Project Description

Metabolism of Culture  Part 1

Silappathikaram  A Tragic Epic

“Beloved one! With these anklets as capital
I shall restore our fortune in Maturai;
Dear wife, come with me.” To hear was to obey.
And they left ere Dawn threw his mantle. – Ilango Adigal, Silappathikaram

Dance and drama, the earliest forms of performing arts, were essentially based on folklore stories, rituals and other local myths which had long existed in the oral form. At a later stage, these stories were compiled as text/poetry with the patronage of the respective rulers/kings. The element of hagiography in these mythical, mythological and cultural stories owed to the potential of the arts and literature as propaganda tools. Theatre, dance, and sculpture are in effect a “movement and/or stillness within a frame” that converges our locus of attention on a pre-defined rectangular arena. When photographed, these ‘works of art’ undergo three other processes: firstly, the three dimensional experience gets converted to a two dimensional ‘visual’; secondly, the quality of immortality and reproducibility are added to the captured moments, making them part of an image-world that is bound to live beyond us; thirdly, the photographer brings in his/her own unique view, making it an altogether new work of art.

In this photograph of a sculpture taken by Abul Kalam Azad, a graceful lady, dressed in saree, gives an anklet (silambu) to an affluent looking man. There appears to be a familiarity between the man and the woman, as the posture of the receiver doesn’t show any sign of humility. The woman is also not showing any sign of upper-handedness. It seems like a casual passing of a trivial object. But, there is something amiss – their eyes don’t meet. They don’t smile at each other. It looks as if both of them are lost in their own world.

Tamil people are familiar with this scene from the Classical period epic Silappathikaram. They are aware of the background of Kannaki, the lady in the pretty saree, and Kovalan, her husband, who is receiving the anklet. The scene depicts a pivotal moment in which the once wealthy and now penniless merchant Kovalan is returning to his wife, after a brief, passionate affair with a dancer and courtesan, Matavi. Kannaki is happy to win her husband back. However, Kovalan is guilty and laments over his actions that had led to his misfortune – to which the dutiful wife Kannaki responds by offering her anklet as capital, so that they could re-build their life in Madurai. The interesting epic tragedy has several other twists and turns, and in the end Kovalan is killed by the Pandyan king, after being mistakenly accused of stealing the Queen’s anklet. Kannaki burns down the kingdom in revenge and ascends to heaven as the “goddess of chastity”. This information about the man and the woman in the sculpture alters our perception. There is a sudden emotional charge, and based on our personal principles and societal standards of his/her surroundings, one’s reaction would vary.

There are temples for Kannaki but, none for Kovalan; to know why, it is important to analyze the reason for which this epic was composed by poet Ilango. In those times, relationships between men and women were freer and marriages were rare, restricted only to the rulers and chieftains. Both the sexes were free to take on other partners. Polygamy was openly accepted and practiced as a natural human tendency. It was a period during which the maritime trade was flourishing, which brought in many changes in the socio-economic life of the people, with men having to travel to faraway lands for long periods of time. Hence, new forms of conditions and rituals were needed to ‘control’ and ‘direct’ the people. Especially, the wealthy traders were the target, as their property needed to be managed by the King, for which he needed to regulate the number of their ‘heirs’. One could say that purely for this economic reason as well as to propagate religious morality, poet Ilango, the brother of the Chera King Cenguttuvan, embarked on the journey of writing the epic. Marriage as a sacred pact and union made in heaven, that requires the permission of the parents/elders and officiating by a priest was advocated. The qualities expected of a woman were clearly specified. New moral standards were imposed. For this purpose, super human qualities were attributed to the twelve year old Kannaki, who was, and is continued to be projected as the iconic symbol of chastity and obedience, conjured by Ilango or probably by an author of a pre-existing folklore fable. On the other hand, Kovalan was a soft character, a lover of the arts and dance. He is ostracized for breaking his marriage vows and contrived as the epitome of failure and wrongdoing. He is beheaded in the end – even though the cause of which is said to be an altogether different one – thus alerting the common people as to the judgment that awaits the one who does not conform to the societal norms.

