So does a certain corridor at work.

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