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In conversation: Susan Beaulah

Joana Alarcão

In this interview, artist Susan Beaulah shares her remarkable journey documenting the Kerala Chakara, a captivating fishing phenomenon along the Southern coast of India. Over two decades, Beaulah meticulously captured over a hundred watercolor studies, navigating the challenges of close observation amidst the curious gazes of local fisherfolk.

22 April 2024

Over a hundred watercolour studies over a period of twenty years.This process was challenging as I paint from close observation. When painting on the beaches I always had a group of onlookers, mainly illiterate fishermen who made demands to include details that interested them. 

Hence each painting became a symbiosis between the artist eye and those of the fishermen. I spent years observing a way of life which had remained unchanged for centuries. My observation backed up by experts is that with climate change and human intervention along the coast the Chakara is failing. It seems that I have recorded unique scenes which are now sadly lost. I want to include an extra Photo to illustrate my point of a destroyed Chakara. I was too upset to paint when I visits this year.

I have documented a unique fishing phenomenon called the Kerala Chakara that occurs off the Southern coast of India.







Can you start by giving us an overview of your practice and what led you to explore the intersection of art and environmental activism? 

Being born and brought up in East Yorkshire, England, I experienced an idyllic early life lived close to nature. Painting has always naturally captivated me, serving as the ideal medium for channeling my excitement of the visual world, and whenever I immerse myself in nature's splendour, inspiration for new paintings takes shape. After graduating from Hull Regional College of Art, I worked as an art teacher in London and became a full-time professional painter in 1988, with numerous commissions and exhibitions in the UK, Europe, the USA, and India. In 2002, I started to spend every winter painting in Kerala, closely observing the daily life around me, trying to create a unique record of a way of life that is now fast disappearing. 


As a landscape painter in England, I found that the figures and any human beings that I added to the scene did not contribute to the painting. They appeared not to belong. But all this changed when I went to India and saw women working in the fields and, of course, the fishermen on the beach. These people appeared to be at one with the land, an integral part of it. I was immediately struck by a wonderful harmony with nature and a strong sense of belonging. I was filled with nostalgia, maybe a romantic notion, that the simple life close to nature is more real and certainly more beautiful than our commercial, more developed way of life. 


The moment I laid eyes on the Chakara, I was completely captivated by its mystery, it sparked a deep inspiration that I had been waiting for all my life. Although difficult to express in modern art terms, I was determined to capture its essence, and despite financial constraints at the time, I didn't hesitate because finding and painting it became my unyielding passion. This pursuit has led me to meticulously document its unique presence over the span of two decades. 




watercalou depicting fishermen sleeping under palm trees
Asleep on the Nets, Watercolour, 30x30 cms. Image courtesy of Susan Beaulah.

What initially drew you to document the Kerala Chakara phenomenon through watercolour painting, and how has your perspective on this unique fishing tradition evolved over the twenty years of your artistic journey? 

Following my first painting trip to Rajasthan in 1990, I was accepted for a residency in Kerala, and my idea was to paint women working in the fields, but then I just fell in love with an amazing scene on a remote beach the shape of the boats, the excitement of people running up and down the beach with baskets of fish, and the women raking the fish over on the beach, temporary makeshift tea stalls- it was a scene that seemed from a different age. The fisherfolk were truly connected with their surroundings, seamlessly blending into this natural landscape. In my perspective, a life rooted in simplicity and belonging holds more authenticity, integrity, and visual beauty than a world driven by commercial development. 


At the time, no one told us about the Chakara phenomenon, and it wasn't until two years later that I first heard about it. Then things began to really fall into place for me, and the enormous scale of the adventure became apparent. 


This rare phenomenon is observed only along the coastal waters of the Indian state of Kerala and in South America Exactly what causes a Chakara to manifest itself is mysterious; however, it seems that during the monsoon season, rain water flows down the mountains through 41 rivers accumulating clay and silt. This water passes through the back waters, and subterranean channels, into the sea. There, a chemical reaction takes place producing a complex colloidal soup which slows down the waves and currents producing an area of calm. This special sea is rich not only in oxygen, but also in nutrients that attract an abundance of shrimps and fish. No one knows when or which area of the coast it will happen. 


