As we all know, Photography was introduced to India soon after its invention in early 1840s by the colonial rulers. The Palace commissioned photographers to make exotic photos of this land. The intent was to primarily propagate India as an ideal destination for the British to explore and settle. In those times, there were many notions in Europe about India that portrayed this as a land plagued by diseases, man eaters and crimes. Hence, the colonial rulers took extraordinary efforts to highlight the wealth, beauty and prosperity of India and royal properties. Photographs of the majestic architecture, magnificent landscapes and beautiful people of this ancient land were made and propagated. In these photographs, human presence was minuscule compared to that of built structures. This encouraged many Britishers to visit and invest in India. However, the commissioned photographers also documented the first Indian upraise (1857 mutiny),the horror of which turned the attention of the world upon the cruelty and oppression of the colonial rule. Later, studio photography was introduced, which became very successful in India. The ruling class and the aristocrats also commissioned commercial photographers to have their photographs made, as it was comparatively cheaper and less time consuming than oil painting or sculpting.
Later on, the Indian Independence struggle attracted well known photo-journalists from Europe and America. Many of the photographers were also army officers, and the commoners were forcefully photographed. There was also a prevailing belief that photographs stole one’s soul, and hence, saints and mystics of that age were not interested in being photographed.Ramana Maharishi, an Indian philosopher and a well known mystic became one of the earliest to understand the power of the visuals. He allowed and encouraged photographers to chronicle his life.
In 1930,PRS Mani Iyer became the first official photographer of Ramana. His portrait of Ramana, commonly known as “Mani Bust”, became the most popular photo, widely circulated and worshiped by millions from across the world. Very little is known about this master photographer and his other photographs that he had taken while he was working as an Executive photographer at Modern Theaters, Salem. Modern Theatres Ltd. was a motion picture movie studio in Salem, Tamil Nadu, India started by Thiruchengodu Ramalingam Sundaram (aka TRS) in 1935. The early South Indian Cinema headquarters was based in Salem and this sophisticated studio produced over more than 150 movies until 1982. PRS is known to have taken promotional photographs of eminent actors, actresses and artists during his time here.
Mani was born at the turn of the 18th century as the first son to the couple Ramaseha Iyer and Sivasankari who hailed from Pattamadai, a village in South Tamil Nadu. He has completed his Honour’s degree in Arts. He took several photographs of Ramana during his time at the ashram. Mani was first brought to the ashram by Prof. NR Krishnamurti Iyer who said “the sarvadhikari asked me to send him a photograph of Nataraja, the majestic idol in the Meenakshi Temple, in front of whom the boy Ramana stood for long spells of time, shedding copious tears of ecstasy, before he left Madurai for good. He also wanted a photograph of the house where Ramana was born in Tiruchuzhi and of some other places there. These were meant to be placed in the Tamil biography Sri Ramana Vijayam by Suddhananda Bharati. I could succeed in implementing the request with the help of PRS Mani, my student and an expert photographer.” 1 PRS died at the young age of 33 years.
Modern Theaters is presently a housing complex. In all likelihood, the other photographs taken by PRS Mani are forever lost to the contemporary world of photography. However, PRS Mani Iyer continues to live through his “immortal” “living” pictures, “the Mani bust”.