In his photo exhibition, 'Transcendence/Kochi', Biju Ibraham focuses on the 39 communities that have lived peacefully together in the town of Mattancherry for centuries
Photos: Sarah Cohen (centre) with Thaha Ibrahim (left), Jasmine (behind) and Selin; Biju Ibrahim
By Shevlin Sebastian
In the black and white photograph, 98-year-old Sarah Cohen sits in the middle on a wooden armchair, looking to one side, looking relaxed and casual in a printed frock and slippers. On her right is the bespectacled Thaha Ibrahim in a shirt and jeans, who is leaning towards Sarah with a smile on his face. Right behind the nonagenarian is Thaha's wife Jasmine who leans forward and places her hands protectively on Sarah's shoulders. On the right is the maid Selin.
“Three communities are represented in this image,” says photographer Biju Ibrahim. “While Sarah is Jewish, Thaha and Jasmine are Muslim, and Selin is a Christian.”
Thaha and Jasmine have been looking after Sarah for about fifteen years ever since Sarah's husband Jacob died. “Sarah is famous in Jew Town, Mattancherry, for her embroidery work,” says Biju. “Now Selin is doing the work.”
This photograph is part of an exhibition by Biju called ‘Transcendence/Kochi’ on the 39 communities that live in a radius of five kilometres in Mattancherry. They include the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, Vellala Pillais, Kashmiris, Anglo-Indians, Bohra Muslims, Tamil Vannars, Telugu Naidus, Gujarati Banias, Jains, Kannadigas, Tulu Brahmins, Malabari Muslims, Ezhavas and Syrian Catholics.
Asked how he got the idea, Biju says, “Riyas Komu [one of the founders of the Kochi Biennale as well as the Uru Gallery in Mattancherry] told me to document the diversity of life in Mattancherry. He also told me that this is one of the few places in India where people of different religions live in harmony.”
To do this project, Biju was given a five-month residency by Uru in August, last year. So Biju wandered in and out of the narrow lanes in Mattancherry, befriending people, and noting their habits and rituals. “All the communities observe their different religious practices and rituals,” says Biju. “And this is respected by all. Every 100 metres, the community changes, the food changes, and there is a different way of talking.”
Over the course of several months, Biju took about 25,000 photos. From this data bank, 200 photos were culled and these were curated by Riyas. Biju took the images in colour as well as black and white. But in the end, he opted for black and white, because the details in the picture are clearer. “In a colour photograph, the viewers are drawn to the colour,” he says. “I wanted them to focus on the people and their emotions.”
Some subjects did become emotional. Biju visited an elderly Anglo-Indian couple who were about to go abroad the next day to attend their daughter's marriage. But after the shoot was over, and Biju was leaving, the man came out to the courtyard and took out his wrist watch and gave it to Biju. “He was moved by what I was doing,” says Biju.
And so were some of the guests at the exhibition. Wrote Dr Moideen Kutty AB, director, Kerala State minority welfare department, in the visitor's book: 'This is a unique idea, a kind of a miniature world. Directly or indirectly, the people have promoted national integration. Let this benefit the future generations to come.'
A self-taught photographer, Biju, 35, had spent more than a decade travelling all over India taking photographs. He has also worked with the late Mollywood scriptwriter TA Razzaq, as well as director Kamal. But to earn his living, he has been taking photographs for architect firms.
Meanwhile, his immediate plan is to bring out a coffee-table book on the subject. Thereafter, Biju is planning another project on the people of Mattancherry, following an extension of his residency till December this year. “I will focus on their day-to-day life,” says Biju. “So far, this has been a most enjoyable and learning experience for me.”