The beginning

This is a question I’ve been struggling with for some time. This idea began with curiosity. A student was doing a project in this region and she happened to mention this. It sounded exciting, and that was that. The first visit there was a bit like a tourist and a curious onlooker. The work was fascinating.

During the second (longer) visit, I was more engaged with the place and the process. It was a solo trip and I was very apprehensive. Many factors played on my mind- I didn’t know the language, I didn’t have a clear goal in mind and I was going to a space that had only men. How would they look at a single woman hanging around there?

I started with the safe route. Booked myself in a nice looking home stay. I thought at least someone will know of my whereabouts. Also, the home stay was within walking distance of the boat building activity. My hosts seemed more anxious than me. They insisted that I approach Calicut University and go through them. I listened. I went on a long journey in a few crowded, sweaty local buses to the far out campus, found the folklore department and spoke to the head of the Department. They gave me information and one person promised to come with me to the boat making place in Beypore the next day. I had a feeling no one will show up, so was prepared to go by myself. I spent the afternoon reading and preparing questions.

The next morning, sure enough, the concerned person was unreachable. A succinct Whatsapp message arrived at the designated meeting time “Sorry, can’t make it.” By then I was walking down already.

I took a wrong turn and landed up in a colony of homes. I was sure that I was near the coastal part but kept walking into labyrinthine lanes. I asked a man on a cycle for directions. He was amused, curious and very helpful. He came along with me and walked me to the right location. I bumped into him a few more times. He was a retired army and bank personnel. He seemed to purposefully walk around town with his cycle and he knew everyone in town. I of course encountered the usual questions- ‘Are you married?’ (I can say yes to that now), followed by a sad nod “Your husband is alone?” (does anyone ask my husband the same question?), followed by “children?”( an undercurrent of what’s wrong with you? Married and no children?).

I spent the morning until late afternoon at site. It was relaxing and beautiful. Everyone was so busy with their work that they weren’t too bothered with my presence. There was a bit of self conscious lungi adjusting(understandably) and some of them asked similar questions. There was a general surprise about the fact that I had come alone to hang out there.

I watched and started shooting without a plan in mind. This was a first for me. ( I did take permission). I like to spend time in a place with people before I start shooting, but this was different. The camera became my way of looking. I was less conscious with a camera than without it.

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Forgetting

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They were removing the scaffolding, covering up the wounds left by nails, brushing the saw dust and wood chips aside as if to cover up all that had happened before. This was done with a meticulousness that was surprising. Each beam carefully removed. Each nail violently pushed out. It was useless now. The boat held itself together. Polishing erased any marks that might have been there. The sawdust was swept away. There must be no memory of labour.

The wound must be covered so that the skin doesn’t remember.

In a complete Uru, the labour is forgotten. In every stage of making, the previous one is erased. A ‘finished’ look makes one forget what it took to create this. The gaps are filled, the wood smooth as though the boat always existed like this. Is the making process a series of erasures?

Much like memory and life. In order to move on, one has to forget, reject, erase. Some imprints remain, some overwriting happens.

As the Uru gets ready to leave for the sea, the memory of the land will be erased. It would seem as though the boat always belonged to water.

There is an acceptance and excitement in this completion. I see an underlying violence in the removing of the everything but the boat. This had become my space for many months. It accommodated me in the business of making. I would sit and watch. Be visible, be invisible. When it sails, there is no space left for me.

A walk into Uru land

A walk down the sultry BC ( Beypore Chervayur) road on one end of Beypore and a turn into a tiny lane (the landmark being a ‘Hotel’ called ‘Hotel’), negotiating puddles, mud and the strong smell of the sea, takes us to a surprise- a fairly large one. There is no sign of it until you get to it. The sheer scale is enormous and therefore surprising. People living around there almost treat it like any other construction site. Sounds of rhythmic carpentry and the hum of the occassional machine fill up the space. There is some curiosity about this woman who has walked in. She doesn’t belong here. The Uru starts becoming more visible. The dinosaur like spine (keel) of one and another, next to it, taking shape. There is wood and sawdust everywhere and a blue tarpoline sheet that colours everything under it. It is hotter here.

