In the most revered of Hindu traditions, the confluence of the three holiest rivers of India, the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswati is one of four celebrated earthly sites of the Kumbh Mela. This confluence, the Triveni Sangam at Prayagraj (erstwhile Allahabad) has from the beginning of its tradition, brought together a gathering of humanity like no other on earth.
My line of artistic enquiry for over two decades has almost obsessively been preoccupied with my philosophical journey and my own personal truths.
Being present, in arguably the most philosophical place on earth at that earthly time, I found myself drawn to the rivers themselves and profoundly, to a people who have traveled on it all their lives. A great disbeliever in coincidence, I and my own journey crossed paths with the boatmen of these holy rivers. An origin of people called Mallaah, these exclusively male ferriers of people are a deeply compelling part of the Kumbh story.
For several hundred years these boatmen on the Ganga and the Yamuna have handed down their oars from father to son. I was intensely drawn to the purpose of their lives, to carry people back and forth on these rivers. Almost married to their boats, these men. To live almost all of their lives on these wooden vessels, going about their worldly chores and belonging to a tribe of menfolk, they pride themselves on being the real caretakers of these mystical rivers. Almost as if they are born on these boats and just as possibly may breath their last on it, the Mallaah men live lives removed from their families and children.
My series of photographic artworks are born from these very people and a journey that is so relevant to the Kumbh story and that of these rivers. It is a reality I trace in relation to my own response to it and an understanding of these people and to not try and interpret something that I might never incisively understand. But to create from their very stark reality and from a sociological perspective that is complex and yet as much rooted to this land and waters as much as all the sages and this ancient faith.
The series titled ‘Mallaah’, simply put, is a series of portraits of the boatmen who ply their trade on the Ganga and the Yamuna, imagined in the great artistic traditions of the last century, depicting people and their lives.
I have chosen to depart from my recognisable artistic techniques and to take a more direct and hopefully, a visually dynamic viewpoint. My conscious approach was to keep it true to a realism that is authentic, whilst leaning towards the poetic. It was also intentful for me to stick to spontaneous compositions and lighting of the subjects, inspired by the work of some early twentieth-century Pictorialists.
The works themselves have been conceptualised through a story-telling visual technique, and still maintaining a distinct demarcation from the photojournalistic genre, also critically preserving the realness of the subject. While consciously meaning to be less interpretative and more authentic to a photographic realism, I am as always, coming from an artist’s style and viewpoint.
This series ‘Mallaah’ was commissioned by the Sandeep and Gitanjali Maini Foundation. The series is part of the foundation’s private collection.
– Shibu Arakkal
“We had long heard tales of whole worlds that had vanished, of empires sunk without a trace, gone down with all their men and all their machines into the unexplorable depths of the centuries, with their gods and their laws, their academies and their sciences pure and applied, their grammars and their dictionaries, their Classics, their Romantics, and their Symbolists, their critics and the critics of their critics… We were aware that the visible earth is made of ashes, and that ashes signify something. Through the obscure depths of history we could make out the phantoms of great ships laden with riches and intellect; we could not count them. But the disasters that had sent them down were, after all, none of our affair.”
—Paul Valery- The Crisis of the Mind
In the techniques of seeing, there may be contradictory and irreconcilable ways of arriving at the truth of images depending on the stages of life – infancy, middle of life, and late age. Confronted with an image, a child would always point fingers at the facts of what he sees in these photographs: a boat, an old man, a child, a river flowing in the distance, weeds, bamboos, ropes. The child’s immediacy still connected to the memory of breastfeeding and the limited and damaged understanding of language does not allow him to interpret images in the sense of history, worldliness, science of techniques, authorship and so on. All these we may consider as amateurish and infantile. Yet in its infancy, the child’s seeing of the image is a beginning point of understanding the phenomenon of light, texture, darkness, and the visible aspects of the story that is not yet there. Tired at looking at the image, the child may wish to deviate from the image, call her mother and say, ‘this is a boat,’ ‘that is an old man’, ‘old man’s hair is white,’ ‘this is a child and the father,’ ‘this is a chair,’ etcetera, etcetera. What the child in reality points at is the pure sensitivity of the objects, places, faces, colour, which in the course of attaining a mastery over language fades into abstractions and jargons. In all of this, particularly, in the ways of seeing like this, each object in the photographs yields and appears to the child in all its fullness. There is the innocence of looking at the world unbeknownst of all the conflicts of faculties.