Mallaah: Boatmen of the Kumbh

Photo artist Shibu Arakkal documents the untold story of a fast-vanishing community of boatmen, who are inherent to the ethos and ecosystem of India's Kumbh Mela

By Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

A special project commissioned by the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation and executed by photo artist Shibu Arakkal

In the most revered of Hindu traditions, the confluence of the three holiest rivers of India, the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswati is one of four celebrated earthly sites of the Kumbh Mela. This confluence, the Triveni Sangam at Prayagraj (erstwhile Allahabad) has from the beginning of its tradition, brought together a gathering of humanity like no other on earth.

Kumbh Mela - India, James Burke, 1954, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Kumbh Mela, James Burke, 1954, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Kumbh Mela Crowd, Hindu Religious Festival, India, Howard Sochurek, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Kumbh Mela, James Burke, 1954, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Kumbh Mela, James Burke, 1954, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Kumbh Mela Crowd, Hindu Religious Festival, India, Howard Sochurek, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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A collection of scenes from the Kumbh Mela captured between 1954 and 2018

Kumbh Mela Crowd, Hindu Religious Festival, India by Howard SochurekLIFE Photo Collection

Shibu Arakkal's Mallaah

The series titled ‘Mallaah', simply put, is a series of portraits of the boatmen who ply their trade on the Ganga and the Yamuna, imagined in the great artistic traditions of the last century, depicting people and their lives.

"I have chosen to depart from my recognisable artistic techniques and to take a more direct and hopefully, a visually dynamic viewpoint. My conscious approach was to keep it true to a realism that is authentic, whilst leaning towards the poetic. It was also intentful for me to stick to spontaneous compositions and lighting of the subjects, inspired by the work of some early twentieth-century Pictorialists," Shibu Arakkal

The Nuances of Photo Art (2019-02) by SGMF/Studio 080Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Photo Artist Shibu Arkkal

My line of artistic enquiry for over two decades has almost obsessively been preoccupied with my philosophical journey and my own personal truths. 
Being present, in arguably the most philosophical place on earth at that earthly time, I found myself drawn to the rivers themselves and profoundly, to a people who have traveled on it all their lives. A great disbeliever in coincidence, I and my own journey crossed paths with the boatmen of these holy rivers.

"Shibu Arakkal's work, as I see it, is a drift from the popular ideas of consumption and cultural codes. As a subject matter, his choice of working with the Mallaah boatmen of the Gangetic geography and landscape suggests that the act of seeing, witnessing, photographing and documenting lives can be done through a fourth eye," - Riyas Komu, Artist and Curator.

Idea of National Culture, Shibu Arakkal, 2019-02, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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The Boatman, Shibu Arakkal, 2019-02, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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"This series was born from the life of these people and a journey that is so relevant to the Kumbh story and that of these rivers. It is a reality I trace in relation to my own response to it and an understanding of these people and to not try and interpret something that I might never incisively understand," Shibu Arakkal.

Why Photography Worked (2019-02) by Shibu ArakkalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Life On A Boat

"For several hundred years these boatmen on the Ganga and the Yamuna have handed down their oars from father to son. I was intensely drawn to the purpose of their lives, to carry people back and forth on these rivers," Shibu Arakkal.

Cultural Ideologies (2019-02) by Shibu ArakkalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

From father to son there is this overwhelming fear that a day may come when the younger generation may move from the boats into the big, wide world.

The Boatman (2019-02) by Shibu ArakkalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Creating conceptual artwork
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To lead most of their lives on these vessels, going about their worldly chores and belonging to a tribe of menfolk, they pride themselves on being the caretakers of these mystical rivers. It is as if they were born on these boats and as possibly may breathe their last on it.

"The idea of photography like this seems to me closer to the idea of painting where reality is represented to us in a diffracted way. Seeing the work of Shibu Arakkal, I am overwhelmed by the manner in which his technique of making shades of scars visible, that of history of an abandoned community, as it is passing into oblivion before our very eyes," - Riyas Komu.

The Structure of Damaged Life (2019-02) by Shibu ArakkalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

The Structure of a Damaged Life

Arakkal's endeavour of technique, labour, craft and way of seeing reminds us of the limits of reason, culture, thought and contemporary politics as we see from the point of view of mortality of bodies and languages, as Paul Valery, a prominent critic observes in his essays.

Cultural Ideologies (2019-02) by Shibu ArakkalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

From a purely cultural point of view, that is the world of public opinion, ideas and ideologies, these images may become a part of the archive of the forgotten world.

"The works themselves have been conceptualised through a story-telling visual technique, and still maintaining a distinct demarcation from the photojournalistic genre, also critically preserving the realness of the subject. While consciously meaning to be less interpretative and more authentic to a photographic realism, I am as always, coming from an artist's style and viewpoint," Shibu Arakkal.

The Natural Choice (2019-02) by SGMF/Studio 080Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Why we chose Shibu Arakkal

Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini explain their thoughts behind choosing Shibu Arakkal, an artist with a complex style, to document this story of India's intangible heritage.

As a photographer Shibu Arakkal does not allow for the ready consumption of his work, but poses serious questions by way of his technique, that is making the subjects disappear from sight, making it reappear in the psychic space of mind and posing questions before the viewer.

Credits: Story

Content & Curation: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Narrative: Shibu Arakkal, Photo Artist
Special Acknowledgment: Riyas Komu, Artist & Curator, Founder Kochi Muziris Biennale
Video footage: Nandith Jaisimha for Studio 080

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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