A dead fish. Held dearly like a trophy. By a man who has a sacred thread tied in his wrist. This photograph shows only this much. Everything else is left to the viewer’s imagination, which would vary as per his/her knowledge, background, experience and inclination. This style of chiseling and showing only a part of a person has been found in a lot of earlier works of Abul Kalam Azad as well. He is of the opinion that ‘art reveals not all’. In this photograph of an ordinary, everyday moment, the man is missing; like the missing rishabam (bull) or veena in the Cola sculptures. The image carries no dramatic, sensational news. It does not attempt to highlight any problems or issues, nor has it romanticized reality. There is no “other-ing.” Yet, the narrative that the image provokes is profound. Indeed, this image pretty much captures the very essence of the life of fishermen.
Fishing is an ancient practice that dates back at least to the Upper Paleolithic period. Even before they became settlers, fishing was a major source of food for migratory groups. It began with fresh water and backwater fishing. Roughly about 42,000 years ago, these water warriors started exploring the unknown territories of the deep ocean for the purpose of fishing. In barter system, Fishes were exchanged for other goods like rice. About 12000 years ago, fish processing begun and during maritime trade processed/dry fish became a commodity of export. Owing to its integral role in the life of ancient humans, the sea was considered as a divine mother and ‘fish’ has played a symbolic role in many philosophies. The first avatar of Vishnu in Vedic Hindu philosophy is a fish, which rescues the first man, Manu from a great deluge. This story is said to have influenced the Noah story or perhaps, both stories were influenced by another prevailing folklore. Kumari Kandam (Lemuria), the legendary first Tamil Sangam is said to have gone underwater in a global flood/tsunami. The same story is repeated, with variations, in the Quran. There have been numerous other flood myths in different cultures; the earliest written myth is the Sumerian flood myth found in Epic of Ziusudra. However, till now, there is no concrete scientific evidence corroborating the global flood. In Buddhism, the fish symbolizes happiness and the Christian fish symbol represents ichthys, an acrostic for Jesus Christ. The dynastic emblem of Pantyan rulers of the Sangam era was a double carp, which are noted for its elegance, size and life-span. The Sangam poets have written in praise of the Pantyan kings and his soldiers, comparing them with carps, as they were excellent swimmers and underwater divers. They were also exceptional pearl fishers, and pearls from here were in much demand in Arabia and Greece.
Even though remains of fish bones, tools, nets etc. from pre-historic times have been found in many parts of the world, including a fish hook made of bone dating back to the stone ages, they have so far not been unearthed in South India. Systematic excavation in this region is impending, the findings of which might change the mainstream Indian narrative; however, little attention is presently being given to it. This makes Sangam literature the only source of information about fishing. In Akananooru1 , the poet narrates the plight of a female stork that cries for her mate which was caught in a fishing net made of fine thread. The net was actually being weaved by the children, who were becoming adept at fishing and allied activities at a very young age, and the male stork accidentally gets caught in it. Except boat making, for which the carpenter guilds were employed, most of the activities related to fishing were undertaken by the fisher folks themselves. This made fishing a community activity, and they form a close-knit team guided by their own rules and standards. Even now the fisher folks live together as one community and have their own internal mechanisms to govern matters pertaining to their members and village. Traditional knowledge is passed on from one generation to another, and their children learn to swim and fish at a very young age continuing their family profession. The qualities required for their profession is also passed on through this channel.
There are many different types of fishing – hand fishing, angling, netting, trapping etc. Fishermen developed different skill sets depending on their nature of fishing. Among the different kinds of fishermen, groups called ‘Parathavar/Kadalodigal’ and ‘Kallarani’ (pirate squad) were the most noted. Parathavar were excellent navigators and were observers of solar, lunar, planetary motions and time calculations. They usually embark on long journeys for trading and explorations. Kallarani – the pirate squads – were accomplished warriors and they were known to have sunk several enemy ships. There are occasions in which the Cola kings would actually sell produces, and when the foreign ship was on the move, they would usher the pirates to fight and bring back the goods. They have, on different occasions, entered into allegiances with foreign traders like Arabs, Romans etc, and usually are known to keep their words when such an amicable alliance has been agreed upon. At a later stage, these Kallarani were absorbed by the Cola army; and, infact, the English adapted the name ‘Navy’ from the Tamil name Navvai, meaning wooden boat. The efficient Cola navy was centered in ancient Pukar, and is said to have conquered the whole of Sri Lanka. Historians opine that such pirating and the constant wars among the local rulers and the traders were one of the main causes for the decline in maritime trade. Presently, most of the members of the Kallarani are also imbibed as part of the fishermen community.
