Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 2, May 1-15, 2019
Kaviko AbdurRahman, S. Muthiah at the Yaadhum DVD release function at RMRL along with Anwar.
It was sometimes in the early 1990’s I was introduced to S. Muthiah by V.R. Devika. I had just passed out of Loyola Institute of Visual Communication, trying my hand at freelance writing as well as photography. Muthiah loved the tonal ranges in my black and white prints. Thus started our relationship. It was the time the printing industry was also going through major changes with letter offset giving way to multi colour offset machines. I became a part of his team, photographing for quite a few books he would author, including The Raj Bhavans of Tamil Nadu. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. He always had a clear idea on what he wanted, and any project of his would start with a proper briefing on the subject, a list of pictures, the kind of picture he would want for a book cover and letters seeking permission to photograph addressed to authorities concerned.
Even as my photography career bloomed, it was to the credit of S. Muthiah that my own interest in history and writing became focused. He had this gentle knack of asking questions about things around us, which when one went about seeking answers would open new avenues. That is how while talking about Tamil maritime past, Muthiah once wondered aloud as to why there are no record of the early ships. This is what lead me to the Azhagiya Nambi temple at Thirukurungudi, where there was a beautiful bas relief of a ship with traders and their goods, which included horses and other animals. Perhaps it was already known to the locals and a few research scholars, but that discovery set me to work more on the maritime past, which I was also soon to discover as the reason for Islam’s arrival in this part of the country, even as it was spreading across West Asia in the 7th Century.
It was at Muthiah’s insistence that I got reluctantly drafted into the Madras Gazetteer project. When the project was mid way through, the earlier person entrusted with writing the chapter on Muslim history had dropped out. I was neck deep in my commercial work and hesitated to take it up, but Muthiah won me over saying “otherwise the community history will go unrepresented.” Even though the project was on Madras, Muthiah also made a specific request, asking me to start my writing with the history of Islam’s early arrival in Tamil Nadu. He said “not many are aware of this unique aspect of history of Islam in Tamil Nadu, so it needs to be told to contextualise it.” He was genuinely concerned that no aspect of Madras history or any history should be left out for any reason. So when I made Yaadhum, a documentary film on my search for my Tamil Muslim identity and history, Muthiah was a pillar of support. He volunteered to correct my script, released the film along with acclaimed Tamil poet late Kaviko Abdur Rahman at Roja Muthiah Research library. Thereafter he would recommend the film to many friends and acquaintances of his and also ensured its screening in various forums. Even as he promoted my film, he would gently ask questions about the current situation of the Muslim community, expressing concern at the changing cultural practices. These were hard questions but put in his typical mild language, from a friend and well wisher with good intentions in mind.
That was Muthiah, not just to me but to a whole lot of people, cutting across race, religion or ethnicity – A friend, philosopher and Guide.