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Coral women

Wading through curtains of faded white sheets, it’s hard to miss the neon coloured marine life painted over them. The curious trail opens into an art installation. A sign reads, “Ice ages have come and gone. ‘Coral reefs’ have persisted! Will they survive ‘us’ hoomans?” The fluorescent greens and oranges highlight an important point. Made out of up-cycled waste from their previous edition, Thinnai Talkies seeks to provoke dialogues through the screening that follows. A voice emerges from the speakers:

Naa kaana ulagangal, nee kaana vendum

(The world that I get to see, you should be able to see it too)

Priya Thuvassery’s documentary ‘Coral Woman’ follows the journey of Uma Mani, a self-made painter who has largely worked on colorful and picturesque recreations of coral reefs. However, when she was questioned about whether she had seen corals up close, a challenge to set off on an adventure arose in her. 

At the ripe young age of 49, Uma learnt to swim and foray into being a PADI certified scuba diver. There’s a beautiful shot in the documentary as the audience follows Uma’s jump into cold waters. Anticipation builds as we watch her hit the surface of the water and the scene immediately cuts to brightly colored corals softly swaying. A quietness settles in, a powerful narrative on screen and an engaged audience. 

“It transformed me and the way I perceived corals. I went back home and retouched my paintings, to display more accurately the interdependence of corals and fishes,”

Priya Thuvassery

Coral reefs make up only 0.1 percent of the area of the ocean, but support 25 percent of all marine species. Due to climate change phenomena and local stressors, in 2016, 16.2 percent of corals were lost along the Gulf of Mannar. This led to excessive coral bleaching and significant shifts in the surrounding ecosystem. “I also began painting bleached corals. It was a conscious choice not even add brownish hues in my painting, to even suggest specks of life,” Uma adds. 

The documentary captures the effect of climate change phenomena and local stressors on coral reefs through the eyes of a silent observer in Uma’s journey. What’s one significant change she sees after the documentary? “Tangible change is yet to come. I keep telling people, let’s start at the basics and attempt to install rainwater harvesting measures. I honestly believe that the moment begins from here. It’s a simple enough task to screen this at film festivals and give a speech afterward, but personal interaction with people and their habits will really make a change, at least in a small way,” she smiles. 

To Uma, everyone is responsible to step up. It’s not just the work of an NGO or group of individuals to make a significant change. Just as the documentary came together on its own., she believes so will the younger generation towards a more greener and hopeful future. ‘Coral Women’ is not only a wake up call for more active engagement with our environment, but also serves to tell a story through well captured visuals. 

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