20 years later I still have this same overriding fascination with its mysterious and unpredictable nature. No one knows when and where it will occur, and no one can predict its bounty. 


Unfortunately, when I went back in November 2023 my observations were devastating. The same places I previously depicted as thriving fishing scenes were now completely changed, with a concrete wall along the coast and the communities in peril. It seems I have captured unique scenes that are now sadly lost to us - and may soon have become a forgotten thing of the past. 



a machine moving rock on the beach
Today's Chakara. Image courtesy of Susan Beaulah.

Can you recount a particularly impactful encounter or experience with the fisherfolk that has played a key role in shaping your artistic approach or the trajectory of your creative practice? 

For years, I have closely studied a timeless way of life. It has been a truly humbling experience, and I am filled with deep respect for the people who function as cohesive units; their strong bonds, courage, and remarkable expertise are on display every single day. 


I witnessed the donation of fish to the poor. During Chakara times, when fish are abundant, fisherfolk consider it their duty to share this gift from God with the less fortunate. Their generosity is believed to bring favour from the Gods and ensure a good catch on their next trip. Poor people congregated on the beaches from as far afield as the neighbouring states.

 

As a visual artist, they have been a great source of inspiration for me. 


Your statement mentions the symbiotic relationship between your artistic vision and the observations of the fisherfolk. How do you navigate incorporating their perspectives into your paintings while maintaining your artistic integrity? 

In 2002, I returned to Kerala to paint the place which had inspired me so much on my first visit. On arrival at the beach that had been a hive of activity the previous year I was astonished to find it deserted. So began my search for the illusive Chakara.

 

I had carefully chosen a taxi driver who spoke excellent English, but as luck would have it, he passed the job onto a colleague. At first glance, its replacement didn't seem like the ideal guide, his English at that time was very limited, but Babu Bhaskaran, proved to be a trusted and loyal assistant and later friend - and never gave up when I asked him to travel the numerous small roads that led to the sea. 


On that first trip, we spent 10 days searching the 900km of Keralan coastline for boats to paint, but with very no success. We went as far north as Mangalore in Karnataka. I did not give up and went back the next year to search for these scenes that I so badly wanted to paint. 


Finding the perfect subject was never possible. The first task was always to find a place to sit. Carrying a beach umbrella, stool, and easel, we would set up amidst the squalor and stench characteristic of busy fishing beaches. It could be frightening as a foreign woman, but I was always thankful for Babu's loyal support-security man, driver, guide, and artist's assistant. 


The fishermen surrounded me, eager to know all about me. They became engaged in my painting, making demands, so that I became conscious of every stroke being scrutinised by this noisy audience. They would ask me to add the names of the boats, the colours of the flags, the lunghis, etc. I felt a need to balance what I wanted to paint with a need to appease the fishermen. After all, I needed their cooperation. 


Each painting became a symbiosis between the ideas, the eye of the artist, and those of the group. This interaction was as much part of the finished paintings as my original sketch had been. 



watercolour of fisherman unloading the fish
Unloading the Catch at Paravoor, Watercolour, 20x50 cm. Image courtesy of Susan Beaulah.

What can you tell us about the process of creating this series of paintings? 

This series comprises around 100 paintings. Since over 95% of my paintings were created outdoors, I followed a very specific process. My day would typically start with a wake-up call at 5:30 am, and then we'd head off in a taxi to travel about 20km to Chakara's beach. There, I would stroll around with a small sketchbook, searching for the perfect subject before sketching out the idea. 


Many times, the subject would be rapidly-moving figures of people at work. Using a light-fast, thin artist's pen, I would put them into my composition, drawing rapidly from life. Often, I would only have time to draw a part of each figure and have to come back later to sketch the rest.

 

I would start by painting the background first, gradually working up the scene over 3 to 4 hours. If the subject was more landscape-based, I would start with all-over watercolour washes to capture the light and the atmosphere, allowing each colour wash to dry before applying the next. 


I chose watercolour as the main medium, as it is perfect for depicting water and light. The luminosity of watercolour paints gives a quality to the painting that simulates the feeling of floating, the fleeting light of the sky on water, and the subtlety of the reflections. 


