A Menu to Soft Sell Art: Art Cafés are Here to Stay

Kochi: Kerala is a haven for artists and, as Satish Menon of Ledhi The Café rightly points out: “At least two to three out of the top ten artists across the world seems to be from Kerala.” That data itself speaks a lot about the artistic richness of our State. But, as many artists used to point out, we never heard of art buyers in Kerala. Though Malayalis excel in appreciating art and artists, we were never seen enthusiastic about buying art.

Kerala is witnessing a wave of art cafés. At par with the artistic platter and marvels they offer, the food they serve and the ambience they create are also important elements that attract people to the cafés

Artists, both foreign and local, have been travelling to Mumbai or Delhi and even abroad to find buyers. But the mushrooming of art cafés and small, yet happening and interactive, art galleries – a result of the art boom during 2004-05 – has slowly changed the scenario in a modest way. “We never had a space for artists and art lovers to hold an open discussion and appreciate the works other than the galleries, which most people felt were meant only for serious art critics. With art cafés coming into the picture, the scenario started changing. Now that we have local, casual buyers coming to the cafés just like serious art investors, it seems to be an encouraging shift,” opines Satish.

Though art café culture has been up and running in Italy, Paris, Germany and other such foreign locales from the times of the old-world classical artists, art cafés are a relatively new concept in Kerala. We used to have intellectual gatherings first in the local ‘chai’ shops which then shifted to the Indian Coffee House chain of restaurants. What we lacked was the elegant atmosphere and quaint ambience where art can be discussed and appreciated. With the State witnessing a wave of art cafés, the paintings of foreign and domestic artists have started spicing up the walls of the cafés. Now, there are welcome splashes of colour on the walls and the cafes present scenes such as the old-fashioned, reclaimed and handcrafted items on display.

“There was a time when gallery owners and artists had to make serious efforts to bring people to an art show or exhibition, but that has changed. Thanks to the art cafés and art galleries, which have made an effort to bring art and artists to the common man,” says artist A V Vijayan of School of Fine Arts in Haripad, Alappuzha. “I know a few artists – beginners and not-so-big names – who got a platform to showcase their works through art cafés. The price they receive for their creations may not be very high, but displaying in cafés can ensure sales, mostly to foreign tourists. If the cafés are located in tourist hot spots like Fort Kochi, the works are likely to be seen and appreciated by many more prospective buyers. There is a situation where high-profile artists sell their works at prices above Rs. 1 lakh, while good works of low-profile artists do not even fetch Rs. 5,000. Art Cafés are the need of the hour to help small-timers. Many big names also tasted real sales first through art cafés. Viewership may be more in big galleries but sales is poor as the prices are high,” says Johnson Jacob, an architect by profession and artist by passion.

“For an artist early in his career, exhibiting his works in a non-gallery venue like restaurant or café can be a good way to start. It is always better to display your creations where people can see them than the works gathering dust in the corner of your studio,” says Vijayan. Artist Dhanya Dathan, an English teacher by profession, feels that though these art cafés are capable of supporting upcoming talents, the benefits at present are going mostly to established artists.

Fort Kochi-Mattancherry area had been the hub for art gazers till recently. In 2015, with the launch of ‘Eight-Point Art Café’ in Kollam – a colonial villa in the Government Guest House complex at Asramam in the city which had been lying unused for more than 15 years – the café culture reached that part of the State too. Now, there is ‘Eco Puccini LaLa’ in Varkala, a couple of art café-cum-accommodation units in the misty hills of Munnar and, interestingly, ‘Clay Pot Café’ in Ponkunnam – a surprisingly unusual place. ‘Ledhi The Café’, right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Ernakulam, bringing art much closer to the city dwellers and with ‘Gudhaam’ coming to Kozhikode, the quorum is met. These cafés exemplify the culture of the place better than any museum. At par with the artistic platter and marvels they offer, the food they serve and the ambience they create are also important elements that attract people to the cafés. Their success mantra is the stimulating combination of coffee, food and art. The owners start art cafés driven by a passion towards art and they generate income by providing soulful food. Thanks to these cafés, dishes such as ‘Shakshuka’ from West Asia and several coffee varieties have been introduced to and popularised among Malayalis. Most of the cafés employ up to 15 persons and some have resident artists too.

Concealed in courtyards, narrow lanes and unsuspecting corners, these charming art cafés are going beyond the concept of formal gallery spaces and trying to make art accessible to all. And, surprisingly, the one common connect for many of the cafés and galleries is that most of them are functioning in renovated old godowns or bungalows, which carry stories dating back to at least a hundred years. In very informal, yet quaint, cosy and artistic settings, these places let any visitor appreciate and admire the works by local and international upcoming and established artists with a share of exotic cuisine.

