As luck would have it - and it really was luck, we didn't even know we were going to Kerala until we'd secured rail tickets the morning before - our trip to Fort Cochin coincided with the Biennale, the city's two yearly festival of contemporary art.
The exciting thing about the Biennale was that rather than staging exhibitions in purpose-built art galleries, for three months the entire city becomes a showcase for art, encouraging both residents and tourists alike to explore every corner of Cochin.
The town beach served as a fish cemetery, a memorial to the tons of sea life plucked from the ocean every day.
The city walls were whitewashed to create a blank canvas for street artists.....
Normally out of bounds to the general public, Cochin's private members clubs and the reading rooms of the city's intelligentsia opened their grounds, transforming them into sculpture gardens in which everybody could roam freely.
And those wonderful disused, colonial-era warehouses of Mattencherry? They were unlocked, the sealed & shuttered windows prised open and the floors and rafters swept free of cobwebs and replaced with art.
Can you imagine the health and safety implications of opening derelict 17th Century buildings with rickety staircases, crumbling beams and subsidence to the general public here in the West?
|Taken in Aspinwall House, the former premises of English spice traders Aspinwall & Company, established in 1867.|
And the art? Stupendously good. Some shocking - life-sized photographs of the newly-deceased dressed in haute couture; Others humbling - tributes to the Indian manual worker, a bust cast in bronze, not of an eminent politician but of a railway sweeper, one of the thousands of women risking life & limb 12 hours a day, 7 days a week by clearing the tracks of debris and a shelf of three items of sweat-stained clothing, the sole possessions of a road worker; Some thought-provoking - photography, not of beautiful buildings or the verdant neighbouring countryside but of the mundane, building sites, water towers, garages and food kiosks; To the downright odd - from a twenty foot scale model of the Colosseum, crafted from dog chews to a life-size sculpture in paper of a public urinal.
Of course, there's far more to Cochin's arts scene than the contemporary. The city is the only place in Kerala that visitors are guaranteed to catch a performance of Kathakali - the classical Indian dance performed by an all-male cast, adorned in elaborately colourful make-up, costumes (pom poms and coin jewellery galore!) and masks. This Hindu performance art form is believed to have started in the 17th Century but its roots lie in temple and folk art said to date back to the first millennium AD.
Traditionally Kathakali takes place in Hindu temple grounds and go on throughout the night but Cochin has several dedicated theatres with shorter, more tourist-friendly performances acted out by professional Kathakali actors, who have trained for years.
If you arrive early, like we did, it's possible to watch the actors applying their make-up prior to the performance.
You'll also get a lesson (in English) deciphering the actor's intricate facial movements, which will help you understand the story a little better.
The princess reminded me of Boy George in his 1980s heyday.
The performance we saw tells of a prince who loses his wife to the Demon King in a card game. The princess refuses to do the menial tasks demanded of her by her captor and is beaten. She appeals to the gods for help and is given a never-ending sari which prevents the demon from stripping her and humiliating her further. In return she vows to leave her hair unwashed until she is released.
Twelve years later, after a long forest exile, the prince meets and fights the Demon King. He wins the battle and avenges his enemy by disemboweling him and eating his heart. The princess is released and after washing her hair in the Demon King's blood, thanks the gods and returns to her prince.
During the make-up session we learned that the good guys had green faces, the baddies had red ones. and that all the actors put red dye in their eyes to heighten the drama.
This chap is our flawed hero, the gambling prince. Check out those pompoms!
We'd seen amateur Kathakali in Kerala years before but this version was miles better and at £3 a ticket great value for money.
By strange coincidence a new series of the ace BBC show, The Real Marigold Hotel starts this Wednesday and is set in Cochin (billed in the TV guides as Kochi, the city's modern name).