I grew up in Kochangadi, a small borough in cosmopolitan Mattancherry. This Muslim dominated waterfront settlement also had a few Jewish, Ezhava and Christian families. Apart from a synagogue and a few churches, it had several small and big mosques from different factions of Islamism such as Kutch, Bohras, Ravuthars, Nainas, Patans, etc. The most prominent Chembittapalli mosque, which got the name because of its copper sheet laid roofs, was closely associated with the Nainas from Kayalpatnam. My grandparents were buried at the Chembittapalli and so every Friday, my family would go there to do Ziyarat. When I was young, I preferred praying in the attic which had intricate wooden carvings. Adjacent to this mosque there is a pond named Andankulam – in Tamil, it means, pond owned by the King/ruler. During my childhood, every year someone or other would drown in this deep, large, public pond. Scared, several families, including mine restricted the children from entering its vicinity. Alas, I never learned swimming.
Mystics and mysticism were popular in Mattancherry. Mythical and legendary stories of scholarly or superhuman actions surround the several dargahs and shrines of mystic men and women, which belonged to different religions. However, believers from all faiths would visit, pray and give offerings to a Jewish or Islamic or Christian one without any restrictions or fear. The shrine of Makhdoom 1 at Mahalarapalli was the most famous. There was another popular Jewish mystic shrine dedicated to Nehemiah Ben Abraham Mutha. I still remember the peculiar offerings to these different sacred sites. For a shrine in Pandaraparambu dedicated to an unknown Beebi, the offering was thread and needle. To Kappinimuthappan, it was cigar and arrack.
My father used to narrate the story of Narayana Guru’s visit to the island. During his younger days, waterways were very active. Auto rickshaws were introduced only later on and the only way to commute within the islands was cycle and hand pull rickshaws. Narayana Guru’s host was an Ezhava landlord named Thakyavu Krishnan. My father told me that he had a dedicated rickshaw for the exclusive use of Narayana Guru. The moment Guru disembarked from the Mattancherry boat jetty, the rickshaw would take him to Thakyavu’s house. Here too, people from different faiths would gather and interact.
The Mattancherry bazaar of the 80s was a busy market and it was buzzing with people and activities. The merchants and workers used to gather up from near and far. Men and women from the nearby settlements, the men from the Malabar, the Gujarati, Jewish and Arabic merchants who had settled here centuries before and so on – everyone had a space to take part in the trade activities. Each community was specialized in their own preferred products that they were trading generation after generation. For example, the Gujarati collected and processed areca nut, pepper, and other spices to their land, while the Kach Muslims were focused on sea-foods. The Syrian (St. Thomas) Christians were the most dominant amongst the Christian population, and rice was their major trade. There were also several other small businesses run by different communities. Coir was another popular product. The laborers would throng the banks of the backwaters, loading, and unloading, storing up the warehouses or resting and chitchatting. The chaos of buying, selling and yelling unfolds in an unexplainable poetic perfection, joined by the symphony of the pigeons, crows, and sparrows.
I grew up exposed to different food cultures. Each of the communities and their subcultures had a unique lifestyle, festival, costume, food habits, etc. This was much before globalization started erasing the individual cultures with homogeneity and I still remember the diverse tastes that I had cherished in my childhood. Within Christians, Syrian and Latin had their special recipes. Same with Mappila, Neenas, Ravuthar or Kutch Muslims. Jewish tradition was totally different. Because of my naughtiness, I had to shift several schools and made friends from almost all the communities. As children, we were welcomed to the homes of each other and it was always one festival or the other. There were also hotels and their delicacies such as Kaikka’s Biriyani, Shantilal S Mithaywala’s Ghatia Jilebi, the Puthu’s famous Konkani Saraswathi Brahmin idly, Elite hotel Thomman’s cake (Anglo Indian), etc.
