In more than one way photography alludes to memory. Sometimes a photograph is an ancillary to a memory, a physical entity which preserves a certain moment from the chain of events of the past or it is the memory itself materialized in physical form. But as with memory, with photography too subjectivity plays the leading role and in that sense both are records (one virtual and the other physical) framed by social structures and practices, disguised in the outfit of ‘the natural’. As Allan Sekula puts it, “the naturalization of the cultural seen by Roland Barthes as an essential characteristic of the photographic discourse is repeated and reinforced virtually every level of the cultural apparatus-unless it is interrupted by criticism”.
Though it is a fact that photography was originally conceived as a medium for objective documentation the nature of representation in photography has always been an area of debate. Even in 1930s, as Barthes observed people believed in the “faith in facts and objectivity of photography”. Today, however, with the advent of a wide spectrum of cultural and linguistic theories the claim of any representational system on objectivism is under threat. In a de-centered postmodern world like ours not only the objectivity of documentation but also the very concept of ‘document as the evidence of truth’ is being questioned. Historian Paola Carucci observes:
“The document is itself an interpretation of reality and as such it has not an absolute objective value; even when this value be proven, the reading of documents does not amount to historical knowledge”.
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.
‘Men of Pukar’ does not try to ‘re-narrate’ Ilango’s Kaveripattinam but Azad has his own heroes and heroines and more often he cuts his depth of focusing short in order to present them within the discursive premises where the incongruity between the history and present day condition of the place is felt. He neither tries to document the relics of the past glory (if there is anything at all) nor claims his images to be that of some ‘historical’ moments. Instead, he allows viewers to delve into the ‘image-space’ for some cultural codes which would help them to re-read the historical narratives in multiple ways. In a note on this series Azad writes:
“This large body of monochrome photographs taken in contemporary Pukar is an expression of my understanding of the men in Pukar. Some of these images may contain direct references to the text of Sangam literature, but such connections are secondary at best; the primary text to be referred to in the reading of these images is simply the history of the common people.”
Here the photographer seems to be well informed about the nature of his medium. He wants the viewer to note that ‘Photography does not transmit a pre-existent reality which is already meaningful in itself’ and also that ‘the reading of documents does not amount to historical knowledge’. At this point, I believe that his choice of monochrome is intentional since it evokes in the viewer a kind of feeling of the past through the self-referentiality of the medium.
Thus, through Azad’s monochrome images the trivia of everyday life in Pukarattains a syntactic ability to narrate its own stories against the background of past narratives.