The essence of this belief is addressed by Bhagyashri Patki, the producer of what are perhaps the most religiously linked images within the project. Photographs that hover between the everyday and the ethereal suggest the omnipresent mysticism of Tiru’s geography, while silent meditations more akin to still life evoke spiritual meaning and religious reference. The artist ranges broadly, overlaying a face upon a roughly painted board marked with the three horizontal lines of Shiva, or focusing our attention on the discarded wooden matches used to light the myriad oil lamps of a temple. Patki herself has said, “The photographs are a depiction of the life stories of Nayanmars, the poets of Lord Shiva who composed liturgical poems of the Thirumarai. These verses express the devotee’s desire to meet their reverend.” The project, which the artist has titled “Mystical Saints”, is intrinsically coupled to Tamil literature, with Patki linking images with actual text. The spent matches are thus joined with lines from Manickavasakar, “Rid me/and induct me into the fold of your devotees,” a poetical reference alluding to the cycle of rebirth.
Spirituality is expanded upon by Ami Gupta, whose project “Children of Different Gods” explores diverse communities, and their interaction, through an intimate knowing of Tiru’s youngest inhabitants. “Most children are born into a religion. Faith is something that is fed to them,” Gupta explains, “Every school has a religious background, and all these concepts they are exposed to define their personality as they grow older. As adults, they stick to their own communities and social circles of likeminded people, usually ones who follow the same or similar ideologies. But universally, children are all the same: innocent, happy at heart and a little naughty at times.” Ami has joined us late at night, having driven in from Chennai. She is speaking of her project as we sit outside Abul’s front porch under a bluish, cloud-speckled moon. We’ve all devoured vegetarian and fish curries cooked up by Tulsi; Arnav, who has had a long day, has already retreated to his cottage. The sounds of a football match on a flickering TV escape from Arnav’s window across the compound.
“One of my photos depicts the Vidyarthis (students) of the Veda Patasala in Ramana Ashram. You will find them every evening, the entire bunch, chanting the Vedas soulfully, as participants of the puja and aarti. In fact, they start their day at 5 a.m. with daily meditation, Brahma Yajnam, Sandhyavanndanam, which is a salutation to the transition of the sunlight, at dawn, noon and dusk, and they are immersed in Vedic study all day long till 9:30 at night. They all study, chant, learn, chat, bond and sleep in this one small room, and they visit their families just once a year. But in this photograph friends enjoy a light moment at the Samadhi Hall. They are children.”
Ami directs my attention to another of her chosen kids. “I’m in a relationship with every subject I photograph,” she smiles. “Basheera is a street smart, intelligent girl who knows every nook and corner of the famous temple and can give any guide a run for his money. After school she helps her mother at the chappal stall, where she collects the slippers of the Shiva devotees, and returns the same to them when they are on their way out. Jameela, her mother, is barely forty-five and has eighteen children. Some of them are old enough to be married while the younger ones are still in school. Basheera is a bright young girl who never ceases to charm me with her intelligence. She has many a time told me fascinating stories about the temple and its past while walking me through it. What I like about her is the way she accepts Hinduism and its ideals so effortlessly while holding on to her strong Muslim roots.” This ability to weave between the divides of religion finds expression in another of Gupta’s series on Kabir, a young boy born to a Vaishnav Gujarati mother and a Tamil Brahmin father who is growing up in a multi-cultural environment. Kabir attends the Marudam Farm School, which is, according to Ami, “A unique and unusual institution that believes in children growing up to be one with nature and true to their nature.”