The sea has been Kerala’s highway to the world since time immemorial. Historical records speak about the Arabs, Romans, and the Chinese before Vasco da Gama (1498), and, thereafter, the merchants and mercenaries of European colonial powers docking at the Malabar coast. The sounds, sights and smells of the sea and the seafarers have left an indelible mark on the culture and landscape of Malabar. What is, however, rarely spoken about is the world of Malayali seafarers, who have been a part of this region’s romance with the waves. Malayalam was enriched by sights and sounds they had discovered during the course of their adventures. Their sweat went into the building of the local economy. Yet, all these years, they had remained on the fringes of the Malayali society, their songs unheard of and stories meant to die with them. “Manchukkar: The Seafarers of Malabar”, an exhibition of oral narratives and photographs by KR Sunil, curated by Riyas Komu at Uru Art Harbour, Kochi, is a fine initiative to retrieve a slice of cultural history from oblivion and place it in the context of 20th century Kerala’s relations with the ocean.
Sunil, 44, trained to be a sculptor at the Fine Arts College, Thrissur, but likes to tell stories with his camera. A native of Kodungallur, he stumbled on T Ibrahim while on a trip to Ponnani, another historical trade post and a centre of Islam in Kerala, a couple of years ago. Ibrahim, 80, was singing about the lives of sailors, who worked on dhows, the sea-going vessels made of timber, also called uru, pathemari and manchu. Ibrahim introduced Sunil to this world of manchukkar (seafarers), a dying community of shranks, deckhands and assorted helpers, who were once a common sight on the Malabar coast. The dhows, in the last century especially, were built mainly in Beypore, a town close to Kozhikode, and sailed off the western coast to ports in the Gulf. In his introduction to the exhibition, MH Ilias, professor at the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, says the first generation of Gulf migrants from Kerala sailed on manchus to different parts of the Gulf without any travel documents, crossing the Arabian Sea via the ports of Bombay, Karachi and Gwadar in the 1940s and ’50s.
The stories Sunil has collected reveal a world of a cosmopolitan labour, which, Ilias says, was part of a globalised community of great geographical, linguistic and social diversity. These men, mostly followers of Islam and from impoverished families in coastal villages to the north of Ponnani, started very young as helpers on the dhows and grew up to become skilled sailors. The best among them could climb the tall masts and fix the sails braving devilish winds, spot storms early and steer the ship with rudimentary navigational aids in choppy seas, dive under the vessel and repair the keel. But almost all stories speak of childhoods spent in deprivation, exploitation, including sexual, the fear of the all-devouring sea, sea burials of colleagues who succumbed to illness or met with accidents during the course of a voyage. Faith and music helped them survive the battering of the waves. The corpus of stories reveals a dark side of Kerala society that is absent even in labour archives and working-class histories. It is a wonderful tribute to the small men who, too, are a part of the history.
A. Abubakkar, 67, Ponnani
A. Abubakkar started working in the dhow at 12 to help his fisherman father raise him and his six siblings. He started as a cook for the deckhands. Later, he became a deckhand himself. He worked for 20-odd years in many boats, including Mehmoodiya and Paththu Salamiya. Among his many friends who lost their lives at sea, he remembers Ibrahim, an adolescent boy from Malappuram, who had come to work in the boat after altercations with his family. He caught typhoid on a voyage and died soon. The memories of Ibrahim and his other friends who met the same fate still haunt Abubakkar.
Abdul Rahiman, 68, Ponnani
For Abdul Rahiman, the job of a deckhand in the dhow was like ‘circus in the seas’. Rahiman, who was a deckhand for 15 years, took up the job when his father had to retire because of old age. His trips were from Kozhikode to Ratnagiri, Mangalore, Velikkara, Karwar and Bombay. To adjust the sails according to wind directions, he had to climb 50ft up on swinging ropes. Once, his boat was caught in a cyclone near Karwar. He also remembers seeing two boats colliding; as one of them sank, its people were rescued by another boat.
Moideenkutty, 54, Ponnani
Moideenkutty’s father Hassanar was a deckhand in the dhow, Duldul. When he was six, his father went to sea and never returned. A cyclone in February 1967 destroyed many boats and many sailors went missing. Hassanar was among the 25, sailing on Duldul and Vijayamala, from Ponnani. who went missing. Years later, Moideenkutty too joined the dhow. He started as a cook and served as a deckhand for eight years. He remembers the wind had snuffed out a lot of sailors’ lives, including his father’s. Sailors fearfully call it “the thief of February.”
Manchukkoran, 69, Kasaragod
Manchukkoran was brought to the boat by poverty. For a long time, he was in a dhow named S Barkathulla. He was particularly skilled in climbing the highest of masts and altering the sails according to the wind. He mostly travelled from Mangalore to Bombay. Boats would be waiting at the Bombay harbour to load and unload, says Manchukkoran. In 1967, he got caught in a squall in Goa. Three other dhows were blown away and crashed into rocks. With that voyage, Manchukkoran bid farewell to this line of work.
Abdullakkutty, 66, Ponnani
Abdullakkutty became a deckhand at 19. Since the age of four, he had started sailing to Kozhikode with his father, a port worker. Abdullakkutty’s expertise was in sealing the cracks of the keel from under the boat. He did this by holding his breath underwater. In his two-decade-long maritime life, he was the captain of the boat, Sulthania. Once, on a voyage to Bombay, scraping metal parts on the mast sparked off a fire and the entire upper part of the boat was burnt down. It was taken to Bombay port by another boat before he the fire was completely extinguished.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Ancient Mariners’