Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018: Will anon artist Guess Who make an appearance again?

I ended my last blog post with a bit of a riddle. The street art I documented in the last post, most of it seemed like commissioned work. Visually brilliant that it was, it still missed that edginess one generally associates with street art. While walking the streets of Kochi, I also came across this artwork which was a bit quirky, political in its messaging and not too elaborate.

The tag read “Guess Who”.

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The striking aspect of this stencil art was the mashups of popular international figures with Indian everyman/everywoman. For instance, the smiling face of Colonel Sanders pasted on a daily wage labourer sitting on the ground in dhoti and chappals or Mona Lisa’s face on the body of a typical Indian village girl carrying a pot of water.

The artwork, which did not have these kind of mashups, was mostly accompanied by some witty prose.

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First I thought it may be some local artist, who is renowned for these cheeky artworks. But spotting Guess Who artwork isn’t that easy, like it wasn’t at the best of Kochi locations to sport artwork. It was mostly to be seen on walls in tiny lanes or plastered on the sidewalk which was filled with advertisement posters.

This made me wonder, if this was one of those genuine street artists who stamp the city with their artwork for no money, but to make a statement?

Sure enough, a Google search online revealed interesting aspects of Guess Who. The artists’ work apparently started showing up around the time of the 2014 Kochi Muziris Biennale, the first of its kind to be held in India. Guess Who’s artwork was a protest against what he/she thought to be an elite art festival. There even was a map of Fort Kochi dotted with Guess Who artwork.

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Some of Guess Who’s earlier works involved pasteups, which of course because of their very nature must have been taken down or painted over. I didn’t see a lot of the works which I later discovered online. Some of those that survived, seem to be on their last leg. The stencil work though did pop up with some cheeky messaging on the side. I would assume that was the more recent work.

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With the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018 all set to begin from 12 December and go all the way up to March 2019, will Guess Who strike again? Will it be that much more difficult to spot new Guess Who artworks, now that it is a well known fact that one of the motivations behind the artworks was to protest against the Biennale? Will the Biennale let him be, knowing that the artist started his/her documentation on the walls of Kochi, to send a message to the organisers of the Biennale?

We shall find out in the coming days.

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Munich diaries: Surfboarding in the middle of a garden on the Eisbach Welle

Surfing or Surfboarding is an adventure sport one generally associates with the sun and the sand. Something that you see from the corner of your eye while you are bumming around at the beach. The only surfing I have seen at home is on TV. So it came as quite a shock when I first learnt about this legit surfing that happens smack bang in the middle of a huge garden. That too on a river bed!

I am talking about the Eisbach Welle in the Englischergarten in Munich.

When I first saw it while channel surfing (no pun intended) many summers ago, I thought it was an indoor surfing-practise centre. Where artificial waves were generated. Till I noticed the surrounding greenery. And the penny dropped, that this wasn’t an indoors thing.

When I landed in Munich, among the Frauenkirche, the many beer gardens, die Altstadt and other tourist magnets, seeing the Eisbach Welle was high on my list. Of course, I did not have any delusions of trying my hand (rather legs) at the sport.

Eisbach Welle literally translates to ice-brook wave. The wave appeared for the first time somewhere around 1972 when the city was constructing a bridge over the Eisbach stream, which is basically a tributary of the larger Isar river that flows through Munich. Eisbach follows a 2km path inside the Englischer Garten. While the wave that formed initially was just a couple of feet in height, the local surfers with their ingenuity decided to improvise. The current wave, which rises over a metre, has been created by strategically submerging concrete blocks and having wooden planks on the side to stabilise the wave as well. It has become a surfers paradise since. Considering the nearest surfable ocean is almost a 1000km from Munich.


As you are trodding on the path leading to the Eisbach Welle, it is the roar of the waves that will first reach your ears before the actual sight. Now there are many ways to reach the Eisbach Welle. You could just put it in Google Maps and navigate right to the last step. Or switch off Maps once you hear that roar of water, and just aurally figure out the way. I did the latter. It’s not too difficult. If you are trying to locate it from the road, then it is on Prinzeregentenstrasse or near Haus der Kunst museum.