The architectural style of the west Kochi islands is also as diverse as its people. While the European style buildings dominate the mono-cultural Fort Kochi, the Mattancherry buildings are a mix of Indo-European styles. The nightlife in Mattancherry was also equally active and musical. The recreational art, music and sports clubs were varied and vibrant. After the days’ heavy work, the local public usually gathers to perform or play in the attic of the sleeping warehouses and streets. Music, the aroma of the spices and food fills the air throughout the night.
In my memory, Kochi had very few incidents of caste/religious violence and usually, the people cohabit harmoniously. The 32 and odd communities, that had traveled across land and sea to settle here, had an unspoken understanding that conflict and tensions were bad for business and livelihood. Hence, all the differences, frictions, and even hatred were put aside for the sake of economic prosperity and safety. I think people of any cosmopolitan and progressive settlements prefer peace over divisive politics.
This early childhood exposure to pluralistic culture and lifestyles enabled me to acquire the qualities of progressive cosmopolitism. It became the foundation for my artistic growth, knowledge, and experience. It is in this backdrop, my 80s photographs of Mattancherry had to be seen. It is a memory project that expresses my experience of my spicy town. It doesn’t have the prejudiced excitement of a tourist. It also doesn’t provide an exaggerated view of native practices and lifestyles. It is of the mundane and every day. It was of the people whom I saw on a day to day basis; whose name I knew by heart. I actually wasn’t consciously doing this image-making. I didn’t have any predecessors to emulate. I was simply shooting my surroundings and the memories associated with it.
The process of traditional analog photography is time-consuming and expensive. During the 80s, access to films and equipment were also limited. Like that of today’s digital photography, one did not have the luxury of taking countless shots within a fraction of a second. So, every photograph required a lot of deliberation and premeditation. Even then, there was never a surety that a photograph would come out well. It was always possible that the person had closed his/her eyes. Or a sudden flash of light or a movement had hindered the quality of the image. Correct chemical composition is also required to get the image right. Like an alchemist, with intent awareness, the photographer uses different permutations and combinations of hazardous chemicals to develop his/her unique style.
Today, photography is a mere one-click application. Any tone is only a button away. Much thought is not required, and often trial and error would result in a fairly good image. This easiness is the reason behind photography becoming the most popular medium of expression. Integral to this medium is its potential to promote any place as a destination and in that sense, today Mattancherry-Fort Kochi has become a visual treasure trove.
Of all the destinations of Kerala, west Kochi has become the preferred cultural capital. Its major art events and galleries have created a demand for clichéd photographs of multicultural Mattancherry and subaltern people and often commissions projects of their interest. On the one hand, homogenization and globalization are silently erasing its diversity and uniqueness and on the other side, the tourism market demands specific living and working conditions to continue. The dhobis must remain the same, continue washing with their hands. If they start using the machines, then the primitivism and exoticism would be gone and it would cease to be a touristic attraction. In the west, there are mandatory ethical practices in photography that must be strictly adhered to. In fact, photographing the streets is no longer permitted in many countries. In India and other developing nations, because of the lack of governance and ignorance of civil rights, there are no systems put in place. Primitive photographs of India are in huge demand and hundreds of Indian and International photographers soullessly and thoughtlessly throng our streets, often taking monotonous images repeating the prescribed narrative. The same persons are photographed again and again, simply because they represent a certain community or religion. People, places, and events in the region are being documented as an out-of-the-ordinary happening. Like a zoo.
Documenting a town is very important. But, it should not be limited to what the western and tourism market demands. In recent years, Kochi had seen several other important developments and incidents, such as the coming of the metro or flood 2019 or the neo-migration of workers from Bengal, Nepal, etc. These are not being recorded at all and while these may not have a commercial market at this point, they are valuable for our developmental history. Thought and Imagination are the two essentials for a good photographic project. The masters develop their concept and style over years of diligence and practice. The easy reproducibility and imitability make Photography a democratic medium. That’s a boon and a curse.