K P Jayakumar revisits the history of the High Ranges through his archival collection of photographs

John Daniel Munroe, a prominent figure in Kerala’s colonial history, wrote of the high ranges as a vast expanse of forest so dense even sunlight hesitated to enter it. Journeys into it were difficult and fraught with danger, so he sought the help of the native Muthuvan tribe to navigate the depths of the jungle. Munroe is believed to have stumbled upon the present day Kannan Devan hills, on one of his long hunting expeditions. He soon converted the forests into a shimmering green carpet of tea plantations.

Munroe features in a recent exhibition of old photographs curated by writer, film critic and researcher K P Jayakumar at Durbar Hall, which pieces together the colourful colonial past of the hills. Collected over the years, the photographs take the viewer through the high ranges of the early 18th century.

Jayakumar explores the soul of the region beyond the hegemonic narrative of its colonisers through these photographs. He has about 200 black-and-white and sepia pictures, collected from churches, museums, archives, private and public parties, old studios, plantation clubs, bungalows and resorts, though the exhibition displayed only 40. “The British were in the habit of documenting every little detail, so it was easy to weave a cohesive narrative around their reign over the land and their domination.”

The term “high ranges” was given to the region comprising Devikulam, Udumbanchola, Peerumedu and the hilly, eastern sides of Thodupuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta by the British. For Jayakumar, the photographs are “a way to re-view history, to see beyond what was presented to us by our colonisers.” He adds that photographs were one of the earliest tools for anthropological studies in British colonies.

Jayakumar, who hails from Idukki, grew increasingly attached to the subject as he was researching “migrant narratives of the high ranges” for his PhD in 2014. He studied letters, revenue documents, photographs and oral histories. “If one looks at it from the standpoint of a cultural study, they were just establishing their dominance over the native people.”

Capturing the life and times

The photographs show the natural beauty of the region, its hills, valleys and waterbodies and the wealth of flora and fauna. There are also photographs of the native population, the dwellings of the British themselves, their horses and casual Sunday gatherings, to mention a few.

A section is devoted to “hunting” pictures, which depict the Britishers’ love for hunting. “They called it ‘shikar’ and it was for them a means to establish a norm for masculinity, which even the native princes and rajas bought into. It was laying the foundation for the concept of an ideal man.”

By 1900s, the British who found a paradise in Idukki, had made it their home, recreating a little Europe, building their bungalows, clubs and recreation facilities. They formed a Game Protection Association as early as 1920, and established game sanctuaries where hunting was allowed and wildlife sanctuaries where it was not. Hunting was also used as a tool to maintain diplomatic ties between kingdoms and for mediation. Between 1892 and 1924, 34 such “diplomatic hunts” were held in Thekkady alone, says Jayakumar.

The irony lay in the fact that the native tribals who hunted for sustenance were not allowed to, while the colonisers who hunted for sport, could. Even angling was a popular pastime for the British women. European fish breeding hatcheries were set up, which eventually led to a decline in many indigenous species. Some of their laws prevented the local tribals from fishing, too.

Jayakumar, who is an assistant professor at NSS College, Cherthala, won a fellowship for the research from the India Foundation for the Arts. He is currently working on a book based on his work.

The exhibition concluded on June 12.

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