The Lost Waterscapes of Hill Palace, Kerala

Hill Palace, the erstwhile abode of the Kochi Royal Family in Thrippunithura, Kerala, is most famous for its appearance as the haunted mansion in the movie Manichitrathaazhu (1998). The traditional gabled palace built around 1865 alongside its neoclassical twentieth-century addition lends themselves well to the medium of cinema for many Malayalam movies are picturized in and around the buildings of Hill Palace. Perched on top of a hill (from where the palace derives its name), the palatial mansion is surrounded by terraced gardens, reminiscent of neoclassical country houses of Europe, set upon a terraced 'naturally-landscaped' garden.

 Looking at the main palace complex from the lowest point of the compound.

Looking at the main palace complex from the lowest point of the compound.

On my last visit there, I spent a few hours walking around the lovely terraces now planted with brightly colored bougainvillea under the shadows of almond and mango trees. Every few feet you can pick up an almond fruit in its raw pink-ish shell or a half-pecked mango, possibly a cuckoo's afternoon meal. Except for the iron lamp posts, the old gnarly trees, and the tiered steps, most of the original landscape of the palace is defunct or has disappeared. But if you look closely, you can notice some of the most beautiful waterscapes that once used to dot the Hill Palace gardens. 

Feeling your Way through Aleš Šteger's Pyramidal Tomb

On seeing the mud-caked exterior of Aleš Šteger's The Pyramid of Exiled Poets (2016), my first thought was: "what contemporary slaves left their palm imprints on these cakes for the tropical sun to dessicate?" Šteger's pyramid, designed like a miniature of the famous tomb at Khufu, Egypt, startles you with an inviting melancholy that beckons you into its darkened interior.

Šteger describes the pyramid as the "resting place for the cast out, for those poets who have been exiled and disappeared from republics and nations for centuries." As you enter, you can hear echoes of voices in strange languages (strange to the Indian ear, that is) guiding you into the nearly-pitch-black space. You walk into a very narrow corridor walled and vaulted using cane mats, the kind you see for sale on the roadsides of Kerala. There is little to no light in the interior of the cavernous space--its floor is uneven, making you "feel" the earth upon which you walk, and the corridor turns this way and that without much warning. In places you have to use your hands to feel your way through. Every few steps a quiet voice or a murmur of recitation of poems keeps you company only to drain away as you fumble your way past it. Occasionally, a solitary dim lamp aids you at a winding corner, and sometimes, through the tiny perforations of the cane mat, specks of light appear like glowworms only to disappear as you try to keep moving. At times, you can hear nervous giggles of visitors, whether they are are ahead or behind you, you do not know. 

The walk roughly took me about a minute and a half to complete the first time around (I was literally racing to the finish). It was refreshingly disorienting. As it happens, when our most commonly used sensory mechanism of vision is impaired, other sensory mechanisms come into focus. I heard the voices in the tunnels inside the pyramid much more clearly with an ability to catch the tonal changes even if I couldn't understand what was being said; the rough-hewn texture of the cane mats and the smoothened uneven mud mounds that made the ground were somehow more present. 

Šteger's installation is a multi-sensorial immersive ode to artists who have faced exile under fascist rule and other forms of authoritarian governments. Being a poet from Slovenia (he was born in SFR Yugoslavia), Šteger's art is an extension of his experiences in the war-torn Balkans. The recordings played inside the tomb include poems of Ovid, Dante, Bertolt Brecht, Czeslaw Milosz, Mahmoud Darwish, Yang Lian, Joseph Brodsky, Ivan Blatnÿ, and César Vallejo. Separated by time and space, what these poets have in common is the experience of exile that came to define their poetry. In their poems, there are shared elements of yearning and dejection, a quest to re-define their identity and, of course, political activism, and at times, hope. 

Šteger is not an artist per se. His website describes him as a poet and a writer. His work Knjiga reči (orig. 2005, translated by Brian Henry, Book of Things, 2010) is a highly-acclaimed volume of seemingly casual poetry. It is anything but. In a poem titled Egg, Šteger writes:

"When you kill it at the edge of a pan, you don't notice/ That the egg grows an eye in death."

In another stanza, he continues: 

"Does it see time which carelessly moves through space? 
Eyeballs, eyeballs, cracked shells, chaos or order? 
Big questions for such a little eye at such an early hour. 
And you--do you really want an answer?"

I do not want to answer that question.

As in his Book of Things, in the Tomb of Exiled Poets too, Šteger strives to make the visitor aware of non-human agency at work. Indeed, borrowing Heidegger's words, the installation brings into stark focus the "thingliness of things." Every sensorial experience is fluid yet nothing seems abstracted. Although unmentioned throughout this discussion and in Šteger's descriptions of the artwork, the mirage of death and bodily sensations are embedded into the physiology of the installation (afterall, it is designed as a tomb) as well as in our somatic interactions with the tomb and its murmuring darkness. 

The Tomb of Exiled Poets is at Aspinwall venue, part of 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Fort Kochi, Kerala. You can see a rather badly produced video of my first walk inside the tomb on Instagram.

More on 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale exhibits at Aspinwall venue can be found at Masala Histories, Art by the Backwaters: A Peek into Aspinwall Venue, 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

If you interested in Aleš Šteger's poetry, here is an example published in Guernica titled Earring.

Time Machine Outside Padmanabhaswamy Temple

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I got to spent a few days before Mahanavami this year on the street outside the east entrance to Padmanabhaswamy temple. The archives where I spent most of my time is less than a mile from the temple and so it became a routine affair to stop by the Padmatheertham (holy pond) enjoying the light evening breeze that the city enjoys in the post-monsoon months. I was fortunate enough to catch Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma from the Travancore royal family singing his ancestor's composition--I never saw the concert, only heard it through the speakers set on the road leading up to the temple, from across my perch on the steps leading down to the pond. 

The ten days of Navratri celebrations is a cultural touchstone from at least the time of Swathi Thirunal (r.1829-1846) under whose guidance Navratri celebrations in Thiruvananthapuram (and other parts of erstwhile Travancore) was revamped and expanded. The dusk fragranced with incense and jasmine was filled with peals of laughter of little girls in their paavaada (skirts) hopping alongside their elders, while devotees briskly walking towards the decorated entrance of the famed temple, and street vendors tried to entice children into buying their wares. This milieu, framed with Ashwathi Thirunal's voice truly transported me to Swathi's world. For a moment, I could imagine the street as a liminal space that escaped the present to meld with the past. In that moment, everything had remained the way it was for over 185 years.

The music shared here allows us to peek into the past.