An Exotic Place to Enjoy Art, Ideas and Cuisine

Though the name Kashi Art Café (www.kashiartgallery.com) is almost synonymous with art and artists, and food, there is no huge signboard to guide you to the place. The tantalising aroma of coffee wafting through the air will lead you to this quaint café at the end of the Burgher Street in Fort Kochi. The artistic and architectural marvels of Fort Kochi will unravel before you the moment you step in to the café. The silence inside is interrupted only by the noise of the ice crusher. Young or old, foreign or domestic, visitors throng the café almost all time of the day, but yet it remains very peaceful. This airy tropical garden café is not just an art gallery or a café; its restful ambience offers a good space for exchange of ideas by people from all over the world. There was a time when Kashi had little or no competition at all. But now the situation has changed. Almost a dozen art cafés have sprung up around Kashi itself.

Ask Edgar Pinto, the owner of Kashi, about the competition he faces and he points to the words of Herman Melville printed on the menu card: “It is better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation.” Edgar says whatever came up after Kashi, most of them are just imitations of what Kashi is offering. So, he has no such fears about competition, he says. Kashi displays paintings of various artists and also promotes exhibitions and art festivals. “Though a number of works of artists are on display in Kashi, I have a personal liking for Riyas Komu’s work,” says Edgar. Almost half of the wall just opposite the ‘Reading Man’ carry a wonderful new art work by Komu. What adorns the gallery walls of Kashi now is artist Indu Antony’s ‘Vincent Uncle’, the image of a hairy-legged, mundu-clad uncle etched in the artist’s childhood memories.

Another thing which is unique about Kashi is that this might probably be the only place where you can order for breakfast anytime during café hours. Lunch here includes assorted sandwiches and salads and a hearty soup of the day. Kashi is also famous for its freshly-made cakes and pies and their specially brewed coffee or tea.
Established in 1997, Kashi Art Café is a must visit place for art lovers. The café is open seven days a week from 8.30 am to 10.00 pm.

A Metamorphosis from Dingy Godown to Classy Art Café

Nothing can evaluate the quality of an art café better than the words of a happy customer. Gudhaam Café (#GudhaamArtCafé) at Gujarati Street in Kozhikode carries one such review on its FB page by Aditya Sarat, who says: “What Samovar Café at Jehangir Art Gallery was to South Mumbai, Gudhaam Art Café is to Kozhikode. It is done up with class. The cosiness of the ambience will attract you instantly. I envision this café to be an oasis of calm.”

Gudhaam first catches attention by its name, which is a very common word in Malayalam meaning a warehouse in a not-so-accessible area. “Since it was a granary before remodelling it into the current form, we thought the word which depicts its old state was the best suited to name our café,” says Basheer Badayakandy, the owner. Gudhaam has an art gallery and an air-conditioned café named ‘House of Sparrows’ on the ground floor. The first floor unravels before the visitor a bygone era, bringing a rush of memories. There is an old typewriter, a gramophone, old computers, gem stones, curios, photographs, myriad paintings, sculptures, the old-world block-types, a coin-operated music box which can play upto 1,500 songs and a multitude of other such charms from the past, which belong to Basheer’s personal collection.

It was Naseeb Mahmood, a designer, who recreated a 150-year-old shabby godown into this swanky art café. Paintings by P Sarat Chandran and Sadhu Aliyura adorn the walls of the first floor. The café recently held an exhibition of paintings by the children of Sukritham Girls’ Home, under the theme ‘Princess’. The kids were trained by Weera Kulppi, a Finland national who has been volunteering at the Home. Sanjit Mondal, an aspiring Bengali painter-cum-sculptor, is the caretaker of the café. Basheer has plans to give a facelift to the entire street in which Gudhaam is located. Having been with Dubai Police Force, he also has plans to start a vintage automobile café. “I am fond of everything vintage and artistic,” Basheer says.

A Surprising Locale

‘Clay Art Café’ (#clayartcafé), started in February 2016, is a unique concept with thatched bamboo roof and walls plastered with mud. The two-level old style building houses artworks by Sibi P Martin, an artist who also owns the café. Also on display are artistic creations of his wife Sophy Sibi as well as his architect son Frank Martin.
The café, located at Ponkunnam, can be found on the route from Kottayam to Thekkady. Interested travellers have an opportunity to learn clay modelling. The café also houses a photo studio. The variety of milk shakes, cappuccino and home-made tea and coffee are a ‘not-to-be-missed’ at the café.

