Pepita Seth talks to Preeti Zachariah about Kerala and all that she loves about it
They say that Kerala was born when Parasurama threw his axe across the ocean creating land out of its watery depths. Perhaps this is why the lush, sprawling terrain cocooned by tranquil waters is often referred to as God’s own country.
But for British-born photographer, writer and winner of the 2012 Padma Shri award for literature and education, Pepita Seth, Kerala is simply home. “Something spoke to me and kept on speaking to me here,” she admits, a deep rooted love for the State evident in her voice, as she details her nearly 40-year long liaison with it. The author of Heaven on Earth, the Universe of Kerala's Guruvayur Temple, which explores every aspect of Kerala’s most important temple adds that she has never had an issue gaining access to Guruvayur. “If you put in the time, people come to know and to trust you and if you ask for permission you are more likely to get it,” she says.
Born in London, Pepita spent her formative years in an isolated farm in Suffolk, England, “I had a slightly unusual upbringing. I was sort of educated at home. My parents were far too busy to spend time with me. My brother was sent off to school and the only people who I interacted with were the people who worked on the land,” she says adding that this was possibly why she had developed such a profound kinship with Kerala and its people. “The spirit of the land is the same anywhere. In a strange way Kerala reminds me of home,” she says.
Despite her lack of formal education, Pepita gleaned immense knowledge through the books that she devoured, “I had a bizarre education. I never went to college or anything like that. But I always read voraciously,” she says. The unearthing of her maternal grandfather’s diary in which he had detailed the march from Calcutta to Lucknow in 1857, lead to an interest in India and she first came to the country in 1970 to retrace that march.
Her brush with India left her wanting more and so she returned again in 1972, this time to study elephants, “I have always had a fascination for elephants,” she laughs. “I came back to find out more about them — that inevitably meant coming to Kerala. And I just fell into a whole new world,” she says. The first photograph she took — of Guruvayur Kesavan, the legendary temple elephant — went on to become an iconic one. Thus began her tryst with Kerala, especially Guruvayur and she returned over and over again, in between her assignments in England where she worked as a film editor, “I worked in film making for over 18 years and though I don’t miss it, it is good training as it heightens your visuals,” she says.
Her first major project in Kerala was a series of photographs on Theyyam, a form of ritual worship and she spent over five years bringing out a book on it titled Reflections of the Spirit: The Theyyams of Malabar, “The book was a catalogue for an exhibition in New York really,” she says. Yet the Theyyam universe is vast and highly complex and she knew she had to do more.
She also knew that it was difficult to do it alone. Her current project in collaboration with two other experts on the subject, attempts to document every aspect of Theyyam, a daunting task. “Theyam is 2000 shrines with about 800 deities and 15 performing communities. To get in-depth sustained access is not easy and it is far too big a project but I’m now too deep in it,” she says.
“I have absolutely no agenda in this but to tell the truth. This should be seen as the voices of the Theyyam community and I don’t want to romanticise it.”