Art fest paints lost pepper trade back to life

Written by RajeshRavi | Updated: Dec 19 2012, 07:21am hrs
The buzz is back in the abandoned spice warehouses of Kochi. A fresh coat of paint across walls and graffitis has given a fresh lease of life to an old Jewish settlement that was once know as the terminal market for spices across the globe.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), a three-month-long international arts festival that started on December 12, puts the spotlight back on Kochi and Muziris, two very important trading centres of spices.

The ancient city of Muziris, located 30 km from Kochi, was a prosperous seaport and financial centre in the First Century BC. Believed to have been swept by the sea during the 1341 AD Periyar river flood, Muziris was a key link to the Indo-Roman Empire and Indo-Greek trade routes. Trade shifted from Muziris to Mattancherry as the flood in Periyar created a natural harbor in Kochi. Interestingly, the Biennale comes at a time when spice trade is bypassing Kochi for various reasons.

Kochi used to receive some 70,000 -90,000 tonnes of pepper every year. Currently, the spot market availability of pepper is minimal and trading volumes at the 50-year-old commodity exchange of Indian Pepper and Spice Trade Association (Ipsta) has dwindled. Members have stayed away from trading in the past few years or have shifted to new commodity exchanges. The regional exchange, formed in 1957, was once the only exchange in the world to trade in pepper futures. Nearly 300-400 tonnes of pepper used to change hands daily at the Ipsta floors. Some abandoned warehouses in the old town of Mattancherry are now being converted to boutique resorts. Foreigners still come in large numbers, but they dont come any more for pepper. With pepper production on the decline and the bulk of the product being sold at the primary point itself, Kochi is also likely to lose its sobriquet of being the terminal market for pepper.

Pepper trade is struggling to survive. Many trading houses have shifted operations and warehouse from the Mattancherry area. Spice trade no longer holds the place as it did several decades ago. Biennale could be the solution to the problem and help trade and tourism, Jose Dominic, CEO pf CGH Earth Group, a leading hotel chain said.

Veteran trader Kishore Shamji feels that pepper has virtually abandoned Mattancherry for political and fiscal reasons. Militant trade unions have a role in some traders shifting to other states. Tax anomalies are another reason for trade shifting to the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, he said. Shamji points out that Kerala traders have to pay 5% VAT for buying pepper, while traders from other states need pay only 2% CST when the take out pepper to processing centers at Erode and Pollachi.

The decline of trade saw tourism coming to the rescue of Kochi, which has a rich history. Old texts may have fired the imagination about the starting point of the Spice Route. The unfettered exchange of trade and culture opened the space to all religions. In different times in history, Chinese, Jews, Portuguese, Dutch and the British made Kochi their hub for trade. Pepper was as valuable as gold in the age of discovery. In the 16th century, over half of Portugals state revenue came from West African gold, Indian pepper and other spices. The proportion of the spices greatly outweighed the gold.

Kochi and Muziris were the two windows to the world through which trade, religions and culture came to the Indian sub-continent. Judaism, Christianity and Islam came to India through Muziris. Jainism and Buddhism flourished near the ancient trade center. Chinese and the Arabs had their colonies in both ports. The liberal and cosmopolitan outlook of the people was instrumental in the growth of these centers. We adopted Koch-Muziris as the central themes because of the universal outlook of the people and place, Boney Thomas, research coordinator of the KMB Foundation told FE.

Visiting artistes are using the lost port as a theme for the event. Many pieces will involve found art. A Kerala-born sculptor is designing a piece with abandoned anchors, while Vivan artist Sundaram is creating a 400 square-foot reconstruction of Muziris using terracotta shards unearthed at the excavation site. He will both physically throw water on the installation, and incorporate video of flowing water, to represent the destruction of the city.