Project Description

Panorama

Metabolism of
Culture

Photo Mail presents
panoramic view of
The art of photography’s
Interaction and
Interrelation with other
Art mediums such as literature
Architecture, and
Other visual media

A socio-anthropological reading
of Photographer Abul Kalam Azad‘s
Men of Pukar photo-series
which is the third part of his
Ongoing five-part series titled
Story of Love, Desire & Agony
that creates meta-conceptual
parallel visuals of Classical Tamil
epic tragedy Cilappathikaram

In MoC
the author seeks to understand
the origins of “Culture” and
the multi-fold assimilation
and manifestation
Of identity, territory, and gender

Review of Abul Kalam Azad's Men of Pukar photo series
Men of Pukar | Story of Love, Desire and Agony © Abul Kalam Azad 2017

Stucco Sculptures

Pre-historic Memories and Conflict

“The commanders and the vanguard of the army
Came marching like the waves of the sea;
The mountain bent its back; level forest
And the countryside became well-trodden;
These and the chariots with the king in their midst
Camped in the Nilgris mountain.
For the chariots, horses, mighty elephants and men,
There came up tents, to which vigilant guardsmen
Were post;”

Ilango Adigal, Cilappathikaram

Abul Kalam Azad has taken this image of a stucco horse sculpture in the modern-day region corresponding to ancient Pukar1. There are no records about the sculptor. It is neither inscribed on the sculpture nor anywhere in the temple premises. Maybe, some of the locals know the name of the Sthapathi (chief sculptor); however, as time passes, this knowledge will also fade away. Information about the artists and sculptors who had contributed towards the building of the famed South Indian temples/palaces are not available. Their works are usually credited to the patron dynasty, the ‘history’ (meaning his-story, the kings’) of whom are well written – with volumes of literature and countless performances in their praise. But, the efforts of the common people, artists, artisans, and sculptors are ‘elevated’ and attributed to the collective consciousness of this ancient land. The divine, mythical and mythological connotations attached to vasthu silpa (art and architecture) have made the creators of these ancient exquisite artworks ‘irrelevant’.

As the tradition dictates, this stucco sculpture is not ‘signed’ by anybody neither, even though it is not that old. The sculptors knew stucco techniques for millennia. Some historians opine that the pyramids were plastered white2. The Greeks and Romans are known to have used stucco in constructions and sculptures. It must be during this period that Sangam-era Tamils learned this technique from the maritime traders. Numerous imperial Cola period temples have their façades decorated using this technique. With the invention of Portland cement in 1843, the traditional method of making lime-based stucco was replaced by cement-based ones. The drawback of cement stucco is that its life-span is low compared to that of plastered stucco. The first cement factory in India was established in Madras (now Chennai) in 1904, and within a decade, it became popular due to its low cost. Since then, this sort of painted cement sculptures has been decorating the façades and premises of the new temples, standing in stark contrast to the granite and bronze sculptures that were carved to withstand for long period.

In all probability, this sculpture will fall apart within two or three decades. The ancient land that had carved the marvelous Cola sculptures as early as the 8th century CE has today limited its artistic endeavors to the creation of something that has a lesser life-span than that of an average human being. It is painful to note that the old temples of South India continue to be renovated and new ones built using this technique. In many countries, stucco has become unpopular with modern architects, to the extent that there were widespread movements to remove it from existing tenements.3

Now, in this image, what we can see is only the back of the horse statue. The uncommon square format is problematic. Space is lesser compared to that of the usual rectangular format. So, the possibilities are restricted. Only an adept photographer can play around with this self-imposed limitation. It also has an immediate impact on the viewer. Our eyes are trained to seeing performances, theatre, dance, etc., on a rectangular stage. Even television screens, cinema projections follow the same geometrical format. In the square format, our optical vision becomes narrowed or rather more focused. However, it is not the first time Abul has presented a fragment of an animal. ‘Torso of a bull’ is one popular work done in the 80s, in which all one could see is the torso of a bull, as the name suggests, and scratches and doodles on the print’s surface – a violation of sorts. ‘Prostrating elephant’ is another example. Horses have also featured in much of his earlier works. 

Reading these particular photographs demands two approaches – one is that of the artist’s reason and inclination to include imageries of animals and the second is the sociological context and symbolism. In this case, the personal history has links to the collective memory of the people. Abul hails from a Tamil Muslim family migrated to Kerala. Belonging to the Rowuthar4 community, the traditional warrior horse keepers, maybe Abul is subconsciously drawn to animals. may be Abul is subconsciously drawn to animals. To the photographer, these are taboos and totemic, having symbolic mythological and mythical connections. Abul’s animals are often shown in parts, laden with meanings or simply because that is how he chose to show them.

In this case, the back of the horse is enough to reveal its breed – Arabian. There is little information on how and when horses reached South India. Motifs that resemble horses were found in the megalithic cave paintings in Marayur, Tamil Nadu5. Seeing precludes depiction, but horses were not introduced to the Southern part of India at least until the Iron Age (1000BCE). Some historians claim that the traveling artists’ guilds could have gotten the knowledge about horses from Harappa and Mohenjadaro, but this opinion is also countered by several other historians, as there is no clear evidence for the presence of horses in the Indus valley; And the topic becomes all the more interesting and controversial as it is related to Indo-Aryan migration. Sangam literature mentions that horses were imported by the Arabs during the Sangam period.6 The Port of Pukar was an important gateway through which horses were imported to ancient Tamilakam. The strategic location of Pukar at the mouth of the River Cauvery made it one of the prominent ports of Sangam-era. It served as the hip-hop point, where the traveling ships anchored. The Cauvery’s freshwaters and inter-connected network of waterways enabled the emergence of a flourishing civilization around it.

