Anybody with a camera can capture the sea and the life around it rather easily and you are guaranteed some nice snaps. But when Vetrivel takes his camera exploring the coastal life, he adds an invisible extra lens of empathy to his equipment. It is this look through the lens of empathy that makes his photographs somewhat different from all those seascape pictures you have seen.
An exhibition of the Chennai-based upcoming photographer is on at Hallegua Hall - Palette People Gallery & Artists’ Studio in Mattancherry, Kochi. The show, aptly named Neydhal, which means the coastal region of Tamil Nadu, reflects life along the coastline and the landscape as well as the seascape.
“I am not a storyteller. I am not a poet. But my sojourns among the lives at the grassroots bring me closer to untold stories and poems unheard. Using my camera, I recreate those stories and poems and the faiths ingrained in their life and existence supported and at the same time challenged by mighty waters,” says Vetrivel, who uses photography as a medium to express his empathy towards the downtrodden people.
Vetrivel has always been interested in art and culture ever since his school days. He had his first drumming concert in Singapore, when he was a first standard student, and studied music at KM Music Conservatory in Chennai for seven years. At the same time, he was also keen about architecture and used to draw architectural forms during his school days. Later, his mentoring at Chitravathi Centre for Creativity (CCC), the creative education arm of his alma mater - The Velammal International School (TVIS) - further fortified his inclination towards drawing, and also strengthened his aesthetic vision and interest in photography. He later used such experiences to define his photographic talent, thus developing an idiom of his own that is rooted in his societal concerns.
“My interest in photography was seeded in my childhood, as is the case of many new-gen kids, with a high-end cellphone that makes everyone a photographer,” says Vetrivel. “But that was the beginning. From the everyday objects I captured thus, slowly I started looking at photography as a medium of art to capture various facets of our society at its expressive best.”
As part of his photographic exploration, he was also lucky to see the world beyond his immediate premises – both physically and culturally - through his social involvement, including the interaction with his friends. “Then, a new life started emerging before me when I started looking at the world through the lens eye. Instead of looking at it from a distance, I felt a sense of empathy, which grew over a period of time,” he says.
It was during his social interactions and seeing the world around him through his lens, Vetri realised that every human being is a story; an unending tale that unfolds before us. “Every man is a human library, which replaces the concepts of books and the conventional knowledge system. Their knowledge, wisdom and the way they see the world and the societal issues helped me see the society through their perspective as well,” he adds.
It was through such journeys that he came to know about the tsunami of 2004 December and how it threw the coastal life out of gear. Those post-tsunami narratives also were engraved in him, which slowly transformed the focus of his lens from the picture perfect romantic sights to the realities of life at the grassroots.
The people living in the Neydhal are literally weaving life but it is always porous like the net which forms the basis of their existence and survival. The region and the life without colours was the stepping stone for Vetri’s photographic project, which he named Neydhal. “I would say these are not a momentary capturing; rather it is a moment from the sequence of events that unfolded before me… Seeds of memory sprouting in the mindscape of the people who are always destined to fight the odds,” says Vetri.
These works can be broadly divided into three segments: Landscapes, Seascapes and Portraits. However, they are mutually related.
While capturing Neydhal landscapes, he was not drawn to the colour and charm of the places he walked around, says Vetri. He sees a life drained of its colours, but they have the inner power to fight the odds. Water, sky and the life it reflects has no contours in his frames. So, naturally the grey tone dominates here instead of the blue of the ocean and the sky, which merge into one in many of his photographic compositions.
“Instead of the sound and fury, I capture the silence, which at times is like a prayer and at times an internal wave that throbs with violence embedded within,” he says. “As American writer and philosopher Susan Sontag has observed, ‘Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech’.”
Even when he turns towards the ocean, he captures the sea in its turbulence. There he witnesses the other side of life that floats over uncertainty. And he remembers their stories about the giant waves that took away all their little belongings, their dreams, naturally making his compositions more painful than romantic.
While engaged in interactions with the fishermen, he started observing their traits from close quarters. It was not just the ethnic feature that grabbed his attention, but the sociological aspect also got reflected in their physical appearance. People who are compelled to work hard even during their old age, and struggle to eke out a living. “Their faces tell the stories of their struggle, and their eyes become oceans of pain and reminiscence... Their work culture, their faith, their stories, everything slowly started taking shape in my mind,” says the young photographer, who also photographed little kids who support their parents, often at the cost of their schooling. They learn from the sea and shores more than what they learn in the classroom. Their life is a far cry from his life as a young boy who never had to struggle for anything, remembers Vetri, who says their looks are frozen in time.
World renowned artist and curator Bose Krishnamachari, who is the President of Kochi Biennale Foundation, inaugurated the exhibition on February 4, 2023.
The inaugural ceremony was held in the presence of eminent artists and luminaries including, Mr. MVM Sasikumar, Director, Velammal Educational Trust, Geethanjali Sasikumar; Geethanjali Sasikumar, Director – Academics, Velammal Knowledge Park, Murali Cheeroth, Chairman, Kerala Lalithakala Akademi; Lijin Jose, filmmaker; Marina Michale Kurisingal, movie actor among others.