Discussion Hortus Malabaricus

Today marked the first time since 333 years that a diverse interest group gathered to discuss the importance of the Hortus Malabaricus in anno 2012. Padmini Krishnan, curator of David Hall introduced Mariëlle van Miltenburg, Head of the Department of Political Affairs and Public Diplomacy of the Netherlands Embassy in New Delhi who officially opened the exhibition with a speech about the manifold meanings of the title, The Wanted Land. Speakers included Jose Dominic, one of the directors of CGH who contextualised the event with a brief talk about the possibility that this very building, David Hall, might be the exact location where the Hortus Malabaricus was produced under the direction and organisation of Hendrik van Reede tot Drakenstein. Former Mayor and presently Convenor, INTACH- Kerala State Chapter Mr Sohan, is an expert on cultural heritage and used specific maps to show exactly where the Dutch buildings once stood. He also emphasised the importance of the contemporary value of the Hortus Malabaricus by discussing how traditional knowledge is kept alive by Mr Mahesh, from the NGO Tapovanam, who provided 120 plants for the exhibition. Mr Mahesh travels in and around Fort Cochin, Vypeen and vicinity lecturing about the medicinal uses of the plants and encouraging the use of urban gardening with indigenous plants. Ajeeth Janardhanan is the executive chef at Brunton Boatyard and made special appetizers for the event with beetle nut and a spectacular mix of fresh fruit for the welcoming drink.

The artist Renée Ridgway first thanked everyone who made this exhibition financially possible, as well as those providing the content in the videos. Ridgway then spoke about The Wanted Land and explained the works in the exhibition that reflect her personal interest in the Hortus Malabaricus. She arrived in 2007 to visit her Ayurvedic doctor who had repatriated back to Kerala after having a business in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and first visited him in Mallappally. It was also an opportunity for her to visit Fort Cochin, a former Dutch settlement. In her work as a visual artist, Ridgway has completed projects in the U.S. and conducted research in Indonesia, South Africa and India, utilizing the VOC and the WIC (Dutch East and West Indian Company) as a conceptual paradigm to map and visualise the present-day traces and residues of the effects of colonial intervention.

Upon arrival Ridgway started conducting research and first heard about the Hortus Malabaricus from Anoop Skaria, Director of the Kashi Art Gallery when she stayed in Kashi’s former artist residency in Mattancherry. During the past 5 years, she has visited Fort Cochin and gathered knowledge from inhabitants (localites) as well as consulting archives and receiving texts and information from interested groups in the area. In spring 2010 she returned with filmmaker Rick van Amersfoort to conduct interviews and compile images for making the work for the group exhibition The Unwanted Land in Museum Beelden aan Zee in The Hague in 2010-2011. These installations are now at David Hall, showcased with archival documents such as a copy of the original Latin version of the Hortus (Thanks to Mr Dominic), a copy of the original engraving of Van Reede, the 2008 Malayalam version also translated by K.S. Manilal published by Kerala University and ±130 plants (thanks to Mr Mahesh and local people for their contributions).

Monolita Chatterjee, Associate Architect, at Design Combine, Architects and Designers in Kakkanad, Kochi conveyed her interest in the Hortus Malabaricus, its uniqueness of stamped testimonies and statements by local contributors and the collaboration between the Dutch and Portuguese settlers and the local physicians. She also contextualized the project through her past research consisting of interviews with people from the surrounding area and their personal genealogies, family albums and histories that are being gathered for potential archival display. This ties in to the work The Wanted Land by Ridgway that intertwines archival knowledge and oral histories as a fresh take on reiinscripting post-colonial Fort Cochin.

Muhammed Afzal from the Dutch Embassy wrapped up the evening with a summary of different projects that the Embassy supports which not only focus on Dutch history and cultural heritage but the continual interest in this cultural exchange between the Netherlands and India. He emphasised the potential for better understanding and a renewed awareness in shared interests and that contemporary art perhaps creates a more pluralistic channel than academic or business relations in which to engage the public.