When photographer Praveen Rengaraj stood on Mandapam beach in Tamil Nadu, it was a tranquil setting. A clean beach, the roar of the waves, wisps of cloud in the sky on a December morning. Soon, the fishing boats returned. There were loud cries of joy. It had been a good day’s catch. Praveen approached them. They readily agreed to be clicked. One later took him for a ride. Then a fisherman named Guruswamy requested him to come to his home for lunch.
It was a two-room thatched hut near the beach. Praveen sat on the floor and had a meal of rice, rasam and the choicest fish. In the end, he offered `500 because he felt happy. Guruswamy said, “How can I take any money? You are my guest.” Praveen was moved.
“They are so friendly and large-hearted and that’s what drew me towards them,” says Praveen, who returned to his hometown Kochi and began taking photographs of fishermen. It helped that his apartment overlooked the backwaters. Later, he shot in different parts of Kerala, in Bengal, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the US.
Now, as his first-ever solo exhibition, called Beyond Fishermen, is taking place at the Kashi Art Gallery at Fort Kochi (April 6 to May 31), he has decided to put up the photos of the Kochi fishermen only.The images include those of the boatmen, sometimes in the early morning, as the sun is rising, when they embark for fishing, or when they return, at twilight, with the sunlight like a single ray just lighting up the fisherman’s body as well as a portion of the boat, or when they sit on the river’s edge with an introspective look on their faces. Looking at the pictures, viewers become aware of the solitary nature of the job.
“For me, a fisherman is an extension of nature. I have not viewed him as a person in physical form. Instead, he is faceless, almost like a shadow. For me, God is the ultimate artist, and a fisherman steps in from one side and adds a new perspective to the water body,” he says.Most of the fisherman have the conviction that nature will not disappoint and flaunt a positive attitude which Praveen finds extremely unique.
Another reason for their joy could be the proximity to water. “It is a calming medium. The sound of a waterfall, the dribble of rainwater falling from a roof to the ground, or the slap of the oar against the water, you tend to fall into a meditative mood.”
A constant interaction with nature leads to humility, too. “A fisherman’s material possessions are very limited. In this age of voracious consumerism, the fisherman’s simple existence is a life lesson for all of us—less is more, ” says the 47-year-old.
Through the exhibition, Praveen wants to make people aware of the fishermen and how they have been the unsung heroes of Kerala. “During the floods last year it was the fishermen who saved so many lives. And without their tireless work, you cannot enjoy fish in your cuisine,” he adds.
Praveen turned to photography when his mother gave him an Agfa camera when he was merely seven. The son of an Army officer, photography, however, has not been a full-time career. Instead, he worked in the tea industry, first as a planter and later as a taster. Then, he shifted professions and began developing high-end boutique hotels. But through it all, photography remained a constant. “I hope one day to bring out a coffee table book on the fishermen,” he concludes with a smile.