As I made my way through the clearing, there was already a crowd collected to watch the pros at work. And yes, it is only meant for learned surfers. This is not your beginner’s surfing school in Munich. I was under the assumption that things would be casual as it was an unconventional surfing destination. I was thinking bare-chested men in QuikSilver surfing shorts and women in long-sleeved spring cut surfing gear (Yes, I had to Google the technical term). But to my surprise, there were surfers dressed in proper wetsuits – the type you see scuba divers wear – covering the entire body complete with the zip tag hanging around the neck region. On enquiring with my cousin, I learned that the temperature of the water even in summers is under 20 degrees Celcius.

One look at the surfers and you know that these guys know their shit inside out. Considering the 10-12 mt width of the river, and the wave formations operating at its fiercest in a limited area, which is the real challenge, there is no scope for a party of surfers to be on the waves at the same time. Es wird chaotisch sein. It would be chaotic.

Since we are in Germany, you see a process to address this conundrum. At a time, only one surfer is allowed to surf the waves. If he or she falls, then they clear the space for the next surfer while themselves standing at the end of the queue which has formed. Order is the name of the game here. And it is quite fascinating to watch, to time the surfers. Maybe if you have time and can gather some friends around, you can even start taking bets on the sly. Just kidding.

You can either watch these surfers from the side of the river or head up the mound of the dirt path which leads to the road connected to the bridge. The bridge functions as a gallery, and the tributary of the mighty Isar river turns into a stage, on which the surfers are performing. Seemingly for the delight of its audience. Maybe I am exaggerating there. Most of the surfers don’t even acknowledge the crowd, directing all their focus on the waves.

I am not a surfer, but watching that sport was lovely. The idea of trying to maintain balance when every force is acting against you is a pleasure to behold. Using the correct stance, guiding the front of your surfboard in a way that nullifies the effect of the wave which is trying to topple you over, needs your 110 percent attention. Unless of course, you like embracing the river, that is. Mind you, the banks are made of stone. So you have to be ultra-careful if with your balance around the edge of the Eisbach.

As I said before, only experienced surfers should bother on this wave. The Eisbach stream, although isn’t as dangerous as the Isar river, has still claimed some lives. While the administration wanted to ban the surfing, owing to the danger it presented, a ‘Save the Wave’ campaign eventually prevented that. It was illegal till 2010. There were even reports of surfers being chased away by the police, and they had to eventually collect their surfboards from the police stations, after paying a fine of course. But by 2012, it was hosting a European River Surfing Championship.

Now, though it is woven into the cultural fabric of Munich.

The Valley of Flowers: A slice of heaven!

“I will lift up mine eyes upto the hills, from whence cometh my help”, read the memorial of the British student botanist Joan Margaret Legge, who while collecting some flora samples lost her life after a fatal slip back in 1939. In this heavenly place that is the Valley of Flowers, where the mind is in a state of total ecstasy, this memorial acts as a stark reminder of our mortality.

Located within the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, in the Chamoli district in Uttarakhand, the Valley of Flowers is a national park where over 500 species of flowers, are the main attraction. It is open to the public from July to October, when most of the flowers are in bloom. The trek up to the Valley of Flowers starts from its base point – a small hamlet known as Ghangria – which seems to have more mules and horses than humans.

No sooner had I started the trek towards the Valley, than I noticed the stench of mule piss and dung being replaced by the fragrance of the wet earth and the countless flowers – a highly potent mix. Even though it was just a 3 km uphill trek, I was taking my own sweet time as I was surrounded on my way with exotic flowers. They came in all hues – blue, violet, yellow, orange, red. My mind kept wondering, if this route itself is so full of flowers, what lies in store at the actual destination?

It’s a stony pathway going downhill and then uphill, with the edges covered with green-coloured metal railings to lean on to. There are some patches however, where the road is quite narrow and definitely not meant for those suffering from vertigo. Halfway into the route, I was treated to my very first glacier sighting. In fact, a portion of the route went right through the glacier. And the glacier-n00b that I was, I slipped a couple of times, not anticipating the change in grip. My Woodlands which were ace grippers on the muddy path, were more like roller skates on the icy surface.