Riders’ Pleasure

Looking at the ‘Riders Club Art Café’ (#theridersclubmunnar) at Iruttukanam in Munnar, no one can, even in their wildest guess, say that it was a 100-year-old liquor warehouse. A passionate rider himself, Anish Thankachan started the café for riders and art lovers. “I wanted to support the local artists, who do not have much access to the high-end galleries to display their artistic creations,” says Anish. Though started as an art café initially, Riders Club expanded by adding wooden cottages adjacent to it. “We are planning to have a hostel with bunker beds exclusively for the solo riders where they can avail rooms at a rate as cheap as Rs. 300,” says Anish.

Making A Visitor Feel Like a Dutch Aristocrat

It was during the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that I got a chance to visit the prestigious David Hall (www.davidhall.in). While taking a walk through the building, built in 1695, I felt like being transformed into a Dutch aristocrat for a moment. David Hall was back then the residence of Dutch commander Hendrik Adriaan Van Reede Tot Drakenstein, who conceived ‘Hortus Malabaricus’, the legendary treatise on the medicinal plants of Western Ghats. Located near the parade ground in Fort Kochi, David Hall gets its name from a Jewish businessman, David Koder, who took over the property after the Dutch period.

Managed by CGH Earth, this Dutch cottage has an art gallery, a café, and an events space. Typical Dutch architecture is visible on all elements, including the wooden roof which is made of flat face rafters. A droop in the wood is seen as a result of these horizontal beams and so it is supported by trusses. As a whole, the roof gives a look of an upturned hill and this architectural wonder is highlighted with the modern lighting in the hall. Three-foot-wide walls and four-column windows are the other characteristics of the building and they add to its elegance. A well-manicured garden and the old trees in the courtyard too help David Hall retain its grace. “David Hall is not just a typical gallery,” says Jose Dominic, CEO, CGH Earth. “We would like to call it a cultural centre. We consider this as a space for the ‘new and the unknown.’”

The café, led by Mridula Jose, focusses more on propagating and promoting little-known art forms and artists. Apart from paintings and sculptures, the café also gives importance to other art forms. In October, Scottish singer-song writer Bill Adair is bringing his music to David Hall. In September, the café held an exhibition on landscape architecture titled ‘The Tracing Narratives – Indian Landscape Design.’ Meanwhile, the food at David Hall is to be experienced than explained. Seafood Spaghetti, Fish & Chips, Banana Bread French Toast, Iced Tea, Grilled Chicken, Caesar Salad, Cheese Tarts, Crepes and Burgers & Wraps are the main attractions. There is also a huge fan following for their thin crust, clay-oven baked fresh pizzas.

Café that is an Objet D’art

In this age of free Wi-Fi at malls, faster hotspot downloads and ever-buzzing city life, trying to find that one niche space where you can spend around three hours (even more if you wish to) finishing a cup of coffee? Looking for a spot to spend a quintessentially artsy, soothing day out? Mocha Art Café (#themochaartcafé) located at Jew Street in Mattancherry, named after the famous Italian Mokapot coffee, is the place to be, enjoying some delicious, soul-filling saffron tea or the Mocha special cold coffee in a relaxed atmosphere.

Approaching through myriad shops selling Kashmiri shawls and embroidered kurtas, up a creaky wooden staircase, lies this 4,000 sq. ft. artistic excellence. It is not just known for its cracking food and drink, but has much more to offer, including fine pieces of art from the very talented artist Sarah Hussain. Also, take a look around and listen to Junaid Sulaiman, the master artist who crafted this fine piece of art from a 150-year-old decrepit godown. Though a humble Junaid tries to convince us that he is not an artist, the detailing he has given to even the unattended nooks and corners will make you call him a man following artistic pursuits. From the GI-pipe-turned chandeliers to bulbs, switches, serving platter and glasses, there is art everywhere. Even the wash area offers a surprise. The wash basins are fitted on top of a sewing machine! You can also see a double-sided London clock which adorns the reception. From Kashmiri saffron tea to Persian Kahwah to the Kheema Cheese Omelette, there is everything to satiate your gastronomical craving at Mocha. Though Junaid refers to his café as a toddler, it is more like a girl in her mid-teens who has hidden a surprise and expresses an excitement in every look we share with her.

