Nestled in Kerala's Ernakulam district is Mattancherry, a locality which attracts tourists with its lingering old-world charm.
But Mattancherry ain't just a casual tourist destination seeped in its historic moorings and cultural landmarks.
It is a microcosm of a bygone era -- of traders, travellers, culture, culinary traditions and even art of more than three dozen communities with roots spread across a global canvas.
Like his biblical namesake, Biju Ibrahim, a self-taught photographer from Kondotty, was destined to stumble upon this marvellous congregation.
Biju knew there were Jews, Anglo Indians, Gujaratis, and Tamilians in this quaint locality, just about ten kilometres from the city centre of Kochi, Kerala's business hub.
But the magnitude of the locality of just five kilometres he was stepping into would unravel to him only later.
He was documenting the lives of communities in Mattancherry for a photography project.
“Though I took up the project, I was shocked to realise that within 5kms (from Shipyard to Veli) in Mattancherry, there resided 39 communities from across the world who lived respecting other religions. This place is a perfect example of coexistence,” says Biju.
His work captures the essence of unity in diversity.
Biju started exploring the communities who stay in Mattancherry - Tamil Vannans, Gowda Saraswat Brahmins, Jews and many more.
He began to unravel their legacy.
If the Gowda Saraswat Brahmins reached Mattancherry 500 years ago, there was a family who came from Yemen in 1115 AD.
Jews in Mattancherry also had a history of hundreds of years. They first stayed near the Paradesi Synagogue while some settled near Kadavumbagam Synagogue.
He can now recollect umpteen tales, like that of Sarah Cohen.
The oldest living Jew in Mattancherry's ethic mosaic, she has a Muslim caretaker to tend to her now.
And about Elias, who revived a synagogue for Malabari Jews with the assistance of Hindu, Christian, and Muslim neighbours - another slide of the locality's pluralistic profile.
Rufus D'Souza, an Anglo Indian, would have passed on his footballing skills to kids in Mattancherry for more than half a century now.
In the same locality, the Urdhu ghazals of Dekhnis, who came from Hyderabad 250 years ago, would waft seamlessly.
Biju realised that the Agarwals arrived 100 years ago and Kutchi Memons came all the way from Sindh.
Tamil Vishukarmas, Goan Sonars and migrants from Bengal, Kashmir and Baghdad- they all embraced the affection of a home in Mattancherry.
The Gujaratis came to Mattancherry 500 years ago for trade even before Portuguese, he discovered. And that Tamilians came 300 years ago followed by the Jains who arrived two centuries later.
It was the Christian artisans who built most of the grand monuments here, including the mosques.
“They have all come here at one point or the other. Each little pocket here is a home to different community. They came here for a dream but stayed here for a collective reality that was far better than any dream could convey. These distinct differences in communities might not be visible to our eyes any more. Yet all of these 39 communities that live here come together each and every single day,” Biju says in his docu-video.
The video documentation of Biju's project on Mattancherry, titled 'A Letter From India' directed by Naveed Mulki under the banner Faraway original, also went viral on social media recently.
Microcosm of the World
It was in August 2017 that Biju decided to work on the project titled 'Transcendence/Kochi' commissioned by Uru Art Harbour.
This collection was part of the Serendipity Arts Festival 2017, young subcontinent project, which was curated by artist Riyas Komu.
Biju was first introduced to Riyas Komu by singer Shahabaz Aman.
It took him four months to finish the first phase of the documentation. When the detailed project work was completed in one and a half years, Biju realised that Mattancherry was the microcosm of the world itself.
Other than basic reading and research, Biju's initial task was to stroll around Mattancherry's laid back precincts.
He observed people.
Once he got a hang of Mattancherry, he switched over to a bicycle.
He spoke to elders asked them about people from different communities and dug out a wealth of information from archives and libraries.
Riyas Komu's earlier works also helped him to imbibe an idea about the place and its history.
Biju's friends Sharhad Haneef and sailor Faiz Bava also toiled for these priceless information.
Identifying the communities and convincing them to talk was initially difficult. Though he got enough data and information, it was more difficult to capture the photographs of these families belonging to different communities.
But once they were convinced of the lofty purpose of his visit, they embraced him to the joys of their culture and traditions.
Black and white
Biju's photographs are taken in black and white. It was a conscious decision.
“I wanted to focus on my subject and not the colourful aspects of the frame. Colour photos often tend to distract the viewers by focussing on the background and other things. Black and white pictures have a feel of its own focussing any viewer's eyes on to the subject,” says Biju.
In one of the pictures, Sarah sits in the middle of a wooden chair, Thaha Ibrahim, sits on her right side and Selin on her left side. Jasmine stands right behind Sarah with her hands on Sarah's shoulders. This photograph is a slide of three communities - Sarah, a Jew, Thaha and wife Jasmine, who are Muslims, and Selin, a Christian. Thaha is now the cartaker of Sarah.
Biju realised they all spoke different tongues at home but Malayalam was the uniting factor.
“Even now most of them have a feeling that they are superior to others. They protect their lineage, culture, tradition, language, art, and food. Above all, they respect the diversity. One can find the whole of India in just 5kms,” says Biju.
A sweet memory
During his interactions, Biju met an Anglo-Indian family who was getting ready to travel to Goa for their daughter's wedding next day.
Biju desperately sought some time with them.
After a brief conversation, the head of the family sought to know why he was doing this research.
Biju convinced him it was important to record the history and tradition of the people who stayed there. The man responded by presenting Biju with a watch he was wearing, inherited from his ancestors. Affection prevailed over immediate familial concerns then.
Idea of coexistence
When religious intolerance is assuming the proportions of a dangerous idea, Mattancherry props up an idea of a perfect model to live in unity.
This is not just about humans, who proclaim the idea of coexistence without saying a word. It also strays into the domain of species other than human.
“There is one 'Aadu' Riyas who take home all the injured goats and treats them. And Mattancherry is a place where you could spot hundreds of goats taking over the roads in the evening,” says Biju.
In the Dargah of Sufi -- Cheriyapalli Uppapa, you can spot Arifa, who has a cobra and its little ones.
“Above all, if one notices keenly, there are pets in most of the homes in Mattancherry,” Biju points out the best examples of coexistence in Mattancherry.
Biju admits he ain't a homely person, but Mattancherry's vibe enamoured him a lot.
“I have learnt a lot from the past two years understanding the mystic elements in Mattancherry and embarking on a journey through sufism. At the same time, I am also detached to this place,” says Biju.
Biju, who is focussing on the Sufi Culture of Kondotty and Ponnani, is planning to continue his independent photography project that seeks to document the Sufi traditions of northern Kerala towns of Kondotty and Ponnani.
He is also working on the settlements in Mattancherry as an extension of his present project.
A discussion for a coffee-table book curated by Riyas Komu on Mattacherry is also on the cards.
Like Mattancherry, Biju Ibrahim's universe is expanding by minute.