According to ancient mythological texts called the Puranas, Parshurama, a Priest-Warrior and the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu, following a bloody campaign to annihilate the ruling Kshatriyas, flung his mighty battle-axe into the ocean. The waters drew back thus enabling him to reclaim land for the creation of the land now called Kerala.
In a purely historical context, the Malabar Coast refers to India’s southwestern coast and is comprised of the narrow coastal plane of Karnataka and Kerala states, lying between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea.
This lush and verdant land had many admirers — Babylonians, Mesopotamiams, Romans, Egyptians, and later the Arabs, French and British — all of who came over at some point with the thought of settling for good, or at the very least establishing a permanent outpost. This symbiotic relationship with far-flung cultures harked back to 3000 B.C. when spices, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, silks, fragrances and gold from the region were famous throughout the ancient trading world, extending across the Arabian Sea to major ports in the Red Sea and Mediterranean as well as the Far East.
In keeping with seafarers of old, I made Calicut or Kozhikode (referred to as “Muziris” in classical Greek and Roman texts) my first port of call in Kerala. My host Valsan Kolleri, a renowned artist and sculptor, was based in Pattiam, a bucolic green hamlet midway between Calicut and Kannur. I could not have asked for a better guide than Valsan who knew North Malabar as intimately as his backyard. Through him I experienced a land where one could actually smell, touch and feel an authentic lifestyle, seemingly suspended in time and space, untouched by the ravages of haphazard modernity that was sweeping the country.
It was with great difficulty that I was able to look away from the constantly unfolding tapestry and pull out my camera to take pictures. The decision to go black and white was the only way to “homogenize” the series of gorgeous vignettes I was passing through — a procession of ancient wood and laterite temples, Theyyam “spirit possession” rituals, unending coconut groves, a virgin coastline and a vividly green countryside with the occasionally hilarious sighting of a Benicio del Toro image (as Che Guevara) superimposed on a political billboard.
Hopefully these images convey some of the wonder and magic I experienced.
Vikram Zutshi is a filmmaker, writer and photographer based in Los Angeles. His last film, a docu-feature, Max Kennedy and the American Dream was filmed at various points along the 2000 mile US-Mexico border and has been broadcast in several countries. Vikram frequently writes and blogs on art, culture, religion and politics and is currently developing his next film, a narrative feature — The Byron Project.