Uneventful people, ‘characters’ of Fort Kochi, are the subject of a calendar by Subhash Maheshwar.
Fort Kochi paints a million different pictures. It is a kaleidoscope of histories, a place which perpetually rouses curiosity and wonder. It is a magnet for creative people, some make it home and others keep returning for more. And it is not just the tourists.
For fashion photographer Subhash Maheshwar it is Fort Kochi’s people, the “characters”, who lead seemingly uneventful lives, but have rich personal histories that make it what it is. He chose to showcase these stories in his calendar for this year. The dhobis of Dhobhikhana, the third generation medicine man G.S. Narendranath, the pappadam makers of TD Street, ‘Cycle’ Venu, ‘Disco’ Johnson, potter Sarojam, ‘Gatta Gusti’ trainer George, artist Joseph Desmond, boatman Abu…it is a photographic catalogue of lives.
“I belong to Ernakulam, but there is something about Fort Kochi and its rich culture draws me to it. There is so much history and culture there,” says Subhash. This reason drew him to set his calendar project in Fort Kochi.
He had help from people in Fort Kochi identifying the people, who he refers to as ‘characters’, besides him spending time looking for these people. “The theme for my calendar is ‘I was here’. The lives of these people, who seem to belong to another era, meets the world of fashion. Some of these people are artists in their own right….look at Disco Johnson…he was a known disco dancer in his heydays or Cycle Venu who is well known in Fort Kochi for his carnival floats. For most of these people there will be no record of what they did because their children are not following in their footsteps. It is a link to the theme.”
The models are dressed in garments designed out of the lungi, yes, of the lungi dance fame. Shirts, trousers, dresses, saris, tunics…all made out of the lungi – “the outfit of the sadharanakaaran (everyman).” So are the subjects of the photographs. The gaudy, polyester avatar of the lungi transforms into sassy tunics and sensuous kaftans. The garments were designed by Haan Tom from Thoppumpady. “I wanted to treat the lungi differently, make it wearable outside a fashion show,” he says. He also did the styling for the calendar.
January has John posing with, what he claims is, his 270 year-old violin. The bow is poised over the violin’s strings…it is a moment frozen in eternity. The violin is a constant companion. In his 58 years in Fort Kochi, he has seen the ebb and flow of life, not just his but also that of the place he calls home, Fort Kochi’s too. John irons clothes for a living. “His story touched me the most. There is an aura of sadness around him. Even the tune he played on the violin was melancholy,” Subhash says.
He spent three weeks on research, which included looking for, finding and convincing these people to share their stories. Through these common folk he has tried to capture the essence of Fort Kochi. He listened to their stories before placing them in the frame.
George, the wrestler, talks about the history of the evolution of ‘Gatta Gusti’ in Fort Kochi. He participated in competitions held across the State till 1969 before shifting to amateur wrestling. “The Travancore and Cochin Maharajas employed court wrestlers. Manacaud Narayana Pillai who was, supposedly, Travancore’s star wrestler, Nickel Jamal, Kayamkulam Dayanandan… Nickel Jamal was my asan. I learnt wrestling from him.”
Then there is Balachandran, a tailor, whose ancestors came from Goa, who has been running a tailor shop for the last 40 years. There is no one to take over the shop, Padma Tailoring, and it will shut with him. “My son has a job and who wants tailoring these days? Readymades have taken over.”
Old meets new, the present wrenches its place from the past….it is a world in flux and these people watch as time flies leaving behind a handful of memories. And a calendar which marks the passage of time, ironically, creates another memory.