The Alter-Vision: K.R. Sunil Captures a Certain Kerala

“Alter”, “alterity”, “alternative” and “alternate” are words that share a root and indicate change, difference, choice or turns.

Photographer K.R. Sunil, through four of his photo series, captures instants of Kerala in all its condensed stillness. His works point to changes in the surroundings, capture alternate ways of being, focus on the marginalised or alienated lives and bring out the energies of alternatives, together constituting an “alter-vision” of Kerala. 

Living an Alternative in Costumes on the Seashore: Chavittu Naadakam Actors

A multi-disciplinary, three month-long arts exhibition, titled Sea, A Boiling Vessel, opened on December 13, 2022, in Kochi’s Mattancheri Kashi Hallegua House includes K.R. Sunil’s photo documentation project, Chavittu Nadakam: Story Tellers of the Seashore.

The actors of the Chavittu Nadakam – a now-disappearing 15th-16th century portmanteau art form of Kerala’s martial arts and Portugese theatre, with Greeco-Roman history or Medieval Miracle themes of the Catholic church – act out the stories in Tamil-mixed coastal Malayalam in Chellanam, Central Kerala, and they have posed for these photos in front of their small, little houses in grand and elaborate costumes. 

The remarkable presence of these actors, their energetic poise with a “tightened bow” feel and their “being in character” for the photo-shoot bring home to the viewer how enabling these roles are for local Latin Catholics (Dalit Christians). They are, in a manner of speaking, living an alternative reality through this artistic expression. 

But the photos also show the water that has engulfed these houses on the sea-shore, and the water is turbid with leaves and rubbish particles dumped by the hyper-consumerist, citified state, demonstrating the terrible conditions in which people on the coast are made to live.

Also read: Why Fisherfolk Are Protesting Against Adani’s Vizhinjam Port in Kerala

Their struggle is two fold, maintains Sunil: one for their lives and habitats and the other, for their art forms. Sunil, with his mastery in portraits, places the actor in the centre of the composition but misses out none of the details around – including the shadow of the elaborate costume copied onto one the frames, almost suggesting a boat for sailing ahead. The expression and the surroundings against which the actor/person has to struggle for survival make these characters tragic heroes, caught in the defeating nexus of a callous society and a dying eco-system, in their very being.  

Altered Habitats and Scattered Communities: ‘Home’ Series 

If ‘Story Tellers of the Sea Shore’ brings out specs and textures of bodies and costumes through contrasts of colours, and the most powerful part of it is the facial expression of the actor personalities, ‘Home’ is a black and white depiction without any human presence.

These are sea shore homes, broken and abandoned, due to an advancing sea-line, a direct impact of climate change and global warming. The houses, one each sliced into one frame, seem to contain a sense of sadness and loneliness that the waves reverberate scarily. The fisher-folk community, closely knit neighbourhoods that they were, that once owned these houses has had to abandon these houses and move to different areas. 

Since these climate change refugees of the margins have found no space in Kerala’s mainstream narratives, Sunil, a photographer who has been capturing the lives on the sea shore travelled across the Kerala sea-line to document many a house that have been thus sea-eaten. The photos don’t only capture altered habitats and scattered communities but also stand as images of caution for the climate disaster that might devour the state and its people in the decades to come. 

Inhabiting Alterity: Manchukkar, the Sea-farers of Malabar

Manchukkar, a 2018 exhibition of 34 portaits in Cochin’s Uru gallery and later a 2021 publication by the Switzerland’s Kunstdepot Goschenen, depicts the story of the sea-farers of Malabar.

Kerala’s and especially Malabar’s presence in the Persian Gulf and participation in the petro-dollar economy is well-known. But what has been invisibilised is that the pilgrim fathers and mothers, mostly from poor Dalit Muslim families in Malabar, who went on to become ABCD (Aaya-Boy-Cook-Driver) workers in the 1960s and 1970s, had gone in wooden sailing boats and vessels braving the legal, climactic and cultural impediments.

