THERE AREN’T MANY PLACES IN THE WORLD TO WHICH MONSOON WINDS AND THE SMELL OF SPICES BROUGHT MORE SEA TRADING SHIPS THAN TO THE PORTS OF KERALA. THEIR GLORY HAS FADED, BUT PHOTOGRAPHER KR SUNIL IN SILENT PORTRAITS OF THE SEA SAILORS IS CAPTURING THEIR STORIES.

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KR SUNIL 

Sunil was born in Kodungallur in 1975. After receiving his National diploma in sculpture from  Fine Arts College, Thrissur, he started actively pursuing art, writing and photography. Sunil picks out extraordinary personalities in the course of his study of the daily lives of common people and present them in photo features in contemporary media. 

What marks Sunil’s art exceptional is his involvement in the sustained process of observation and documentation of the people he has come to notice. Environmentally sensitive spaces are another area that becomes the focus of his photographic projects. 

Sunil’s photographic rendition of Ponnani, an old port town in Keral, was one of the noted exhibitions of the last Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Sunil has widely exhibited in India and abroad. He is currently involved in a cultural study and photo documentation project around the coastal villages facilitated by a travel and research grant from Uru.

YOUR WORK IS CONNECTED MOSTLY WITH THE OLD PORT TOWNS OF KERALA…

I have been working mostly in the old port towns such as Cochin, Kodungallur or Ponnani in Kerala. The ports are very interesting geographical locations - cross cultural places, which are interconnecting incoming and outgoing diaspora. The ancestors of the people, who live in the ports, came from different parts of India and many of them also from abroad – some of them from Middle East, some from Europe. It is not like going to a village, where everything is almost the same and all the people have a common history. Ports are melting pots of different cultures, customs, art, architecture and etc. It's always been my passion to trace their history and origins of cultural elements. In the old port you can always explore and discover new things.  

WAS IT A MONSOON WIND WHICH BROUGHT YOU TO OLD PORT OF PONNANI?

Well, to be honest, it was a song, which brought me there! (Laughing) I was documenting life in the coastal villages in that area also during the previous Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) and since then the stories of people called me back again and again. One day, I was walking down the beach of the old port town of Ponnani and I heard a song in a feeble male voice. It was kind of raw, angry, almost rude song full of words of injustice and suffering. The singer was singing about the life of the boatmen of yore who worked on the dhows sailed by wind. His name was Ibrahim and later he became my companion, who introduced me to other sea sailors. 

One day, I was walking down the beach of the old port town of Ponnani and I heard a song in a feeble male voice. It was kind of raw, angry, almost rude song full of words of injustice and suffering of sea sailors. The singer name was Ibrahim.

WHO IS IBRAHIM? 

Ibrahim used to be sea sailor working on a dhow. He had been a deckhand for many years on such boats. He opened for me a route into the lives of a bunch of seafaring laborers. I set out to find these people, some of who are still alive in places along the coast from Ponnani to Kasaragod. Most of them lived in Ponnani itself, in a nearby place called Azheekkal.

EXCUSE ME, BUT WHAT IS DHOW

Dhow is wooden boat. These boats were built in different designs. They were also called pathemari, vanchi or manchu. Not so long time ago, the ports of Malabar were crowded with these boats waiting to load their cargo. Until 80s, Dhows carried timber, bamboo, coconuts, dried tapioca, roofing tiles from these ports and returned with salt, sugar and fertilizers. Most cargo trips those days were going to the many domestic ports including Bombay. A few had sailed to the Arabian coasts. And sailors like Ibrahim, spent weeks or even months on the sailing boats at the mercy of winds. 

DID YOU TRACE THE HISTORY OF THESE BOATS?

No, I did not concentrate on the structure or history of the boats. In the past they carried cargo, but also the burden of human suffering. My interest was always focused on people, their stories and narratives. The boats were more or less only tools or vehicles, symbolizing the journey itself for me. At the beginning it was kind of romantic exploration, connected to travel and challenges to depict the life of sea sailors in the sensitive artistic way, which brought me there, but after talking to all these people, realizing the harsh reality behind their words and suffering they went through, it became quite life changing experience.  

MANCHUKKAR - THE SEAFARERS OF MALABAR

Mancukkar (a word derived from the term mancu, means big vessel in northern Malabar dialect of Malayalam), known otherwise as Khalasis (the word we use to mean ordinary workers of the ships, has an Arabic origin) were the traditional seamen from Malabar employed in the country crafts. The history of mancukkar is the history of migrant labourers who were the pioneers of cross-regional labour vital to the functioning of trade, transportation and pilgrimage throughout the Arabian Sea and beyond. The cross-regional trade incorporated the seafarers of Malabar into a globalized community of great geographical, linguistic and social diversity. 

I. PEOPLE, GOODS AND IDEAS IN MOTION 
II. A COMMUNITY ON THE MOVE 
III. TRAVEL NARRATIVES

THERE ARE NOT SO MANY PEOPLE, WHO REMEMBER THAT ERA. DID YOU FIND THEM?

