Kings and climate change | K.R. Sunil photographs Chavittu Nadakam artistes in Kerala who are facing rising sea levels
Silosh George, a fisherman from Chellanam, a coastal village in Kochi, moonlights as a Chavittu Nadakam artiste. In his 30s, George is one of the few young practitioners of the 16th century dance drama. He often attends rehearsals after the day’s work. Once on stage, however, he effortlessly transforms into his character, mouthing verses from a different era with ease.
Intrigued by the artistes inextricably bound by the sea and the legacy of Chavittu Nadakam — an art form believed to have originated in the coastal regions of Kodungallur-Kochi-Alappuzha during the Portuguese rule — photographer K.R. Sunil has been documenting them over the past seven years.
George lives along the fringes of the Kochi-Chellanam coast, as do many of his fellow artistes. Though they depend on the sea for a living, they are also constantly at odds with it. The region has borne the brunt of climate change; even peaceful December brings tidal flooding. “Their living conditions are a complete contrast to the characters [kings, queens, warriors] they play on stage,” says Sunil. It was this contradiction that drew him to them.
A losing battle
Sunil first saw George and the other artistes in 2014, at an annual Chavittu Nadakam festival in Gothuruthu, an island in Paravur, Ernakulam. The particularly boisterous group of men and women, who needed extra coats of make-up because of their dark skin, exuded a rare kind of energy. Their operatic costumes and resonant voices belied the stark reality of their lives. “They are passionate about and proud of their art. While it has evolved over the years, these people hold on to the ancient version, which uses verses in Tamil, which is not recorded but sung live on stage,” he says.
Over time, the Kodungallur-based photographer struck up friendships and began visiting their homes. “There have been instances when all that remained in some of their houses was a cot, with the whole family huddled on it, waiting for the waters to recede. These are marginalised people fighting climate change and poverty,” he says.
Sunil’s preoccupation with people connected to the sea and maritime history have resulted in several his series, including Vanishing Life Worlds, on the people in the erstwhile port town of Ponnani (showcased at the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale), and his 2020 Home, which had images of the sea claiming houses along Kerala’s coast.
In a marked deviation, his latest work features a series of 32 staged photographs showing the Chavittu Nadakam artistes in their costumes set against the reality of their homes, each frame capturing the helplessness and uncertainty of their lives.
Sunil’s work is part of Sea: A Boiling Vessel, presented by Aazhi Archives (with Riyas Komu as its artistic director), and will run parallel to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. It is on at Kashi Hallegua House and Heritage Arts on Jew Street in Mattancherry for the next three months.