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.
To this day, Tiruvannamalai’s identity is tied to Ramana through the photographs of P R S Mani, G G Welling, Dr. T N Krishnaswamy, Eliot Elisofon, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. When interviewed in the 1960’s, Dr. T N Krishnaswamy, in response to being asked how he felt when he first saw the Maharshi, said that the Maharshi did not seem to take notice of anything around him, and that his eyes were “shining” and there was something “divine” about his countenance. Inasmuch, every photographer that ever visited Tiruvannamalai never took notice about anything other than Ramana and the Annamalaiyar temple – their eyes glossing over everything else and their focus devoted entirely to the two ‘divine’ icons. But, there remains a Tiruvannamalai beyond, which has gone unnoticed and undocumented – invisible to the colonial gaze that is pre-occupied with its exotic fairy tales, and underwhelming for the photojournalist due to its perceived mundane-ness. If there were any attempts to the contrary, the conspicuous nature of the Ramanashram archives and its fixation with the Sage has made such documents all but indiscernible or lost. This attitude is curiously reminiscent of the colonial projects of British India – where the Company held control over how the world saw this land.
The colonial photography projects were backed by powerful commercial imperatives when they were beginning to be commissioned by the mid-1850’s – the new dominion had to be projected to investors in Britain as a land worthy of their investment. Their prominence in history is perhaps an ode to the success of their archival preservation. The photography projects initiated and archived by the colonial government was their epistemological master plan for India. The sheer scale of the colonial archives and the commissioned projects preserved therein, served to canonize the colonial state’s narrative of India and its people to itself. The photographs of Captain Linnaeus Tripe of South India (1857-58), were perhaps a comprehensive virtual tour offered to the British audience of a foreign land. In 1863, John and James Nicholas, who together were known as the Nicholas Brothers, Photographers of Madras, established a studio and concentrated on the South Indian landscape. They produced such works as “Madura, No. 6. A Passage in the Temple”, and “Seringapatam: Mausoleum Erected Over Tippoo Sultan and Haider Ali”. The representation of the natives were non-existent in such collections – as far as the Empire was concerned, they were primitive barbarians. This view was further endorsed by Max Muller, and ‘studies’ were carried out in this regard to better ‘catalogue’ the primitives. “The Castes and Tribes of South India”, a seven-volume ‘anthropological study’, carried out by the Edgar Thurston and K Rangachari in 1909, was intended to be an encyclopedia of sorts of the social groups living inthe Madras Presidency and the erstwhile princely states of Travancore, Mysore, Coorg, and Puddokottai, with a discussion on prevailing theories of anthropometry and craniometry – the basis for the Caucasians’ perceived ‘superiority’. It was an attempt to collate information and produce an ‘ethnographic’ portrait of the people by providing descriptions of their physiognomy, rituals, religious beliefs, social traditions, and communal practices. These projects denied the colonized natives the right to privacy and that of self-representation – since the visuals were being constructed from a stance of the aforementioned ‘superiority’.
Outside the realm of official photography commissioned directly by the Crown, commercial and personal archives were producing a parallel narrative. Photographers like Felix Beato, whose documentation of the carnage immediately after the 1857 mutiny in pictures of unearthed bones and hung rebels, in Walter Benjamin’s terms, paint a “phantasmagoric aesthetic” – through which it perceptually alienates the colonials and the colonized and justifies the ideology of the colonial state’s civilizing mission. The images produced by Captain Wallace Hooper of the Madras famine of the 1870’s are examples of attempts to drum up sympathy for the colonized, and more importantly, to re-iterate the need for a “benevolent” Empire.
These histories of documentation have consciously or unconsciously warped the nature of photographic representation – even if we are talking about a tiny temple-town.
Contemporary photographic imagemaking is slowly evolving out of this shell of quasi-superior nature. The works produced in EtP’s pilot photo-art project, Project 365 Tiruvannamalai, was an attempt to enable the visual recording of this small temple-town by de-locating the photographic gaze from that of an occidental perspective ‘studying’ its subjects with alienation and disengagement insofar as to only confirm the pre-conceived ideas/notions about them, to that of an engaged artist who is in a dialogue with the subject and acknowledges their right to represent themselves. The project has been undertaken at a paradigm shift moment, when the impact of globalization and technological advancements is fast changing the contours of contemporary life, lifestyle and people. Even though photography has pervaded every corridor of human life, very few images are available in the public domain and out of the one lakh photographs taken, on average, only one is being printed and preserved for posterity. Besides, in the digital era, there is an overflow of information, as well as a lack of focused effort that systematically documents and archives the everyday scenario – the mundane life that is infused with cultural symbols.
Project 365 Tiruvannamalai was led by contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad. He has contributed the major part of the three thousand and odd photographs that are part of the public archive. The contributors include R R Srinivasan, Dinesh Khanna, Waswo X Waswo, Thierry Cardon, Ramu Aravindan, Shibu Arakkal, Bhagyashri Patki, Anurag Sharma, Ami Gupta, Arnav Rastogi, Shiv Kiran, Leo James, J Jayaraman, Panneer Selvam, Biju Ibrahim, Radhi Jangla, Jiby Charles, P Venkatesan Perumal, Varun Gupta, Seema Krishnakumar, Iqbal M K, Maveeran Somasundaram and Boney K R. Each project photographer worked on his/her own individual photo project, using their own medium of choice – smartphones, 35mm, digital cameras, traditional cameras – providing a comprehensive view of contemporary Tiruvannamalai. The strength of the project is the collective consciousness generated by the team, which is made of individuals who come from diverse cultures, languages, experiences, exposures, and interests. As a collective, they try to weave a comprehensive visual narrative.