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Amongst sawdust, mud, sweltering heat and questioning glances I find a spot for myself.I see parts of this enormous creature. The wood, the nails, cracks in the wood being stuffed with cloth, the stench of fish oil. Workers- one carving a flower into a block of wood, which will become a pillar soon. I get a whiff of a manicured milky hand that will rest on the pillar at some point. Another worker has come all the way from Gorakhpur. He has a farm there. This pays better for a few months. He asks us to bring him a cell phone. He is shocked that an unrelated man and woman have come to Beypore.

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There is no place from where I can see the whole boat. It’s too big for that. I can imagine what it would look like, but right now the dismembered parts seem far more interesting than the whole. I look out to the point where the river meets the sea and suddenly I imagine the countless people and boats that would have come and gone from this point. The small opening to the sea becomes a backdrop for all that has been traded, the languages spoken, different worlds coming together and the vessels that carried all this.

The back bone of the Uru carried more weight than that of the ship. In its spine was the history of generations of people of marriages, shipwrecks, west winds, spices, incense, peacocks, cinnamom, timber. The Arabs coming to the coast and marrying daughters of fishermen, alliances being made, bloodshed between the Portuguese and Arabs.A new language being born. Mosques shaped like temples. A hybridity born out of the location of this part of Calicut, Beypore. This and the tranquil emptiness of the horizon now

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About Project Uru

This is a work in progress. As time goes by, the form and ideas will evolve.

The project idea
My colleague Ujjwal and I have undertaken an independent project in Beypore, Kozhikode. There is a boat building industry there, which dates back to the 15th Century (or possibly before). Craftsmen here construct a boat (Uru) around 100ft to 200ft in length and about three stories high, by hand. They take approximately one and a half years to construct one vessel. These are made based on orders from royal families in the Middle East. These Urus are sent from here by sea and designer interiors are done in Dubai, after which the owner uses it for entertainment.The process of construction is fascinating and the interesting part is that it is made without a blueprint.I have been observing this process over the past few months and also been doing research on the historical significance of Calicut as a port.

In that act of building a boat, in a location where possibly trade with Mesopotamia first began and where now luxury boats are built for royal families in the Middle East, lie many embedded narratives. It has a story of labor over time and generations, of craft where authorship is shared and the rhythmic, repetitive act of making. It has narratives of conquest,trade and royalty (from the Arabs, Portuguese and people from Yemen). There are mentions in the travels of Ibn Batuta, Tim Severin, stories from Arabian Nights and local folklore.

Through my project, spread out over various phases of making, using video and physical material, I wish to explore the overlapping narratives of history, labour, class and trade.

Memory, objects and the limitations of video
This is an act which hyperlinks to the very significant aspects of memory and history. Memory in the mind can be intensely personal, but once it becomes ‘objectified’, it is external. It takes shape and form from the imaginations of various people, events and stories. In the present lies the past and the collective history or generations.

I would like to create an experience of viewing which is not passive, but immersive. The idea is to spend extensive time with them and use physical materials that belong to this community- wood shavings, fishing nets, tools etc and video which is moving, to evoke feelings of the macro(the large narratives of history and the scale of the boat) and the micro( the daily lives of the craftsmen and the details they work with).

Some current emerging threads

In order to broaden the idea at present, I am in the process of collecting travelogues that mention Calicut or the Mappala Muslim community (Arab Muslim and women from boatmen Families of the Malabar coast). To this, I wish to add the narratives of the labourers working there. The idea of labour in the context of Kerala is particularly interesting given the labour laws. Also, now there are internal politics and class systems operating between migrant labour and local labour.

My colleague and I are collaborating on this project and have started research and are exploring the various forms this idea could take.