Thus, the facilitators of this process, these sea-farers have a foundational role in paving the way for the Kerala that it has become. But they are alterity, the other in that while their labour was exploitatively used, while their huge historical impact has gone completely unacknowledged. These men, scattered, poor and left to be on their own by an unrecognising social system, their pain, struggles and memories are captured by Sunil in remarkable portraits. 

The characters seem to have been liberated on to the frame, rather than being restricted into it and present the years of sea in their eyes that invariably seem like looking into the depths of time. 

The life stories that the photographer has meticulously and most empathetically gathered and presented function as footnotes to these portraits, and bring up a world forgotten in a region’s journey into financial prosperity. Thus, while pointing to the social alterity that has been constituted around the manchukkar, Sunil demonstrates a view that explores them almost from the inside, based on the communication through conversations that took months and keeps them at ease.

Another black and white series, ‘Manchukkar’ keeps the photographed up close and the journey are carried in the gazes, wrinkles and bodies of the past forgotten while ‘Home’ shows a terrified and distraught onlooker looking at the passing, from a distance from the human-fled frame. 

Ponnani: An Alternate Gathered in Life-Worlds

Sunil’s 2016 Biennale entry on the coastal township Ponnani, ‘Vanishing Life-Worlds,’ gathers an alternate space from the available life.

He captures the subaltern life of Ponnani, a region that had sea-trade relations with countries far and wide since medieval times, its practices, vocations and its spirituality. Sunil picks out the archaic, the dense and the vanishing features from Ponnani’s not so obvious every day and its subaltern life (which the photographer says is a political choice), while the place might feel like every other Malabari city to others who go past it.

His photographs work as a register of ways of being that were/are soon becoming extinct, without any romanticising nostalgia or glorification of a golden past but as a condition brought in by certain givens, a story he again tells through visual separation, in all its vigour and detail but together constituting a vision of the place.  

He doesn’t also dismiss the present in all its headiness but through the gathering of stories with his empathetic and kind eye and putting them together, he shows an alternate that might already be going into non-existence. 

A Chronicler’s Journey Around the Sea-People!

If these four present realities of marginalised spaces, bringing out the stories of past, passing and to come, the photographer’s journey was one started from Ponnani and has now reached Chellanam, the village of Chavittu Naatakam. 

Hailing from Kodungallur, the city which had the drowned Muziris port, and had early exposure to cultural diversity and religious plurality, K.R. Sunil says he chanced upon Ponnani through his friends and later started photographing different aspects of the area.

During the Ponnani project, Sunil saw a sea farer on the Ponnani beach and fascinated by his stories and songs, Sunil went in search of others and ended up creating a whole portfolio of this group of otherwise scattered people – making them a certain community to historically reckon with through his narrative and documentation. 

In his Ponnani series, the photo of a young girl looking into the mirror of her cycle outside her house, the wall of which was made with dry braided coconut leaves, caught the attention of a friend-viewer of the exhibition. He approached Sunil with the offer of building the family a small house with stone walls and tile roof. Sunil was glad to facilitate this and thus the house was built, giving the family of the mother and daughter a stable house among their own people.

After a couple of years, Sunil thought of visiting this home of the family again and upon reaching the place, to his shock, that house was demolished by the sea and the family had had to relocate to some unknown place, provoking the series, ‘Home’.

The journey through the dangerous impact of climate change took him to the performers of the disappearing art from the fishing community and their stories about their life and land.

The interconnectedness of these stories, through people, geography and problems is remarkable in that the photographer builds on them in different ways – starting with an area, through a vocation, and then a development into an art form without ever losing the stories that time accumulates on lives or always insisting on the connect between people and their territories and together showing a certain Kerala that is often forgotten in history, culture and conversations – an alter-vision, both limiting and extending the existing notions, views and understanding.     

N.P. Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.

All photographs in this piece are by K.R. Sunil.

This article was first published on The Wire.