KOCHI: The title ‘A Letter From India’ sounds like a grandiose epistolary saga of the nation but the short documentary released by Faraway Originals on YouTube is a painfully beautiful and intimate narrative of a photographer’s singular attempt at documenting the historical town of Mattanchery. Biju Ibrahim is a familiar face in the streets of the old town.
As a resident artist at Uru Art Harbour, Biju set out to chronicle the various communities that call Mattanchery their home. An unsuspecting attempt in the beginning, Biju soon realised that the lanes he was walking through were a melting pot of cultures far more diverse than he had imagined.
Thirty-nine distinct communities populate the approximately five square kilometre town. While a few migrated a thousand years ago, many settled a couple of hundred years back. The documentary traverses through their lives as Biju relates his experience to his father in a letter.
The video begins with a montage of Biju walking into streets, structures and houses. He finally sits down at the desk in a library and begins unravelling the story of a town which encompasses India herself. “I don’t think you would find such diversity so densely packed in a small area. I had only heard about the place as a kid, in the last two years I experienced its magic,” says Biju.
As a self-taught photographer, Biju was inspired to pick up the camera by his uncle. “He was a historian and journalist who was also into archaeology. I travelled extensively with him. During his archaeological expeditions, he would ask me to take photos of items found.
That was my first introduction,” he adds. Biju worked in the film industry for ten years before switching fulltime to photography and meeting Riyas Komu, director of Uru Art Harbour through a musician friend of his. “Riyas saw my previous photographs and granted me a residency. It was through his impetus and mentorship that I took up the Mattanchery project,” says Biju.
The YouTube channel had approached Biju with the documentary proposal after seeing his work for the It’s My Biennale campaign. “They wanted to make a video about my project, I conveyed their intent to Riyas who told me to go ahead. The team and I met a few times to discuss the story arc. They wanted to give a personal angle to all these multiple lives, I told them about my father’s brief stay at Mattanchery in 1975 and we used that as the peg,” sums Biju.