Photographs of Tiruvannamalai dates back as far as the 1880’s – quite possibly as part of the colonial drive to document and preserve India’s monuments and historical sites that was initiated post the 1857 uprising. These images were focused on the architecture of the Annamalaiyar temple. Very few images and even lesser information about the men behind the images are available from this period. The “second phase” of photographic history of Tiruvannamalai came about with the emergence of another pivot, who is perhaps today more famous than the Annamalaiyar temple – the presence of Ramana Maharshi in the archives of photographic images of Tiruvannamalai is, in a word, overbearing. Photographers who had visited Tiruvannamalai in Ramana’s time have left behind a rich catalogue of visuals, including Indian photographers like P R S Mani Iyer (who had worked in Modern Theatre of Salem as an executive photographer), Dr. T N Krishnaswamy, and G Govind Welling. P R S Mani’s most famous photo of Sri Ramana titled ‘Mani bust’ (1917-1922) has been circulated and worshipped in South India and abroad since late 1930s. Amateur photographer Dr. T N Krishanswamy first visited Tiruvannamalai when he was a medical student. The photograph he took of Ramana enchanted the people living in the Ramanashram so much so that he was invited back to become the “official” photographer of the ashram. Over the years, Krishnaswamy produced a comprehensive collection of photographs pertaining to Ramana, the ashram, and the temple – almost 85% of the images in the Ramanashram archives is attributed to Dr. T N Krishnaswamy (shot between the 1930’s to 1950). G Govind Welling was a professional photographer, and renowned camera maker who owned a photography requisitions store in Bangalore (which is still operational today). The Welling bust, taken in 1946, depicts Ramana in a sort of “ethereal” glow. It is claimed to have been shot in the moonlight, and the story that is attached to it goes that when Ramana, who was a keen observer of photography and its process, asked about the lighting, Welling is famously said to have replied: “Bhagavan, you are the light!”. Welling only visited Tiruvannamalai that one time, for a span of 3 days.
The town’s international fame is partly due to the images created by the American photojournalist Eliot Elisofon, which were published in Life magazine (a photojournalism weekly news magazine, owned by TIME), and the iconic Henri Cartier-Bresson published in Magnum. Eliot Elisofon’s assignment in India in the late 1940’s, was to depict the art and ancient rock-cut architecture of Hindu and Buddhist temples at various locations in India, including cave temples at Ellora, Ajanta, Elephanta Island, and Mamallapuram; Lingaraj and other temples of Shiva in the temple city Bhubaneswar; the Sun Temple of Konark and Arunachaleshwarar (Annamalaiyar) temple in Tiruvannamalai. Initially tempted to meet Sri Aurobindo, who was living the life of a hermit, hardly meeting anybody or appearing in public, other than to give ‘darshan’ once every four months, Elisofon was informed of an “equally famous” holy man in Tiruvannamalai – a man who, according to his followers, piloted the global destiny through his meditative prowess; a feat that was claimed by followers of Sri Aurobindo of their master as well. Elisofon made several photographs of Tiruvannamalai, the Annamalaiyar Temple, and Sri Ramana at his Ashram. His photographs on Tiruvannamalai was published on 30th May 1949, the article was titled “Holy Man”, written by Winthrop Sargeant – senior writer for Life. The article drew a huge amount of attention to Ramana and the ashram, which became the focus of Tiruvannamalai, and also indirectly precipitated the visit of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Cartier-Bresson’s images of Tiruvannamalai are not devoid of the typical representations of the “exotic” that is all too familiar in the colonial projects. His contributions to the medium of photography notwithstanding, Bresson’s agenda in India was straightforward – making saleable photographic prints of the subcontinent, its culture, and people; and this attitude is quite apparent in his negotiations with the ashram regarding the prints he had produced. After long negotiations, Bresson bequeathed a few prints to the ashram – which remain a proud acquisition, and has been extensively reproduced for commercial use. Bresson’s documentation of the death of Ramana is a reflection of how the west was seeing its colonies – naive and fantastical. Interestingly, Bresson also claimed in various instances that he saw a “ball of fire” slowly move across the sky and come to rest on the Annamalai hill, shortly after Ramana’s passing.