Clouds can be real mood-killers here, covering a majority of the high-rising black-coloured snow-peppered mountains. In the verdant greenery, those mountains look almost lifeless but when seen from the human vantage point, look quite majestic. Only when a drifting cloud engulfs you and reduces your route visibility for a while do you fall in love with the clouds. That is one experience no trekker is ever tired of.

After a couple of hours of negotiating various patches, slippery muddy and icy roads, I finally came across a wooden bridge mounted above a stream of gushing pristine water which led to a board that read in the Devanagari Script “Fulon ki Ghati me aapka swagat hai”. After already having been subjected to so many flowers and changing landscapes enroute, my expectations were on a much higher pedestal, than when I had started my trek. This was a UNESCO World Heritage site we were dealing with, after all.

I wasn’t disappointed. The sheer variety of flowers I came across, as I made my way through the narrow gravelly path surrounded by lush greenery, made me feel like I was bang in the middle of a flower-encyclopedia. A botanist I am not, so I didn’t really know the scientific or, for that matter, even the common names of most of the flowers. Blue poppies, Himalayan balsam, Brahma kamal, Edelweiss are just some names I am able to remember from some of the experts who were there to check out one particular species. Everywhere I looked, it seemed as if someone had maintained a garden, but it was all wild growth. There was a method to the flowery madness for sure. Patches of pink, yellow, white, purple seemed to be scattered in places. The textures on each of the flowers were quite different, it made me wonder how completely illiterate I am as far as flowers are concerned. Also how awfully over-rated a rose is!

The Valley of Flowers spans over a huge area and it is surrounded by green hills. I lost count of the number of streams and brooks that dotted the landscape. Intermittent mild showers and winds sometimes made it a task to get a good macro shot. But in a place like this, you are bound to go nuts with your camera. There is just so much to shoot and so little time.

I used to think that ‘a land of fairies’, was only the figment of someone’s imagination. But sitting beside the stream of fresh mineral water and beholding that colourful sight of the valley I realised, that this might just be one of those places. I have been on countless treks, but no other place has been as remote as this, as away from humanity, as visually brilliant! Where the only sound you can hear is of a waterfall cascading down from some mountain nearby, where the fragrance from the earth and the flowers around you is so over-powering you will hardly miss your perfume, where all your senses are excited to their limits, but the mind is still at peace.

This is one of those places.

Joshimath – exploring without a plan

I stumbled upon this write up I had written around six years back when I’d taken a solo trip to the Valley of Flowers. This is about Joshimath, a place I stayed enroute, before proceeding to the Valley of Flowers. 

“Sahab, yaha pe kuch dekhne ko nahi hai. Aap Auli jaao,” these were the words I was greeted with as I was settling down in my hotel room in Joshimath, which was the last thing I wanted to hear after a back-breaking eight hour car journey.  

Located on NH58 at a height of 1875m and about 9 hours from Rishikesh, give or take a few hours depending on the efficiency of your Sumo driver. I had left Rishikesh around 9 in the morning and reached Joshimath around 4pm. Did not bother hunting for the right deals at hotels, as the first one I went to gave me a two-bedroom room with attached bathroom at an affordable rate.

Vinod, the hotel guy, I realised, wasn’t lying. For a tourist there is nothing in Joshimath, he should proceed to Auli. Joshimath is basically used as a stopover point, by travellers going to and returning from Govindghat, a base for trekkers to proceed to the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. It’s also a point from where people can proceed to the charming Auli – a ski destination during the winters. There’s a ropeway which transports you from Joshimath to Auli in around 45 mins.

Having already missed the last to and fro ropeway to Auli, I had no option but to explore Joshimath. It was still 5pm and I had around two more hours of light. So I set out to explore.


