A photographer's exposure to reality

At the end of each photo-journalistic journey I make, it finally comes down to this -- those first moments of nervous discovery. It was then that the parallel began to grow on me. The twin realities of one image!

By Ruhani Kaur
Published: Friday 31 October 2003

A photographer's exposure to reality

-- The dark room resembled an infrared closet, the solitary red bulb lending it an eerie glow. With each dip of the print sheet in the solution, more and more of the negative image began to take its positive shape. A mouth, a face, a point of view. At the end of each photo-journalistic journey I make, it finally comes down to this -- those first moments of nervous discovery.

It was then that the parallel began to grow on me. The twin realities of one image! The image that the brief had built in my mind in the rhythmic rocking of the Chennai Rajdhani was rather like the negative. And as I crossed over to the other side of the sliding doors to capture the inside story, the print gradually emerged...

The Negative The destination: Sikkal Tank, one of the biggest in the region, in District Ramanadapuram, Tamil Nadu. The person to be met: Neerkatti Karuiappiah (neerkatti is a local term for water managers). "He is to the water tank, what a priest is to the temple," an ngo official had once described him. An apt summation of a man who had bravely confronted the thunder of many a monsoon squall in his time.

Undeterred by the ferocious gust of the rising waters, Karuiappiah would lower himself into a deep, dark, flooded pit to close the sluices, clinging onto the knotted length of a rope. His tireless arms would bail out water when scarcity struck. All this, for a meagre Rs 20 per acre per crop. Or perhaps, for the fierce determination to keep a dying family tradition alive?

The Print The Karuiappiah I met was a wiry old man whose days rolled out as per the whims and fancies of his grandchildren. In the absence of his wayward son, they are the subjects of his staunch guardianship. Eager to catch a glimpse of a more heroic side, I urge the neerkatti to show me the huge tank he soldiers. He takes me to a wide expanse of arid infinity. The pit whose cause he has championed for years now lies destroyed by neglect.

In the third running year of drought, his spirit flails against the failing monsoon, clinging on to a knotted rope of hope. He catches me looking despondently at the patches of browns that have slowly overcome the greens. A faraway look comes into his eyes, as he recreates the fading reality of his past. Neerkatti Karuiappiah, priest to a temple now ruinously tangled with vines.

As I hung the prints in the drier, the faces I had met looked back at me. Baring, in an incautious moment or two, distant pasts, hesitant futures.

Neerkatti Parmasivan stubbornly maintains his lifelong relationship with water. What if the torrents of the past have now receded into the stillness of a salted lake. There is an edge of irony in the fact that while he once made a living by flooding the fields with life-giving water, today he survives by wringing out water from salt.

Even as each saline mound gathers in the moist embankments, I wonder if the promise of a darkening monsoon still lights up his days. Is that why, after the morning's exertions, he slips away unnoticed in a bus every afternoon to supervise the rehabilitation of his tank?

For every Karuiappiah and Parmasivan, there is also a Lakshmamma. With the characteristic adaptability of a woman, she has made the potentially traumatic crossing over from a neerkatti to a mid-wife with consummate ease. In deliverance lie her innate skills. That it is no longer a gush of water for a golden harvest, but the first few vigorous wails of a healthy infant instead, seems to rest well with her. Lakshmamma has, in one clean stroke, severed the umbilical cord of family tradition that bound her to her past.

As I came out of the dark room, Al Pacino's words from The Recruit came back to me. " Nothing is what it seems. " What a actor divined, Karuiappiah and his colleagues endure in the contradictions of life as neerkattis of an arid landscape.

Ruhani Kaur is a photographer with Down To Earth magazine

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