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Malayalis and China? A documentary shows that the connection is older than you think

Joe Thomas Karackattu’s ‘Guli’s Children’ searches for the descendants of a Malayali family that travelled from Calicut to China in the 14th century.

What is common between the Malayali words for a wok, a pickle jar and a fishing net? They are all prefixed with the word cheena, or China.

This is no accident, Joe Thomas Karackattu’s documentary Guli’s Children tells us. The words cheenachatti, cheenabharani and cheena vala used widely across communities in Kerala remind us of the commercial and cultural connections that China shared with southern India, particularly Kerala, especially between the 12th and the 15th centuries.

In his 43-minute documentary, Karackattu, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and a specialist in Indo-Chinese diplomatic and cultural relations, argues that the China-Kerala connection goes beyond linguistic and artifactual remnants. Guli, for instance, is the name the Chinese used to refer to the trading port Calicut. The documentary’s title refers to the natives of Calicut who settled in China as diplomatic missions went back and forth between the two regions between the 10th and the 15th century.

Karackattu goes in search of one such family by undertaking a voyage that spans 20,000 kilometres, similar to the ones Indians and Chinese undertook centuries ago. The director emerges victorious, and the thrilling moment is summed up by the Chinese family he meets: “When fellow home-towners meet, it makes the eyes wet with happiness.”

Guli’s Children was premiered in Calicut in 2016 and has travelled the world since. It will be screened on July 4 at the India International Centre in Delhi. The documentary has been directed, filmed, voiced and edited by Karackattu, a first-time filmmaker.

The cultural, historical and diplomatic ties between India and China have fascinated Karackattu, a Malayali, since the early 2000s. He was first drawn to China while he was working as an assistant editor at the Kathmandu-based news magazine Himal. “This was 2003-4 and a time when the China rising story was being discussed everywhere,” Karackattu told Scroll.in. “When I left Himal, I felt if I wanted to pursue academic research, then I should actually study China more closely. Of course by the time I went on to do an MPhil and a PhD, the china story had become the most contemporary topic in international politics.”

As a professor at the Humanities department at IIT, Karackattu continues to conduct research on a host of topics related to the Indo-China equation. It was during one these outings that he chanced upon an idea that eventually became Guli’s Children. “I came across several works which talk about diplomatic representation being sent between Calicut and China between the 10th and 15th centuries,” he explained. “There were several voyages that Chinese admiral Zheng He made from the eastern coast of China to this part of the world and from there onwards to the Middle-East and east coast of Africa. There were also instances of people travelling back when these voyages would go back. That got me very curious. I wanted to know what happened to those people and if there were any records of them in China. There is nothing here on the Indian side.”

Karackattu then began to hear of a particular Malayali family that had moved to China during the Yuan dynasty (the late 13th or early 14th century). “I began meeting people, some of whom knew these people who went to China from Guli but didn’t know where exactly they were,” Karackattu said. “After several dead-leads over a two-year period, I found them in the southern part of China in a placed called Guangxi. This was Mr. Ma and his family, a 14th generation descendant of a Guli Malayali family but one who had a special interest in preserving his ancestral records.”

Guli’s Children. Image courtesy Joe Thomas Karackattu.
Guli’s Children. Image courtesy Joe Thomas Karackattu.

The choice before Karackattu was to turn his findings into yet another research paper. He decided, instead, to make a documentary even though he knew nothing about directing. “I learnt filmmaking in the parking lot of IIT,” Karackattu said. “I watched a lot of YouTube tutorials simply to understand how the camera works. I had no pretensions about making a great production but I had to be prepared to ensure that I know how to handle the equipment since I was travelling all the way to China on a limited budget and time. I didn’t want it all to be a lost opportunity.”

Karackattu attempts a variety of techniques to frame his subjects, and he is present in the film as he embarks on his search from Ernakulam to Calicut, Shanghai, Beijing and finally, Guangxi. “It was all intuitive,” Karackattu said. “I used a 20-rupee double tape to fix my camera on the dashboard of my car such that it records me as I drive. I wanted to keep my presence minimal, enough to show that this is a search. The reason I decided to learn a whole new craft is simply because I felt there is a visual element to my research findings. As a film, it can be taken to a wider audience than a paper or even a book can.”

Joe Thomas Karackattu.
Joe Thomas Karackattu.

At the heart of Guli’s Children is Guli itself as the ancient Chinese and Malayalis knew it – a vibrant port full of fascinating encounters and cultural exchanges. Karackattu introduces us to stories of the Indo-Chinese interactions in ancient Guli, both from the Indian as well as the Chinese side. He conducts interviews with experts from the Kerala Council of Historical Research, Calicut Heritage Forum and the Chinese Society of Historians of China’s Foreign Relations.

As Ma’s story demonstrates, the journey is more important than the destination. Karackattu is the first Indian whom Ma and his wife are meeting, but they greet him as they would someone from their hometown, one that isn’t so far as boundaries and borders make it seem.

Karackattu is now working on another project, one that looks at connections in genealogy that survive in India. Such stories, which speak of shared cultural experiences, provide a balance to the kind of narrative that dominates foreign relations between countries, Karackattu feels. “Normally, when we think of India-China, it is narrowed down to a very securitised understanding of bilateral relations,” he explained. “But the relationship is so multi-faceted that when one across one such story, one is left with the feeling that it would be lovely if we had more such stories to tell.”

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