A Café in Harmony with Nature

Log on to any travel websites or applications and search for Eco Puccini LaLa (www.ecopuccinilala.com), and all you get is positive reviews about the resort, its café, food and hospitality. And, what is more surprising is Dhanesh Mohanan, the owner of the café, takes time to respond to each and every review the travelers post on those websites. Everything that belongs to the café is made out of recycled materials. “We use materials like bottles, tires, dead tree branches, coconut shells, bottle lamps etc. at the café,” says Dhanesh.

Eco Puccini provides space for artists – domestic and international, to exhibit their artworks, especially during tourist season. “We manage to hold the exhibition of works of six to eight artists every season,” says Dhanesh. The café, which was started in 2005, is a hit among both international and domestic travelers. Dhanesh says it is really an acknowledgement that the café gets repeat customers.

“Puccini LaLa is the conscious design and co-creative evolution of a harmonious and organic way of sustainable living, an integration of people into the landscape in such a way that allows us all to grow in richness, abundance and aesthetic beauty,” Dhanesh talks with much enthusiasm when he refers to the activities conducted by the café. Puccini is not just an art café; it also has space for performing arts and cookery classes, apart from a wellness centre. The café invites all kinds of artists to perform and exhibit their kind of art.

Dhanesh, who is also a vocal campaigner against plastic, proudly says that his café doesn’t encourage the use of any kind of plastic material. “It is my way of supporting Mother Nature,” says Dhanesh. The food here is cooked in the traditional way using firewood and served in earthen dishes. The café also conducts cooking classes for its inmates. “We are against adding colours and preservatives in the food we serve here,” says Dhanesh. Another major attraction is the home-made ginger beer which is a favourite brew of those who visit the café.

Ideal Place to Stimulate all Senses

In the noisy and chaotic heart of Ernakulam, one can never expect to find such a quaint, cosy and sublime artistic space. But this spot, curated by Satish Menon, is much more than what an average Kochiite can expect. ‘Indriyaabhaya’ (www.indriyaabhaya.com) at Palarivattom houses an art gallery (White Walls), a studio (Studio S), a shop (Cube) and restaurant (Ledhi) all rolled into one.

‘White Walls’ on the first floor is a small climate-controlled professional space where a number of artists – both domestic and international – exhibit their works. ‘Studio S’, where the ‘S’ stands for ‘Senses’, is a creative space for artists and people with similar tastes to exchange ideas and interact with each other. ‘Studio S’ hosts a variety of workshops every Saturday between 11 am and 5 pm that deal with art and literature. ‘Cube’ is a trade hub for artists, buyers and sellers.

“Ledhi attracts casual buyers also, and not just art investors,” says Satish. The cool, artistic café on the terrace serves exotic vegetarian dishes. “In our kitchen, each plate is like a canvas where the masterpiece is delivered to its rightful owners. Our menu has absorbed all the best flavours from across the world,” says Satish. A distinctive spread of vegetarian dishes served in the most delightful ambience is what makes Ledhi stand out from rest of the eatouts in town.

“At Indriyaabhaya, we ensure that all the senses are enticed and stimulated. Aromatic and delicious food at ‘Ledhi’ uplifts the senses of taste and smell. The beautiful paintings at ‘White Walls’ soothe the eyes. The workshops at ‘Studio S’ provide wisdom for the ears and hands to work on artistic creations. Shopping at ‘Cube’ gives a complete feeling of fullness,” Satish explains the concept behind Indriyaabhaya.

An artist himself, Satish, when he was back from Mumbai, missed the art gatherings of the famous Jehangir Art Gallery. “I wanted to create a similar space in Ernakulam and that was how Indriyaabhaya took shape,” he says. Satish, along with his partner Aswin Nandakumar, a post-graduate in Journalism and a young, passionate life skills coach, renovated a modern house into this artistic space with an eatery.

Magic of Munnar

Mistletoe (www.mistletoemunnar.com), a magical wild plant with epic status in Greek and European mythology and culture, has been considered a good omen for love, romance, family life, relationships and prosperity from time immemorial, especially in medieval Europe. At ‘Mistletoe Munnar’, you can experience the unending romance between the ever-relaxing Lakshmi peak on the north and the Chokkan Mudi peak on the east, appreciating their natural curves and lush greenery and silvery streaks of waterfalls. The art café-cum-homestay owned by Jo is very different from the regular art cafés. Here, you can find no separate space for a gallery, rather every nook and corner of Mistletoe holds some kind of an art form. Mistletoe Munnar gives special attention to bringing local talent to the café. It also houses a traditional clay oven, where one can experience baking as an art, and enjoy some good coffee and hot brew of Munnar teas along with freshly-baked cookies and breads.