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Anshika Varma captures Olcott Kuppam's shifting tides

Design Log 13 Apr

In a poignant photo series titled Olcott Kuppam, Anshika Varma documents the quiet beauty of an old fishing village in Chennai. The images serve as a reminder of the shifting landscape between the villagers and the ocean that sustains them. 

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(Left) A family of fishermen relax after returning from the sea; (Right) A boy goes to fetch water for his morning shower while getting ready to go to school

Nestled along the seashore, Olcott Kuppam is one of the oldest fishing villages in Chennai. Dotted by the homes of the fishermen who first learnt to cast their nets from their fathers, the landscape and lives that thrive in this village are constantly transforming, much like the sea itself.

Delhi-based freelance photographer, installation artist and curator Anshika Varma first found herself in Olcott Kuppam in 2016, and was intrigued by the changing lives of the fisherfolk, and their morphing relationship with the water that nurtured generations of their families. Today, the boys of the village prefer stable jobs in the city to the mystery of the sea. The foaming waves that enchanted their fathers don’t fascinate them anymore. The beaches are dirty, the water almost poisonous, and the fish are dead.

Through an intriguing photo series named after the village, Anshika captures a dying generation of fishermen and the evolving identity of the village. She collects curious memory boxes - party masks, fishing hooks, sea urchins - received as gifts from the villagers that lend a deeper dimension to the project. As we catch up with her, she gives us a glimpse into Olcott Kuppam and the larger ideas that fuel her photographic practice. 

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(Left) A young girl caught daydreaming outside her house; (Right) A lady finds a bright white ribbon on the beach left there by tourists

What drew you to this particular village of Olcott Kuppam?

I was invited on a residency by the Chennai Photo Biennale in 2016 to come and create work relating to the water crisis in the city. At that time, Chennai had just overcome a flood that had left everyone asking questions about how the city was being developed and populated, and how its housing policies and habitation were impacting the environment.

I was personally very keen to understand what the idea of a water crisis meant for the inhabitants of a land who had grown up with this element in their natural surroundings. I am convinced that who we are, as a community and as individuals, is largely impacted by our relationship with our land. It becomes an umbilical cord to our past, our sense of identity and belonging...I walked along the beach one day accompanied by a friend who pointed Olcott Kuppam to me and told me about its history as a settlement of meenakar (fishermen). What was meant to be a weeklong project for a residency has now become a long-term engagement with people whose stories have fueled my imagination of the sea.

For the villagers, the sea is a source of faith and livelihood. Their rituals, customs and patterns of everyday life are dictated by this strong force of nature that seemed, after the floods, to be entering our lives and concerns only now. I heard their stories and realized the massive differences that lay in who they were, the visualscape of where they lived and what they desired. The village then became interesting to me not only because of its inhabitants who are today a mix of fishermen, security guards, office-goers and migrant labour but also because of the changing landscape of the village itself.

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(Left) After an accident out in the sea, Vignesh has been unable to return to fishing. He is seen here with his mother, who sells fish caught by her other sons to pay for Vignesh's medical bills; (Right) The local vegetable vendor out on his daily morning rounds

The project stands at the intersection of the notions of home, livelihood and identity, some of the recurring themes in your body of work. How did you find yourself gravitating towards these ideas?

I grew up in a big home filled with people and lots of conversations. Feelings, stories, fights, nostalgia, betrayal, moments of endearment were all expressed and experienced with great intensity. Although my family unit is now much more intimate, I enjoy being around people, knowing about their everyday routines, listening to their stories and being a part of their lives. I am curious to know what shapes us into our current versions of ourselves and how connected that process is with our awareness of where we come from. I believe our ideas of belonging are deeply associated to an emotional connection with memory and what we choose to remember of our past, whether its ancestral or political. That is the place I am interested in.

I have always been keen to explore this idea of histories - individual, communal, factual, fictitious. This is something that I see around me more and more. In this time of post-truth, whose history gets validated and why? It’s the first time I began to ask myself the same questions and I don’t think I have found my answer yet.

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A child getting ready to go to school in the morning

You capture moments from the everyday lives of the fisher folk. Are there any memories or anecdotes from the experience that has stayed with you?

Many! An interesting conversation I had with a father and son helped me understand what the sea meant to them. For the father, he was in complete awe of the sea; it was sacred and religious and he offered himself in complete submission to its forces. He prayed to it and respected it; the sea had offered him a source of living, food and nourishment and an escape when he couldn’t make sense of his world. But the son was against this idolization of the sea. It made him angry to know his father thought of her as a goddess. He couldn’t respect a goddess or submit himself to one because he had never seen one. But he could love the sea as a force of nature: willing, playful and violent. Both their associations seemed so similar, the relationships so deep and yet so very different from each other. The differences in their approach spoke less about the sea but so much more about them, about the changes that had come into the village between these two generations and what they aspired towards. That always stayed with me.