After so many paintings, I developed a way of working at speed to capture the moving figures and boats coming into the shore. The process always remained a huge challenge, and this kept me focused. 



watercolour of lulls under the sun on the beach
Temporary Lull, Watercolour, 38x56 cms. Image courtesy of Susan Beaulah.

Your solo exhibitions have showcased the Kerala Chakara and other threatened ways of life. How do you approach curating these exhibitions to effectively communicate the cultural and environmental significance of your subjects? 

I approach curating exhibitions showcasing the Kerala Chakara and other threatened ways of life with a deep sense of responsibility to effectively communicate their cultural and environmental significance. For instance, when I had the opportunity to exhibit my work at a gallery in London in 2008, it was a pivotal moment. The success of that solo exhibition led to representation by the gallery for many years. However, despite this international recognition, I've always harboured a desire to showcase my paintings in India, and when I finally had the chance in 2019 to exhibit at the David Hall Gallery in India, it felt like a dream come true. 


The positive response I had from the people of Kerala, especially Kochi, was overwhelming. Their genuine openness and appreciation for my depictions of Chakara scenes, which they might have taken for granted, was palpable. I sensed that they valued the outsider's perspective and their serious attitude towards art affirmed my ambition to effectively communicate the cultural and environmental significance of the Chakara and other subjects I portray. My art has recently taken on a more serious element. My studies of the Chakara serve as a poignant reminder of the symbiotic relationship that once thrived between communities and their environment. In stark contrast the presence of the concrete wall looms ominously, casting a shadow over a once vibrant scene. 


You've created a book documenting your experiences of painting these watercolours titled "Kerala Chakara by Susan Beaulah." What will readers discover in this book? 

In "Kerala Chakara," readers will journey through my artistic exploration of the Kerala Chakara phenomenon. This book serves as a visual narrative, chronicling my experiences, encounters, and observations as I immersed myself in the vibrant coastal life of Kerala, India. 


Within its pages, readers will discover not just paintings but stories woven of cultural richness, environmental awareness, and personal reflections. Each painting is a window into a world where fishermen and their boats dance with the rhythm of the sea, where vibrant colors blend seamlessly with the natural hues of sand and water. 


But this book is more than just a collection of artwork. It's a testament to the symbiotic relationship between art and activism, as I strive to raise awareness about the fragility of traditional ways of life and the importance of environmental conservation. Readers will delve into the interconnectedness of culture, ecology, and human experience, as seen through the lens of my artistic perspective. 


Ultimately, this book is a celebration of the beauty and resilience of Kerala's coastal communities, a tribute to their enduring spirit amidst the changing tides of modernity. Through my paintings and words, I invite readers to embark on an adventure to immerse themselves in the timeless allure of the Kerala Chakara. 



a road near the sea with a concrete hall bettwen the sea and the road
Today's Chakara. Image courtesy of Susan Beaulah.

In your perspective what is the role of art in today's atmosphere? 

In today's atmospheres, the role of art as a cultural mirror has become increasingly crucial as we witness the gradual yet dramatic changes occurring around us. The final part of the exhibition serves as a poignant illustration of this phenomenon. The photographic images of the wall serves as a stark reminder of the transient nature of human existence and the impermanence of the ways of life that have sustained communities for generations. 


Each image captures not only the physical landscapes but also the cultural heritage ingrained within them. It's a stark reminder of the interconnectedness between humans and their environment, as well as the consequences of neglecting this relationship. 


These paintings serve as a call to action, urging viewers to recognise the value of preserving not just natural habitats but also the rich tapestry of cultural diversity that thrives within them. 


What message or call to action do you hope viewers take away from your work? 

I aim to evoke a sense of urgency, urging viewers to recognise that once these cultural traditions and ways of making a living are lost, they cannot be easily reclaimed. The photographs and paintings become a testament to the irreplaceable value of this particular fishing phenomenon. Through this lens, I hope to inspire a deeper appreciation for the intricacies of human experience and a commitment to preserving the richness of everyday life for future generations to cherish.


Find more about the artist here.


Cover Image:

Woman at Work, Watercolour, 30x30 cm. Image courtesy of Susan Beaulah.

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