In a similar tone John Tagg describes photography: “Photographies are …discursive practices and…for this reason one cannot use photography as an unproblematic source. Photography does not transmit a pre-existent reality which is already meaningful in itself”. He goes on to say: “It has been said, for example by Umberto Eco, that if photography is to be likened to perception, this is not because the former is a ‘natural’ process but because the latter is coded.The meaning of a photographic image is built up by an interaction of such szchemas or codes, which vary greatly in their degree of schematisation. The image is therefore to be seen as a composite of signs, more to be compared with a complex sentence than a single word. Its meanings are multiple, concrete, and, most important, constructed”. Then the photographic documentations as what we see nowadays in abundance around us can only be studied as rather subjective interpretations than objective realities. It is with this theoretical conviction in mind that I would like to look at the series of photographs titled ‘Men of Pukar’ by the Indian art-photographer Abul Kalam Azad.
‘Men of Pukar’ is a journey through the present day Pukar, a village in Tamilnadu which was a flourishing sea port and the capital of early Colas, situated at the end point of River Cauvery. The city was called by various names in ancient times, Poompukar, Kaveripattinam, Kakanti, campapthi, and Cholapattinam. There is a large body of literature which mentions the celebrated city of Pukar such as ancient Tamil works like Akananuru, Purananuru, Pattinappalai, Chilappathikaram, Manimekhalai, and Prakrit texts like Milindapana, Buddhist jataka tales, Abhidhammavatara, Buddhavamsatthakatha, and foreign accounts like Geography of Ptolemy. The word ‘Pukar’ in Tamil stands for a place where a river enters a sea. Poompukar is the place where river Cauvery joins the Bay of Bengal. According to archeological evidences it was a well-planned city which dates back as early as 100 BC. It was a very vibrant city thrived with all kinds of human activities like trade and cultural and leisure pursuits. Many temples dedicated to various gods are said to have existed here. A Buddhist vihara and chaitya were also located in this area. Pattinappalai refers to people from various countries residing at this place. Manimekhalai refers to artisans from Magadha, Avanti and Maratta and Greek sculptors working at Kaveripattinam. The heroes and heroine of classical tragedy Cilappathikaram are from Pukar and the poet IlangoAdigal provides a detailed description of the city and its people. After nearly two thousand years, today Pukar is no longer a flourishing sea port and it is believed that the ancient city ofPukarwas destroyed by the sea. In short, nothing from the past glory is preserved here in any form to be ‘documented’ and it is into this ‘absence’ that Azad’s camera opens its shutter.