1. The western coast of Gujarat over the centuries has played host to numerous traders and their fleets of ships which docked upon its fertile shores for trade and commerce. The world became smaller and need to reach out to faraway lands grew, which in turn needed a viable medium of travel. Man looked to the sea from where the westerns came and sought out to build ships which would ferry their dreams to distant lands.
2. Somewhere amidst this frenzy of development which defines Gujarat today is a small, somewhat lesser known town of Mandvi. Situated at the shores of the Arabian Sea, Mandvi is a unique town with a unique art preserved in its pristine form, the art of ship building. Times have progressed much beyond our comprehension and so has the art of ship building, however the ship builders of Mandvi still build ships the way they did centuries back.
3. On a photographic journey through Gujarat deliberately restricting myself to the lesser explored parts of the Rann, I stumbled upon a map which had a brief write up about Mandvi. I decided to witness the town which somehow seemed intriguing. The sight of magnificent wooden ships either stripped or half constructed sprawling all along the towns coast was a sight in itself.
4. The process of ship building is long, strenuous and requires unbelievable amount of patience. I was lucky to have been given access to photograph one such wooden ship under construction and witnessed almost one whole days work. What is even more interesting is that the concept, design, mechanics, architecture, engine positioning, the entire process requires a great deal of engineering knowledge, or so I thought. On my conversation with the engineer who designs most of these ships I learnt that the art has been passed on to him a legacy by his father and he has no formal knowledge or a degree even remotely close to engineering. Not just this, what startled me most was that the entire lot of over 200 workers, most of them uneducated, were being managed by a 17 year old boy, whose confidence and leadership skill could give any MNC CEO a run for his money.
5. The sheer energy and absolutely positive and vibrant attitude of the workers was infectious. They sang and played and laughed and even posed for the camera but not for a second did the work stall. The majestic structures from inside seemed timeless and would give one a feeling of being in an ancient world. The walls of the ship are bolted with thousands of bolts and nuts and the floors are made of gigantic logs of wood. Each bolt is hand fitted without the use of any heavy modern machinery. It almost seemed humorously arrogant that these "kids" were so nonchalant of their craft that they never bothered to modernize it in any way. Work starts with the rising sun and before the first light hits the unfinished wooden decks, sweat, water and noise are almost reverberating in the little half awake town. The ship itself is almost 3 stories high with 3 layers of wooden floors, each supported by massive wooden logs. The entire structure also is supported with huge wooden logs criscrossed to hold it in place.
6. One ship takes no lessthan 3-4 years to build and costs no less than 1-2 crores. The entire town seems to be somehow related to this business of ship building. Everyone I spoke to seemed proud of this almost extinct legacy that is being preserved in their town. A truly magical experience for me which for some strange reason does not find mention in the much acclaimed tourism advertisement of Gujarat hosted by mr Amitabh Bachhan.
THE COAL MINERS
A few days back, i was looking for a reason to still call my self a photographer, as it had been weeks that my camera had seen the light outside the bag. So on Sunday, i headed out seeking to shoot something that would appeal to me as a self proclaimed creative and a self doubting photographer. i had planned nothing and as i kick started my bike at around 730 in the morning i heard distant sounds of sirens which till that day, i had heard every morning but never really noticed. I asked the locals i came across on the road and its then i came to know about the coal mines not far from where i live. i headed in that direction and after almost an hour of wandering about the back lanes of a rather unknown world that existed right in my backyard, i reached the office of the project manager of the coal mines. At first, it seemed like many of the thousand government offices in India that you don’t even know exist, and actually this one was no different, the rusted roofs of a dilapidated building balancing sheepishly on yellow walls. broken boards with directions on safety and timings, much like the perception of the world about anything to do with the government,
The manager who was seated on a wooden chair behind a shabby desk laden with files, personifying my image of babus was the first crack in my ice cold perception about unprofessionalism of government employees. This gentleman was heading a coal mine with around a 1000 work force who were working in the most hard hitting and inhuman conditions possible where a threat to life was as real and as imminent as is a to a soldier operating in Taliban infested land. He granted me permission to visit the mine field for a few hours and placed me under strict instructions about the norms and asked a subordinate to be my guide.
Thus began a long decent of about 300 mtrs into the ground with a helmet, head lamp and a stick, a decent into a dark abyss, where after a while of soul stirring seclusion and darkness i was to come across workers and almost naked bodies of workers, working in condition where most of us can only stand for a few minutes. The darkness that engulfed us was shattered only by the small lamp on our helmets, thus the obvious question was, why wasn’t there any light source at every step. The question was basically a subconscious need to try and find wrong in the system. it turned out that safety norms set due to nature of coal present and the risk of fire rules out electricity being sent that deep. There were however tubes after a few hundred yards.
The deeper we went the darker and smaller it got to walk and harder to concentrate as the sweat kept blurring the vision and my camerajust couldnt focus due to absolute absence of any ambient light and the mist that kept forming on lens. After a while we came where the main mining was going on, the place where everything was black including the bare torn bodies of the miners. Their faces which were lit by the head lamps of one another were a story in itself. some of them have been there for over 15 years working an 8hour shift everyday. The sheer gruesome condition of the work place was not only deeply unsettling but also made me realise how lucky we are for everything we have and have it so easy. My camera was literally useless at one point of time due to the heat and the darkness, however, i still managed to get some shots. I wish i could have spend more time there and had much more access to light and space. The highlight came on the last hour when we sat down to share a lunchbox. Undoubtedly the best meal i’ve ever had.
i had, initially, thought of writing a more emotional and informative piece about the pictures but i guess its better left to realize than to teach. They smiled and laughed as if the very essence of life has been struck by them in the dark corners of these black holes. I came back feeling drained and with a profound sense of respect for these men who work in shadows so that we may live in light.