In traditional fishing hamlets, women usually do not go for fishing (previously, pearl fishing was done by women) – they don’t get to explore the vast oceans and its challenges. There is no explicit rule that forbids women, but it is a general norm that is accepted and strictly adhered to. In the same way, men don’t do the selling, except in the case of export; it is the job of the women to auction the catch, and later carry it to the market/streets for selling. When their men fight with the waves and unknown terrors of the large bay, the women usually sit by the coast, waiting for the return of their loved ones. They are never sure whether they would return. Whether they would return with a catch or not is another, secondary, concern. So, while the men fight, the women wait; restlessly, like the never-ceasing waves. The conventional symbolization of the lifestyle of Neithal (sea shore and related coastal) landscape with ‘waiting’ by Sangam poets is indeed an apt one.
The life of fishermen has a certain rhythm and the timings are in tune with nature – the weather, the water current, the movement and the life cycle of fishes. They all go and return at different times – the modern day ‘nine to five routine’ is not applicable here. For example, the crab catchers usually go during the late evening to spread their nets. They would go back again in the early morning to collect their catch. The fishes caught in crab nets are usually thrown away – as crab nets will be left in the ocean overnight, and the dead fishes start decaying in salt water. Sometimes, they might not get any catch at all, and on other days, fishing might fetch them several thousand rupees. They are firm believers of the abundance of the ocean and accept each day’s catch without much fuss. After removing their catch, and arranging for its sale, they meticulously start repairing their nets. Everyday, the nets would require a repair job and all the crew members involve in this. They would then clean up the boat, prepare the engines, and then their siesta begins. Usually, some women hang around with their husband/son in the coast, extending some help, while a few would go for selling. When women do not come to the coast, it is the men’s job to take the fish home. After this, the men folk would gather again under a Neem or Punnai (Alexandrian laurel ball) tree – the popular ones in Neithal landscape. They gamble a game. Have a drink. Argue about world politics. Have a laugh. Eventually they would go to their home – at whatever time that suits their fishing schedule. Enjoy the feast, rest a little and then get ready for the next day’s adventure – to encounter death and to kill.
This is why, this image of the ‘missing’ man holding his kill for the day, with pride, will linger in our minds forever. He probably was beaming with joy during the photographed moment. Today, he has made it alive. He also has made sure that the needs o f the family are met for the day. From the way he is holding the fish, like a cherished treasure, it appears that he is carrying this home, to be cooked by his wife, or mother, or daughter, or sister. The tradition is to keep aside a favorite portion of the catch for the household, and then sell the rest. Often, it would be a mix and match of various catches of that day – a crab, a tiger prawn, salmon, sardine etc. Each of the crew members would know the favorites of the other and celebrate that with an understanding smile and gentle nod. The man is holding a ribbon fish, which is also one of the favorite fishes for the locals. There are many different ways ribbon fish could be cooked, and often, it is eaten alongside drumstick leaves and eggs to boost strength, immunity and vitality. The sacred thread in his hand defies indigenous wisdom and physical strength that is embedded in his very core, passed down for thousands of years – the dangers and uncertainty of his everyday life makes him succumb to superstitious beliefs.
The relation between the photographer and the photographed moment, when imprinted as a photograph, becomes a collective experience of all the viewers who are otherwise almost totally disconnected from the photographed moment. In an instant, they are transported to the photographed moment and experience it as a ‘continuous reality’ in the eternal “now.” Within a few hours of the photographed moment, he would have enjoyed the feast of his catch… the ribbon fish would cease to exist and would have become a part of this man and all those who had eaten it. The remains would mix with the Earth. The last breath of the ribbon fish, let out after a forceful gasp, would linger in the air. The unblinking gaze of the dead fish that looks at the photographer, which gets transferred as an experience of the viewer, will in no way lead to philosophical meanderings. Such existential questions have no ground here.