First rays of daylight are yet to fall on earth when a group of seven women sets out from their homes on a journey. Leaving dimly-lit streets and coconut groves, they head towards their embarking point: The seashore.
At a far end of the shore, some fishermen have put a small wood fire to escape the morning chill. Warming their hands near the fire, the women slowly wade through knee-depth water and climb on a boat that is waiting exclusively for them.
The first woman to climb on the boat carefully moves towards the forward side. With a long wooden pole, she keeps the boat steady against the dancing waves.
Once all the crew settle inside, the lone-male member in the group starts the engine. Against the backdrop of orange-red flames of the shore fire, the boat’s engine growls to life, giving out thick dark smoke. Keeping a handful of fishermen on the shore a witnesses, the boat start to cruise on the Gulf of Mannar.
A shallow bay and protected area, Gulf of Mannar forms a small portion of the Indian Ocean. It lies between the southeastern tip of India and the western coast of Sri Lanka. Owing to its rich aquatic life, the Gulf is a livelihood provider to thousands of people living on its shores. Keelakkarai is one such place where the destiny of many humans is closely knitted with the mood swings of the sea. Located in Ramanathapuram district, this village often faces the wrath of nature, usually in the form of severe cyclonic storms. The 2005-Indian Ocean tsunami wreaked havoc in the region and it is still afresh in the memories of most of the residents here.
Unlike women in most other fishing hamlets, women here have found a way to earn livelihood: Sea faring, a profession often reserved for men.
Their working field is the seabed where bleached corals harbour a particular aquatic plant called sea weed. Found in different colours and shapes, sea weeds are a much sought-after commodity by industries, especially cosmetics and food sectors. Prices of each variety changes according to season and usage.
Decades of sea-going experience have taught these women where to locate a particular kind of weed. Since the weeds exhibit a variety of colours, the shallow sea will also showcase different hues according to the shade of sea weeds that grow under it.
Once a particular spot is located, the boat is anchored and the women prepare to dive. With their basic swimming gear – a face-covering glass to protect eyes from salt water, a pair of gloves to pluck the sharp-edged sea weeds, a pair of rubber sandals, and a net to bag their catch- the crew dives to seabed one after another.
For the next three to four hours the women dive several times and return with netful of sea weeds. The exercise continues till mid-day when the waves start glittering under the scorching sun.
With the Sun above their heads, the crew decides to return shore. The boat takes a turn and starts its homeward cruise. Now it is the lunch time; and time for some chit chat. Each crew member takes out the home-made food they brought and share it among each other. The struggle of last three-four hours give way to moments of relief.
Photographed off the coast of Keelakkarai, Ramanathapuram district, Tamil Nadu