On one of my trips to the village, I was suffering from a severe back ache. I walked around with my tripod in a lot of pain and one of the women whose homes I frequented called me in and asked if she could take a quick check of my back. She prodded and pushed at certain points, made observations, mumbled to herself and went off in the back of the house, signaling me to sip on some coffee until she returned. I found later she had been weaving a totem for me and blew a prayer into an anklet that she made from black thread, tied it on me and told me not to worry; I would be okay in another few days. I was really touched by her concern!

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Memory boxes collected by Anshika Varma

Some quaint objects like a ball of fishing net, a handful of sand, or a seahorse skeleton find themselves in the project, rendered in a nostalgic light. Why did you collect these keepsakes?

Olcott Kuppam is a multi-disciplinary project that works with interviews, photographs and objects that have been preserved in memory boxes. The form and mediums the project began to encompass grew out of my engagement with the people from the village and constant visits to their homes. Most of the objects you mention were gifted to me by the children and women of the house during our conversations.

The shells of sea urchins and dried seahorses are painted and used for décor in their homes. An older fisherman had given up his practice – he gave me his old fishing hooks and mending tools for his net. Before the fishermen venture out into choppy waters, they collect the sand ashore into circular shapes and pray to the kadaltai, the sea goddess, hoping for a safe return. These objects are all intricately connected to their lives and became important identifiers for me in understanding who they are. I preserve them in a sandook, a tin box found in most Indian homes for keeping everyday things. It is where most of the inhabitants kept their identity papers and family photographs. I am keen to know if these objects will still be relevant to the identity of the fishermen 50 years down the line.

For the exhibition of the work, I made time capsules with the objects from their homes, from their lives and from their memories, and exhibited them along with the portraits. The work was exhibited in the basement of a train station.

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(Left) Jyotiprakash, Baapi and Monu are migrant daily wage labours who share a room in the village, but aren't used to taking a morning dip in the ocean; (Right) A lady observing two crows fighting over some fish that had washed ashore

In this project, what challenged you as a photographer?

Logistically speaking, I had to overcome the barrier of language with great difficulty, especially since the project began with a series of conversations where neither the villagers nor I had a common language between us. But the dynamics shifted once I brought the camera in. It allowed the villagers to become their own voice. It helped me to build on that moment when they are unguarded but can also represent themselves in the way they want. 

How are you planning to expand the photo series?

I am hoping that the project allows for a long-term engagement with the landscape of the village and its inhabitants over the coming years in order to be able to document the transformation of the village into a part of the city. I have always let the work take its own direction and the expansion of this particular project would depend entirely on its subjects - the people and the village.

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(Left) Although the village stands along the sea, the water is toxic and polluted. Most homes depend on municipal water, which they collect in plastic containers; (Right) Two brothers take a small break from their household chores on a Sunday

You work as a photographer, an installation artist and a curator. Do the different practices inform each other?

My engagement and exploration in the creation of photographic work has definitely helped me in the curatorial process. Having worked in the editorial and journalistic space and then moved into personal documentary, I am now interested in a more multi-disciplinary approach. Installations and photography have given me a large canvas to play and experiment with and expand on certain works using performance and other forms of artistic expression as well.

The process of curation is still very new to me but I have been extremely grateful to have artists and organisations that have allowed me the freedom to interpret their work and exhibit it with faith in my methods. I enjoy the process of working with a photographer to bring their project to a stage of completion, knowing what drives their narratives and how best to do justice to it.

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(Left) Three friends share a laugh in front of their home along the beach; (Right) Friends walk back home after a night out fishing. Being together at sea and facing its wrath creates an extremely sacred bond amongst the fishermen.

Do you have any projects in the pipeline? What does 2018 hold for you?

I am really excited about some new projects that will be taking form over the course of this year. The Wall, a site-specific installation based on the Delhi Ridge, is a work-in-progress. It was created for Mutations, an art show curated by Rahaab Allana and Francois Cheval.

Olcott Kuppam will continue to expand and grow and hopefully include more stories.

I have also just begun research on a new project related to folklore and memory based in Punjab that I want to photograph this winter. It has been really beautiful to read poetry written in Gurmukhi, which I cannot read  but have got access to the Devanagari version of the text.

I am currently working on editing a photo-book with Roli Publishers on the history of Calcutta from the 1960s to current day contemporary life. It’s an extensive book that offers a visual story of the city and we’ve been going through some really beautiful personal archives for the same.

I’ve also been invited as the curatorial director for Obscura, a photography festival in Penang Malaysia, for their current edition that takes place in August this year. I’m working with film, photography, virtual reality and installations for the same and it promises to be an exciting festival with some amazing speakers and panelists.

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