A place by the sea: A show celebrates Matancherry, Kochi’s historical neighbourhood

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Written by C.S. Venkiteswaran
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Published:October 1, 2017 12:35 am


Arriving somewhere: Upendranath’s work captures people on the move.

Space and place are basic components of the lived world; we take them for granted,” says Yi-Fu Tuan, eminent geographer and thinker, in his book Space and Place. For him, spaces are physical territories defended against intruders, while places are centres of felt value, where biological, spiritual and cultural needs are sought and met. Spaces grow with humans into places with memories and history.

“Mattancherry”, a show curated by Riyas Komu at Uru Art Harbour, Kochi, is a unique attempt to explore the living dynamics of the space and place of the ancient port city, which, for centuries, hosted religions, cultures and commerce from all over the world, and whose physical and human geography was shaped by trade winds, cultural flows and ocean currents. The show brings together the work of poets, singers, artists, researchers, filmmakers, photographers and graphic artists to explore Mattancherry as a lived space.

How does one narrate a place? Is a place its physical extent or its people? As one moves about the gallery, the rich, long and complex human geography of Mattancherry extends in all these directions. These works focus upon the visceral and the physical, even when they explore the human and spiritual, the political and economic layers of life. One can see the ways in which a place wears and weathers its inhabitants, and, on the other hand, how struggles for survival, modes of livelihood and embracing of identity shape the space. The ebbs and tides of history have left their marks everywhere, from the walls and buildings to the crumbling jetties and mounting garbage dumps, from the fading images in calendars and billboards to the wrinkles on the faces of its inhabitants.

Ramu Aravindan’s photographs of  Mattancherry follow three visual motifs: “description, as in a landscape view of things, surface details — textures, shadows, marks, graphical and textual signs … and the idea that reading of detail up-close could complement the viewing of the whole image from a few feet away”. KR Sunil’s photographs explore the humanscape, where the viewer frontally confronts the faces of his subjects. There is no effort to aestheticise the images — they are always enveloped and framed by the used, grimy, weathered, withered surfaces of things. Upendranath’s photo-graphics focus on the lives on the move — of physical and labour engagements of people with and in the world. By filling the sky and earth with pitch black, the individuals, their activity and the spaces that frame the action are foregrounded in an eerie, stark manner. Sosa’s paintings are populated by people engaged in their daily chores, with cats, fowls and other creatures co-habiting their life-space. PS Jalaja’s huge portraits are of working-class men and women from various communities, “the ones who no one talks about but everyone needs” .Zakir Husain’s paintings figure “the cacophony of the visual sounds of the room and the street, of fans and wheels, of multitude and singularity”.

Vipin Dhanurdharan’s video, Petrichor, is an enigmatic work : composed of repetitive shots of a man drawing water from the various canals in Kochi and carefully pouring them into sealed cans kept in his room, it takes us on a journey across the numerous canals that crisscross Kochi, erstwhile veins of trade and transport now clogged with slime and plastic. It also ponders upon the question of privatisation of water, once a common resource.

At the centre of the show, functioning as the centripetal force of meaning and political significance of all the other exhibits, are the exhibits of Urban Development Collective, a Chennai-based group tracing the geopolitical history of Mattancherry. Divided into three sections titled ‘Lost Opportunities’, ‘Mixed Priorities’ and ‘Resilient Communities’, the charts, figures, and dateline are arrayed with details and timelines of important events, institutions, statutes and regime shifts in the history of Mattancherry. If ‘Lost Opportunities’ list the various initiatives and attempts by the machineries and missionaries of power that promised a decent life to the citizens of Mattancherry since its inception to the present, the second portrays the failed dreams of ‘development’ with regard to basic necessities and infrastructure. The third documents the various ways in which the different communities explored innovative and humane modes of survival in the face of the narrow vision, ever-shifting priorities of various institutions and regimes that ruled over their lives.

This show is all about rootedness, of being deeply and irretrievably committed to one’s place, of being enmeshed in one’s vocation and beliefs, and always assertively celebrating life, here and now. As the curatorial note points out, “ The place-ness of Mattancherry is not because of the spatial identity built through the convergence of physical place, historical conjunctures and social relationships, but it stems from an identity formed through resistance, and through the enabling narratives because of the place”.

C S Venkiteswaran is a film critic and documentary filmmaker.

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