Yes, I have found several of them. Most of them were introduced to me by Ibrahim. But some had their memories faded with old age while some were reluctant to revisit the intense experiences of their voyages. There were others who obliged a few words only after insistent and repeated visits. Almost all their stories were soaked in sorrow.

WHO WERE THESE PEOPLE? 

Dhow laborers were mostly adolescent young men who started their career as cooks on the boat. The boys endured cruelty of many kinds from senior workers. Depending on their talents and expertise, their career advanced to a deckhand or to a boat captain. I met people who worked in the boats for up to forty-five years.

WHAT WERE THEIR STORIES ABOUT?

Boats were regularly wrecked by cyclonic winds and death was their constant companion. I met people who had been rescued and brought back to life after days of drifting in the sea upon the wreckage of their boats. Some lost their way and reached unknown shores. Many lives and boats had perished in the cyclone of 1967. 

In the middle of the sea, irrespective of day or night, fine weather or tempest, sailors climbed masts taller than fifty feet to untie and retie the sails according to changing winds. Many had fallen off the boats, into the sea and disappeared forever executing this arduous feat. They had witnessed their dead colleagues being given burials by the sea. They suffered prolonged starvation without even drinking water. 

WHAT WAS THE MOST TOUCHING STORY YOU HAVE HEARD? 

Oh, there were many of them, but one of the strongest one I came across, was the story told by the sea sailor, whose name was Usman. He and his three brothers were on a voyage to Bombay and one day the boat was caught in the storm. Sailors were trying to save the cargo, when in the middle of that madness lightning struck the boat and killed Usman’s youngest brother. The brothers had to stay on the open sea with death body for few days, because the law did not allow them to bring it on the shore. When he was telling me the story, many years later, I could still feel the pain, which was filling the gaps between the words.

THERE MUST HAD BEEN MANY SILENT PRAYERS IN THE WIND… 

In the past, there were no weather forecasts or technical supports of any kind available for navigation. There are some anecdotes about sailors waiting for radio broadcasting from Sri Lanka to hear the news. Sailors braved the seas and the elements just by studying clouds and stars. They listened mostly to the ocean waves. There are stories, which says, that few of them predicted tsunami in 2004.

DID THEY PRACTISE ANY RITUALS FOR PROTECTION?

Although the local Indian society is predominantly Hindu, the most of the sailors were Muslims, not so much practicing the rituals. But they had some very interesting customs. For example, during the first voyage of young sailor (usually 10-14 years old), there was a habit to cover his face with yellow turmeric powder before he reached his first port (usually it was Mumbai). The healing effect of turmeric powder supposed to calm boy’s excitement and protect him from evil eyes. 

HAVE YOU EVER BEEN CALLED BY THE SEA AND GONE FOR SAILING?

No, I have never had that desire. Nowadays it is almost impossible to experience dhow. Post 70s and 80s, when development came to many parts of rural India - bridges were built, new roads and infrastructure, dhows were replaced by tracks and cars. But I have experienced those voyages so intensively through the stories of sea sailors, that I feel almost like being there in the past.     

WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST WAVE IN YOUR LIFE SO FAR? 

It was meeting with Riyas Komu, the artist and one of the founders of Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB). His invitation to exhibit my work during the KMB 2016 has changed my life and opened the new possibilities. 

SO, IT WAS A NEW WIND, WHICH WAS BROUGHT BY RIAYS KOMU & KOCHI MUZIRIS BIENNALE?

Yes, you can say it. Before I met Riyas Komu and had been invited to participate in KMB, the exposure to my work used to be very limited. Most of my work is related to very poor people, peripheral areas or local festivals and events. This is not the main stream art work. But participation in KMB and respond from general public and art community gave me a lot of courage to continue in my work. 

SYMBOLICALLY, URU ART HARBOUR BECAME YOUR EXHIBITION SPACE. COULD WE SAY IT IS AN ANCHOR FOR YOU? 

URU Art Harbour is a platform for young artists. Receiving Uru Travel and Research Grant -2018  helped me to take up this project. Uru is an important hub which allows dissent, where you can be inspired, but also feel safe for the time being, meanwhile you decide, where you want to be in the future. The anchor symbolizes something temporary. Meanwhile the boat is anchored in the safe waters, you can decide if you want to return or go forward…

IT IS VERY NICE IDEA… THANK YOU!

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PHOTOGRAPHER

KR SUNIL

He finds extraordinary stories in ordinary people. Believes, you should be one of them; for that you should be the kind that loves humanity. He doesn’t carry fancy cameras, that would separate him from them.

AUTOR

ZUZANA ZWIEBEL

Founder & Director of Ayurveda Trails, healing collection of (extra)ordinary people and their stories, whose experiences are transferred into various trails shared by travelers.

ART ORGANISATION

URU ART HARBOUR

URU art harbour is a cultural hub situated at Kochi. URU seeks to be a space for collaboration and a continual hub for artistic, cultural, and intellectual exploration. Founded by Riyas Komu and Zoya Riyas.

ART ORGANISATION

KOCHI-MUZIRIS BIENNALE

Seeks to invoke the cosmopolitan spirit of the modern metropolis of Kochi and its mythical past, Muziris, create a platform that introduce contemporary international visual art theory and practice to India.

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