Joshimath is a sleepy town, with tonnes of hotels strewn around the main market area. I did the regular touristy thing by visiting the Adi Sankaracharya Math, which according to the Vinod, was the only place to see in all of Joshimath. It is located at a height from the marketplace, from where one gets a great vantage point. The hills on the opposite side of the valley were majestic. Clouds were shrouding the peaks every fifteen minutes or so, making photographing them tricky.

Sankaracharya Math was constructed in 8th century AD. It has a Laxmi Narayan Mandir at the entrance. The bright yellow color of the temple really looks out of place in the surrounding greens. To the left, one comes across a huge meditation hall. Proceeding ahead took me to the cave where Sankaracharya used to meditate called Shree Totkacharya Gunfa. The floor of the cave was comparitively cooler. The view from the cave was stunted by the staircase leading upto the Shiva temple.

I came back on the main road. I remembered seeing a milestone talking of some Narsimha Temple. Now Narsimha, as we all know is the half-human, half-lion Avatar of Vishnu, who killed King Hiranyakashyap. The story goes something like this: King Hiranyakashyapa was blessed with the boon that no human, no animal could kill him either on earth or above it. Neither would he be killed during the day nor during the night, by no weapon known to mankind. He is drunk on power and is hellbent on killing his son, the Vishnu devotee Bhakt Pralhad. So the Narsimha avataar (half-man, Half Lion) gets Hiranyakashyap on his lap (thereby him not being on earth or up above) and kills him by piercing his nailed paws in Hiranyakashyap’s stomach (thereby satisfying the condition that no weapon can kill Hiranyakashyap). Hindu Mythology sometimes really does fascinate me to a great extent.

Having known the legend behind the story beforehand, a first for me, I decided to look out for this temple. The path leading up to the temple took me through the quaint alleys of Joshimath. This gave me an opportunity to pass by local houses and witness the villagers going about their lives first hand. The pathways sloping all throughout, kind of reminded me of Gangtok. I guess this characteristic is common with all the high altitude towns. One house in particular with is white columns, wooden balconies and windows, reminded me of a scene from an Indipop song called ‘Piya Basanti Re,’ by Ustad Sultan Khan which has been shot in Himachal Pradesh. There were many such houses I came across while taking this out of the way route towards the temple.

The temple was located in a corner. One really has to search for it. It is a temple complex, not really huge in size. But still it has many a confusing pathways. There is a Hanuman Temple, a Narsimha Temple and other temples. It also has a Math or a religious place, which is conspicuous due to the bright yellow paint spread over its exterior. The place was really quiet, I mean I could hear a pin drop. It is rare in temples in India to be so quiet. Another thing worth noticing was the cleanliness around the temples. Maybe the fact that some part of the complex housed the Pandit’s family was a reason. But it was pleasant to come to a quiet and clean temple. The one thing that fascinated me here was the roofing system. The roofs were made out of flat stones, again something I assume is a characteristic of high altitudes.  

I met a local lad who gave me his version of the Narsimha story which was obviously made up. It was fun talking to him though and he told me about my next pit stop. I proceeded ahead off the main road. Came across another road which had jeeps parked. I would be on one of these the next morning heading towards Govind Ghat. I feasted on the local chaat and sat on a park bench with the wall of mountain in front of me with a valley leading up to it. Around me were people discussing local affairs in their mother tongue, which was slightly different from Hindi, but I was able to follow. This is one of the things I like, about visiting small towns. The chatter is so hyper-local, so completely cut off from the mainstream, that it’s refreshing. Being connected to the Matrix (global media) our conversations inevitably centre around pretty mainstream things, if the topic of discussion isn’t personal.

It was quite peaceful just sitting there observing people, admiring the tiny waterfall trying to make its way out of the wall of mountain. The zig-zag roadways on the mountain in the distance brought home the reality of the troubles people living at a height have to face. No wonder a lot of the residents have brilliants stamina. I could sit hours staring at the mountains. There’s something about mountains, that makes me feel irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.