It is worth noting here that, during this period, several other texts with similar ‘moral’ values have been in existence all over the world, laying the foundation for the so called ‘cultured’ society. The connecting water ways and maritime routes facilitated this sharing of knowledge, ideas, and philosophy. All of them had absorbed the prevailing native mother goddess cult worship practices and other local cultural aspects, so that it does not sound alien to the commoners. As the agenda was ‘propaganda’, the ‘reality’ is twisted and bent to suit a particular need – questionable information and facts were hidden and the desired messages was carefully spread. Since the Sangam period, this doctrine has been presented in the form of dance, theatre, drama, and in modern times, they take the form of cinema, TV serials etc. What we see today in South India – the rigidity and obsession over matters pertaining to sex and sexuality is indeed a surefire sign of the success of this ancient text in spreading its philosophy amongst the commoners.

Over the period, the epic in itself had gone through a lot of changes and the layers of addition, deletion, and manipulation shrouds the many illustrative works that are based on the epic. This sculpture is one such illustration; and it contains all the shortcomings of a proclamatory ‘work of art’ that intends to convert people to a certain idea or philosophy. Take the costume, for example. Their clothing is neither as per what the epic describes, nor does it reflect the present-day reality. The men and women of those times did not cover their upper body. In fact, being bare breasted and almost naked was completely accepted and even preferred, especially by the working class. The tropical climate suited their attire, or rather a lack of it. Only in later years, especially after the British rule, which apart from political tyranny brought about many social moral conditioning, and covering the upper body was linked with purity and privilege, according to Victorian morality. The Nivi-saree style, which was in vogue with the royal families of Andhra Pradesh and Baroda by the early 1900’s, is today the most popular and common way to wear a sari. The royal women were the first to bring about radical changes in fashion owing to their contact with different cultures – Arab, Greek, Roman, and Chinese. Single cloth that drapes around the body was introduced in this part of South India. Raja Ravi Varma, the distinguished painter of the 19th century, who had access to the quarters of the rulers and their queens, quickly popularized the style through his paintings of goddesses, and royals. Oleographs of his paintings, which were produced in his print studio, found their way into virtually every household in India- and suddenly, Goddesses, mythical Queens, and upper class women took on a new persona in the public’s imagination. His renderings of sari-clad women with chiffon weaves from France over the other types of saris did what centuries of exposure to couture could not – it homogenized fashion across the land. And, it is no coincidence that Ravi Varma was also a Prince. Only a ruler of the land could profess his values, which would then become a rule of that land, and assimilated as part of the culture.

The trend started by Raja Ravi Varma was promulgated through the popular modern medium – cinema and in epical movies the goddesses wear ‘Saree’. The modern street theatre performance artists also adorn this sort of costumes. The concept of an archetypal woman became very much imbibed and came to be revered as ‘tradition’, even though this idea is not even a century old. That is why our sculptor did not choose churidhar or salwar-kamiz or a jeans and a shirt – he is part of the group that has succumbed to the divine authority of Raja Ravi Varma. This should be read alongside the current Indian government’s saying that women of good character choose sari over the modern dresses. Directly or indirectly the message is being re-emphasized, an attempt at Paligenetic Ultranationalism – a revival of the mythical “golden age” of a nation is at bay.

By avoiding the allegorical style, Abul is refraining from touching the fictitious and righteous aspects. His works contemplate the so called cultural thread that connects the people of this land – that is presently divided into different territories based on language and customs – yet, united in its social conditioning. His focus is on the lifestyle of the people – then and now – through which he probes the sociological underpinnings and processes that shapes our society. The past stands as a mere backdrop, while the contemporary times present themselves as a ‘social reality’ that is fast advancing to newer horizons. Paradoxically, this particular image of a stucco sculpture, that is now a part of the ‘immortal’ image world, is the only one that could be directly linked with the epic, the ‘past’ packaged and being delivered as the ‘present’.

Text © Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi | Men of Pukar © Abul Kalam Azad 2017. For more details about Abul Kalam Azad’s photo project check link.

Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi, photo enthusiast and development activist, was born in a conservative Nadar family in Umarikadu, Tamil Nadu. She has completed her MBA from SSN SoMCA, Chennai. She has more than a decade of experience working with leading National and International Non Government Organisations in India, Africa and South America. She is the Founder Managing Trustee of Ekalokam Trust for Photography.

Abul Kalam Azad, contemporary Indian photographer and Founder Chairman of Ekalokam Trust for Photography. Abul’s photographic works are predominantly autobiographical and explore the areas of politics, culture, contemporary micro-history, gender and eroticism. His works attempts a re-reading of contemporary Indian history – the history in which ordinary people are absent and mainly provided by beautiful images and icons.