Aspinwall House is a large sea-facing 19th century British heritage building in Fort Kochi. Now this property is globally known as the main venue of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the international contemporary art festival of India.
Built in 1867 by British businessman John H Aspinwall, the complex served as a business house for the export of a variety of goods, especially coir products, pepper and other Kerala spices, timber, tea, coffee, lemongrass oil, and other agro products.
Popular narratives in Kochi say that the company was not originally founded by Aspinwall, but rather by two British brothers and that the business suffered huge losses. Apart from the exports of the goods, the company was also said to be in the business of boat-making. Aspinwall became a partner in the company and made the business profitable and, eventually, he became the owner of the company.
Aspinwall was a popular figure in Kochi. He served as the Chairman of Fort Kochi Municipality from 1875 until 1878. His photograph still hangs on a wall of the old Fort Kochi Municipality Office building (presently Kochi Municipal Corporation Fort Kochi Zonal office). Although he returned to England towards the end of his life, when the news of his death reached the shores of Kochi, many shops and businesses of Fort Kochi were shut down as a tribute.
Aspinwall and Company represents the age of prosperity of private British business in Kochi. In 1813 with the introduction of a new law by the British administration, the monopoly of the British East India Company came to an end and individual British businessmen like Aspinwall entered the Indian market. One may still find remnants of an array of old British business houses in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry.
Aspinwall became a public limited company in 1956, with financial participation from the erstwhile Travancore Royal family. When, in 1971, the English company offered to disinvest its holdings, the Travancore Royal family agreed to acquire the controlling shares in the Group. Aspinwall House has, by turn, housed the offices of an English newspaper and provided an atmospheric location for many scenes in a number of Malayalam films.
Currently the property has been leased to a private company, which in turn has given the space to the Kochi Biennale Foundation to use as a venue for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
-by Manorama Online