I had not kept any track of where I was headed, so was but natural for me to forget my way back. But it was not very difficult finding my hotel. There was a ‘bandar-ka-khel’ sort of a thing happening under my hotel. There was quite an audience to watch the shenanigans of the two kids who were doing stunts which were impressive. Last time I had seen that in the city was when I was as old as the kids. It seemed cruel to me, but that was what gave that family its dinner. I gave 50 bucks to the father and headed to my hotel room.

Take Care,

Intl Saturdays 52: Getting lost to discover a gem!

One of the best ways to explore a place, is (I know a lot of you will call me crazy) TO GET LOST!
Sure, I love the surety offered by a map and agreed it helps you see places faster. But sometimes, I just keep it aside and just take whichever path takes my fancy. And almost all the times, I have got to see an aspect of that place which planned travel would never allow me to.

When I was in Tokyo, Japan, after a while the glitzy buildings, the prim and propah everything got to me. I had some fellow journos who too were keen to explore some Japanese street food. We really had no clue as to where we would find it. One night while we were walking around the brightly lit streets around Shinjuku station, we noticed a huge building with the sign Bic Cameras – a camera enthusiast’s wet dream I should say.

After coming out of the electronics shop, dejected that we could not find any camera body or lens which we could afford, we were just roaming around the Shinjuku station. Clearly we were lost and could not seem to locate the exit we had taken. That Shinjuku has tonnes of those is an altogether different matter.

We kept following whichever road we felt would lead us to the station and we came across a small alley which had a lot of very small food joints which were joined end-to-end on either side of the street. Dense flavoured smoke was emanating out of each joint and we went ahead and parked our asses in one such joint.

It dawned on us quite soon that we were the only non-Japanese people in this hole-in-the-wall food joints. It comprised a rectangular seating arrangement, where the cook was occupying one half of the joint and there were seats on the other half. Think teppanyaki style cooking in a very tiny joint. Another realization was that not one person around us spoke English and the menu was in Japanese. We looked at each other and knew instantly that this would be an experience of a lifetime. The locals were smiling at us and we smiled back.

The elderly cook showed us a picture menu to help us out of our dilemma. This is a common thing in any restaurant in Tokyo. Considering this was a very small joint, there was no space to put up faux food items which is the norm outside any regular restaurant. Anyway we pointed to the items that looked good. We ordered a beer each but later realised it was not a great idea as the ramen preparation was brothy. Now it was time for us to surprise the locals, by eating the ramen with chopsticks.

The place we went to had ramen as its speciality. But majority of the other joints had yakitori as its speciality. After coming back to the hotel and researching online did I realise that we had just toured the famous Yakitori Alley. It was a lovely discovery and was great to be at a place where we were complete outsiders, there was no medium of communication other than hand signs and apart from the photo-menu, no other way for us to know what was in our food.

The thing I personally loved about the place was the convivial atmosphere all around. People all around were not just conversing with their friends, but most of them were also talking to the cook/manager. Maybe they are regulars, maybe they are not. I actually felt like a kid there who was in need of some sort of directions, some sort of guidance as to what is on the menu and what will I like eating. Sometimes, it is good to be in that state. Everyone around us, despite not being able to speak a word of any common language was jovial – smiling, asking us to try some other food item after we were done with the first. Also for a change, we got to experience what a street food is like in Tokyo, which is otherwise flooded with great eating out options but which are highly sophisticated. I liked this down-to-earth place for a change. On researching more on the Yakitori culture I realised that there were a lot more places in different areas which had similar atmosphere. Wish one day when I revisit this beautiful country, I will have more compelling and complete experiences and photographs.

Take Care,

PS: 52 weeks ago I started this project of putting up photographs from my archives of the places I have been to outside India. I managed to cover Thailand and Japan. There are still more photographs of Japan that I would like to share apart from the three other countries. But I have decided to let International Saturdays take a break for some time. I have become lazy with my street photography and I realise that I have been putting up less street work in between the Intl Saturday posts. That needs to stop, as this blog is about India and its cities first. Intl Saturdays has been a surprisingly regular initiative from someone like me for whom irregularity is a given. Hopefully someday soon the Intl day shall return, but it’s Sayonara for now:)