Janaki Abraham

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over two years

Collaborator: Sumant Jayakrishnan is a contemporary Indian set designer, lighting designer and costume designer. He also designs exhibitions. He trained in NID (National Institute of Design) in Ahmedabad.

Janaki Abraham is a sociologist, working as an Assistant Professor at the Women’s Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Sumant Jayakrishnan traced the beginnings of this collaborative research project on the visual culture of the Thiyyas to an evening when he was giving his friend, the anthropologist, Janaki Abraham, a lift home after a Kathakali performance. The chance encounter with Janaki helped to crystallise his hitherto nebulous idea—of doing a project on his family and the community that he comes from—into a concrete project. The two of them realised that they were connected to the Thiyyas in different ways. Sumant is genetically a Thiyya, though he has been living and working in Delhi. Janaki is an anthropologist who has been studying the Thiyyas for her doctoral dissertation.

Together, the collaborators wished to explore the ways in which identity is visually expressed and understood by the Thiyya community. They felt that while local art practices have received attention and recognition as art forms, visual cultures of communities spread over large geographical areas have remained largely unexplored and unrecognized as cultural practice. In particular, a community’s use of contemporary technologies to document itself has been insufficiently studied.

The study sought to address the ‘subject’ of anthropology by colluding it with the point of view of the artist.  The first phase of the project accessed all forms of documentation practiced by the Thiyyas – photographs, paintings, letters, family trees, wills, wedding albums, genealogical charts, medical histories and so on. The collaborators also liked to explore the mutations in the expression of identity between different generations, and the manner in which the material culture of a household represents its identity.

The research culminated in an audio-visual presentation and an interactive, bilingual (English and Malayalam) website. The audio-visual presentation was played back to the ‘subjects’ in the places where the fieldwork will be done – Tellicherry, Palghat, Calicut, Bangalore, Chennai.