Preserving the past and present

A researcher traces the subtleties of the lives and emotions of migrant people through her visual narratives
Preserving the past and present

CHENNAI: The wounds of Sri Lanka’s flickering past have been reimagined in many different ways through photographs. But like how the sky is best captured by the lightning before a thunderstorm, the images captured by those who know a country’s past have a universal appeal. This was why Subthiga Mathanamohan, an assistant professor and researcher from Chennai, thought it was important to document the history of the migration between Sri Lanka and Tami Nadu. “She says, “I wanted to work on the emotions that connect the two lands. There was not much attention given to it. To share the emotions, I felt I needed to talk to people who have lived in India and have gone back to their homeland. I did not want to objectively see what is shared between the lands. I wanted to connect people with both the lands and think that they belong to both these lands,” she says.

Archiving the abstracts of life

Talking about her project — Palkstrait Archive, a virtual documentation of the narratives between India and Sri Lanka through oral inputs, photographs, and the objects they owned — Subthiga says that the idea is to preserve and conserve the family history of the migrants, something she feels has not been paid much attention to. “The term preservation is largely used among organisations but we should zoom into the families. I will not call myself a professional photographer but a person who researches photography. I do attempt to take photographs when I deal with some visual narratives. My research is also based on family albums and family photographs. The data for my research has been working with the images that have already been produced,” she adds.

Last year, for Shared Tides, a collaboration among the Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB) Foundation, Goethe-Institut/MMB Chennai, Goethe-Institut Sri Lanka, and Kalam Jaffna, the researcher travelled to Sri Lanka to explore the lives and stories of Tamil-speaking people there. The project was titled Akkarayum Ikkarayum (On that side of the land and this side of the land) which concentrated on the past and present lives of Tamil people in Sri Lanka. She says, “The people had been living in India for a long time before moving to Sri Lanka. It is not easy for them to point out which is their homeland.”

Subthiga started working with marginalised communities, like snake charmers, fortune tellers for Palkstrait Archives, and then moved to Sri Lankan refugees. “When you say that you are working for the refugee population, it is always a question of you working either for the government or against the government, she emphasises. It becomes political but my project is very simple, it is based on human emotions — their joy, love, and struggle — about their life. Everyday struggle can also be political.”

She says, “I was very conscious to not bring any narratives that were on any political information. It is about giving voices to people who are not given chances,” Describing one of the photos from the collection, she says, “When the refugees are born in Tamil Nadu, their birth certificates are given by the state government. While I was collecting information, a kid showed me his two birth certificates with a lot of enthusiasm as it was a big deal for him. When he stood up, his shadow was over the two birth certificates. I clicked a photograph and for me, it portrayed the identity crisis they have been facing.”

For the past eight years, the researcher has also been working as an assistant professor in various colleges teaching students of Mass Communication and Visual Communication. She describes that her attention and relation to photographs were different since childhood as she grew up watching her dad who is a professional photographer work. “I spent most of my childhood carrying photography equipment to help out my father. The outlook I have now, I have developed it from there. I learned things like — not wasting a frame as it was the age of analog photography, holding a photograph in such a way that fingerprints won’t leave a stain, and taking photographs in a structure, especially for events. Looking at the photographs, I could also understand what community is a particular event for and which part of Tamil Nadu is it being held in.”

Speaking about her growth in understanding the art, she says, “I have evolved to be very sensitive and to be a person who follows ethics. Photography is not just an image, it holds so much for social and political reasons. It carries a lot of messages. I feel as a photographer, it is our responsibility to be sensitive to the subjects. When you deal with people, especially marginalised communities, you have to be sensitive.”

Subthiga hopes to send the message of preserving the photographs and family history to more people. Through her projects and sessions for school children at school, she continues to do so. She also invites people to contribute to Palkstrait Archives with narratives, oral inputs, photographs or any objects related to the interactions between India and Sri Lanka.

For more details, visit @sabthika_m on Instagram.

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