Cabinets of Curiosities: All You Need to Know About the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Kada

Kochi-Muziris Biennale Kada
Kochi-Muziris Biennale KadaKochi-Muziris Biennale Kada

When attempting to find a way to describe the Biennale Kada, there was one part of the conversation with its curator – Annah Chakola - that kept coming to mind. "I have some people who keep visiting the Kada, who say that they discover something new every time they are here. I love the fact that I get to keep surprising people with what we have here." 

Having visited the Kada (shop) multiple times, I could understand exactly why people would feel that way. After a long day of wandering around the main venue of Aspinwall House at Kochi Muziris Biennale, stepping into the Biennale Kada feels like coming home. It captures the feeling of coming back to an ancestral home. A house replete with objects that could capture one’s inner child - from interesting card games and glossy coffee table books you’re afraid to touch, to jewellery in glass showcases and clothes that you would want to play dress up with. There are jute mats on the floor and vintage dressing tables with old mirrors and even handmade dolls on a shelf. 

Kochi-Muziris Biennale Kada
Kochi-Muziris Biennale KadaKochi-Muziris Biennale Kada

It is a chaos of beautiful unique objects curated with intention, as if it spoke of a life lived adventurously, travelling to the isolated corners of Kerala and beyond, and picking up pieces of craft at each stop. Every time you visit, there is something new that you discover, like a never-ending treasure hunt. 

The Biennale Kada Is For Everyone 

Annah Chakola, the curator of the Biennale Kada is a creative artist who is from Kochi. With a love for designing, curating and storytelling, her eponymous label features attires with relaxed silhouettes and handcrafted jewellery that pays homage to her Malayali roots. While she has her studio in Fort Kochi and has been working with artisans for a long time, this was her first stint at creating a space like this. 

Over the years, there was always a corner at the Biennale where you could buy KMB T-shirts, totes, and books. But it was simply a makeshift museum gift shop at best. But in returning after the pandemic-induced hiatus, the foundation decided to go with a shopping space that offered more. Annah was brought in a month before the event opened. But being someone who has been working and interacting with artisans across India, she was able to pull in a wide range of products and set up the space with the time she had. She went on to say, "I knew when I was working on the Kada, that it was important for me to highlight craft in my own way. There is so much amazing craft out there, and I’ve kind of tried to put a contemporary spin on it, while still paying homage to the traditional."

When curating the shop, something that Annah was mindful of, was ensuring that the brands and products that were featured, tied into the bigger theme of the Biennale. 'In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire’ is about embracing the attempt to practise diverging ideas, during good times and bad. It is about being at home in our unique sense of self and finding connection in shared experiences and hoping for sustained kinship beyond stark markers of the divisive. For Annah, ‘I think now, more than ever, after the pandemic, I’m hoping that our memories aren’t so short-lived that we don’t remember what’s important. As a consumer, I am more conscious about what I purchase, what I wear, and what is in my home. Because I believe that everything carries some sort of energy. We, in our country, have so much amazing craft that is dying because everyone wants things fast. We are running away from everything good and kind in the world. So in our way, I wanted to make sure that we are supporting those smaller artisans, but also making sure that we do good work. It is also about working with the artisans to ensure quality so that we can sell it to a global audience."

Coffee Table Books, Kunnikuru Jewellery and Kombucha

The collection at the Biennale Kada has also been constantly changing. Based on what is performing well, or is capturing more attention, products have been added or removed. The consumable products - from homegrown Kombucha from Ko. to Biennale edition chocolate from Mason & Co., are one of those categories that were smaller when the Kada opened but have expanded since. Annah has added teas, coffees, and other interesting products from credible brands that speak to the vibrant bounties of nature that ought to be celebrated more. Annah went on to say, "There are many categories here and that is one of the things that I love about what we have curated here. It’s almost like a little puzzle that you walk through." 

Of all the different brands and products featured here, Forest Post is one of Annah’s favourite featured brands. In her own words, "The storytelling is great with Forest Post - it is founded by Manju Vasudevan, is working with tribal communities and helping them create value-added products from their produce. She is a social entrepreneur who is working hard to revive some of their old crafts as well. Via Kerala is another brand that I love, which is working on contemporising and reviving the Malayalam script. The postcards, totes and coloring books by Swiss born artist Vanessa Meister is another favorite of mine. There is also a poncho made from thorth fabric from Chendamangalam created by Ashima Bhan that I love. I love seeing how brands take traditional craft and build a palette that makes it appealing to a wider audience."

But in talking about the brands that have been most loved by the visitors, it’s hard to pick out a single product or brand that has had exceptional sales. For Annah, the accessibility of the products featured was important. "Owing to the vast audience from varying walks of life, I wanted to make sure that there were products that were accessible to every single person who walked in. After all, it is a public art event and I can’t create a luxury store here. But I can create a luxurious emotion for everyone that visits the Kada. In that regard, some of the wellness products and even the postcards that I’ve been curating from varying local artists have been well-received."

A Space For Discovery And Reflection

Being in a space where people are looking at every piece closely and hearing first-hand feedback is something that Annah hasn’t really been a part of. But owing to her time here at the Biennale Kada, she feels like she is in a creative state of being constantly. She went on to say, "I’m in a great state of creativity right now, being inside the Biennale and when people appreciate what you create, it is very inspiring. I’ve never been in a retail space before and now it’s like I’m getting minute-by-minute feedback. I’m one of those people who is constantly looking at things in my head, and this is a great space to be in. So I’m playing more with our handloom textiles, which I didn’t have the opportunity to do. I’m also getting to do things that are more relevant to the tropical-ness of Kerala. Now I’m inspired to do more things that are playful, and colourful. So there is a lot that this time has made me feel."

Even as merely a visitor, the curated keepsakes at the Biennale Kada are something that can stir creativity and contemplation. There are sketchbooks for the artists and postcards for those who still send snail mail. The books from artists like Dayanita Singh and Pushpamala N can make one question the idea of art itself. The Biennale Kada experience at the end of the day, like Annah mentioned, is not just a museum gift shop. It is an experiential retail space that conveys the value of the generational knowledge of craft and illustrates how it can seamlessly fit into the modern day.

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