In the most revered of Hindu traditions, the confluence of the three holiest rivers of India, the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswati is one of four celebrated earthly sites of the Kumbh Mela.
This confluence, the Triveni Sangam at Prayagraj (erstwhile Allahabad) has from the beginning of its tradition, brought together a gathering of humanity like no other on earth.

My line of artistic enquiry for over two decades has almost obsessively been preoccupied with my philosophical journey and my own personal truths.

Being present, in arguably the most philosophical place on earth at that earthly time, I found myself drawn to the rivers themselves and profoundly, to a people who have traveled on it all their lives. A great disbeliever in coincidence, I and my own journey crossed paths with the boatmen of these holy rivers. An origin of people called Mallaah, these exclusively male ferriers of people are a deeply compelling part of the Kumbh story.

For several hundred years these boatmen on the Ganga and the Yamuna have handed down their oars from father to son. I was intensely drawn to the purpose of their lives, to carry people back and forth on these rivers. Almost married to their boats, these men. To live almost all of their lives on these wooden vessels, going about their worldly chores and belonging to a tribe of menfolk, they pride themselves on being the real caretakers of these mystical rivers. Almost as if they are born on these boats and just as possibly may breath their last on it, the Mallaah men live lives removed from their families and children.

My series of photographic artworks are born from these very people and a journey that is so relevant to the Kumbh story and that of these rivers. It is a reality I trace in relation to my own response to it and an understanding of these people and to not try and interpret something that I might never incisively understand. But to create from their very stark reality and from a sociological perspective that is complex and yet as much rooted to this land and waters as much as all the sages and this ancient faith.

The series titled ‘Mallaah’, simply put, is a series of portraits of the boatmen who ply their trade on the Ganga and the Yamuna, imagined in the great artistic traditions of the last century, depicting people and their lives.

I have chosen to depart from my recognisable artistic techniques and to take a more direct and hopefully, a visually dynamic viewpoint. My conscious approach was to keep it true to a realism that is authentic, whilst leaning towards the poetic. It was also intentful for me to stick to spontaneous compositions and lighting of the subjects, inspired by the work of some early twentieth-century Pictorialists.

The works themselves have been conceptualised through a story-telling visual technique, and still maintaining a distinct demarcation from the photojournalistic genre, also critically preserving the realness of the subject. While consciously meaning to be less interpretative and more authentic to a photographic realism, I am as always, coming from an artist’s style and viewpoint.

Shibu Arakkal

Summer | Twenty Nineteen


Mallaah/Mallah : The Mallaah (or Nishad) are the traditional boatmen caste and ethnic group of North India, East India and Pakistan, a small number of them also found in Nepal.

The word mallaah is said to come from an Arabic word which means a motion of moving like bird’s wing.

Reference on the Kumbh Mela

Based on a distinct set of astrological positions of the Sun, the Moon, and Jupiter, the holiest time occurring at the exact moment when these positions are fully occupied, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated at Haridwar on the river Ganga, at Ujjain on the Shipra, at Nashik on the Godavari, and at Prayagraj (modern Allahabad) at the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythical Sarasvati. The Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj, in particular, attracts millions of pilgrims.

Speaking of the most ancient of the three rivers, Saraswati is considered in Hindu mythology to be the holiest of them, although it doesn’t physically exist anymore. And still the confluence (of the three rivers) is called the Triveni Sangam.

Folklore has it that the river’s only physical presence is a stream beneath a well which exists inside the Allahabad Fort built by Akbar, which streams its way underground to join the Ganga and the Yamuna.

Tradition ascribes the Kumbh Mela’s origin to the 8th-century philosopher Shankara, who instituted regular gatherings of learned ascetics for discussion and debate. The founding myth of the Kumbh Mela – attributed to the Puranas (collections of myth and legend) – recounts how the gods and demons fought over the pot (kumbha) of amrita, the elixir of immortality produced by their joint churning of the milky ocean. During the struggle, drops of the elixir fell on the Kumbh Mela’s four earthly sites, and the rivers are believed to turn back into that primordial nectar at the climactic moment of each, giving pilgrims the chance to bathe in the essence of purity, auspiciousness, and immortality. The term Kumbh comes from this mythic pot of elixir, but it is also the Hindi name for Aquarius, the sign of the zodiac in which Jupiter resides during the Haridwar Mela.

Shibu ArakkalMallaah Artist Note