The culturally rich ancient Tamilakam was united by their cultural and literary tradition, yet divided in their power – conquests and endless fighting over wealth and territory were common. Hence, it was natural for the ever-warring rulers, chieftains, and local warriors of the Sangam period Tamilakam to take particular interest in horses, which played a major role in the wars. Dacoits were aplenty during the period as well. The Arabian horse breeds were preferred by these rulers and dacoits – prized for their speed and endurance. Cilappathikaram narrates the Cera King Cenguttuvan’s mighty cavalry. In one scene, the hero Kovalan was riding on a mule while parading with his lady love Matavi. This genetic hybrid was first bred by the ancient Turks around 8000 years ago. 

Offering terracotta horses to agamic deity7 Aiyanar-Catan is a common practice in South India. The origin of this ritual is unknown. However, the earliest reference to Aiyanar is a hero stone (menhir) found in Arcot, Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, pottery inscription in Tamil-Brahmi dating to 1st century CE in the name of Catan was discovered at Port Quseir-al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. Cilapathikaram also describes the Catan cult, which is related to Aiyanar or Sasta worship practices. It has a detailed narration of the animal and human sacrificial offerings performed there. We can assume that Aiyanar probably was a mighty local warrior, ruler, or village guard who was fond of horses. The superstitious belief that the mythical Aiyanar rides on his horse at night and protects the villagers is prevalent among the locals.

Abul Kalam Azad has taken this image of the horse statue in an Aiyanar temple in present-day Pukar, possibly constructed twenty years ago. Today, there are no horses in Pukar. However, almost every shrine dedicated to the local deities has a statue of a hero with his horse. Through this, in the collective memory of the people, the once upon a time warriors and their proud horses continue to live. Nostalgia may be. Or is it possible that the men of Pukar muse over their lineage by unconsciously recreating fragments from their distant past? Do they also retain certain aspects of their warrior-like spirit? Or have they delineated that fiery strength to the gods and have become subdued citizens of the modern world? The bits and pieces of memories – do they cause friction? Especially today, horses have once again come to the forefront of discussions. The cultural continuity of the South Indian Dravidians with that of the Indus civilizations is becoming more evident. The polarization of viewpoints as to the origins of the Aryans, more importantly, whether Aryans – Dravidians were distinctive races, have become common discussions. Horses that way, are symbols of power, war, and conflict. 

Yet another important aspect to this symbolism is the role of the traveling Arabian horse traders and care-takers, who had introduced this powerful animal to the landscape. Arunagirinathar, a Tamil poet, has written that Murugan, the Tamil deity was from the Ravuttar community. While there can never be any definite proof as to this, horses also remind the heroic contribution of the Ravuther community. It reminds the period during which beliefs and classifications weren’t hindering the intermingling of cultures and traditions. 

Abul Kalam Azad has chosen a frame that includes an array of objects and details – the fragment of the horse, the wide coastal landscape, piles of tetrapods, a water can, the bunch of electric wires – all of which becomes the signifier of contemporary life. For some reason, the distracting tetra pods piled together to dissipate the powerful waves look like an installation of interlocked phallic objects. When seen along with the erect penis of the warrior horse, they become a symbolic representation of men and power. 

There is another object in the frame that catches one’s attention – the mineral water can. Photographers usually avoid such elements in the frame – it looks like a distraction. The otherwise aesthetically pleasing image becomes somewhat distorted by this abject inclusion. We look for certain unwritten norms and perfection in photography. Exotic visuals are preferred over minimalistic expressions. Market orientation demands only such images, and all camera equipment focuses on making picture-perfect image creation easy and cost-effective. Curiously, violent and agony-filled images pass the test and are accepted by the mainstream. Here, the inclusion of mineral water symbolizes modern time. But, seen against the century’s old practice of horse worship it looks as if time has moved forward and backward as one continuous moment. 

But that is not all. The mineral water can also act as a pointer to a contemporary socio-political context. Cilappathikaram describes the sweet and ever-flowing River Cauvery that merges into the ocean in Pukar. However, the presence of mineral water bottle in the photograph, although a very recent phenomenon, suggests an altogether different scenario – the scarcity of fresh water.

_________

[1] The ancient flourishing port city of Pukar comprised of about 30 villages, extending around 76.8 square kilometers and covering present villages Karuvindanathapuram and Kadarankondan in the west, Thirukadavur in the south, and Kalikamur in the north, with the Bay of Bengal in the east. [2] Egyptian Pharaohs were using lime and gypsum plaster to coat the walls of tombs, pyramids, and palaces, which allowed the finished surface to be decorated in the hieroglyphics that are still visible in our modern age. Some of the plaster surfaces of the pyramids still exist today and remain as tough and durable as the time they were first created. [3] Source: Wikipedia [4] Refers to the community of equestrian Arabic warriors, who were care keepers of the horses. They are descendants of Turks [5] Dated between 5000 BCE to 3000 BCE [6] A painting at Ajanta shows horses and elephants that are transported by ship [7] Pre-Vedic

Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi

Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi is an independent writer and film-maker. 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 and the Executive Editor of PhotoMail.

Abul Kalam Azad is an established contemporary Indian photographer, noted for his maverick experimental and conceptual works. He is the 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 attempt a re-reading of contemporary Indian history – the history in which ordinary people are absent and mainly provided by beautiful images and icons. To see more works of Abul Kalam Azad check his website.

Published on August 20, 2017

Share

Home » Portfolio » Panorama » Stucco Sculpture, Pre-hisoric Memories and Conflict

Related Articles

2021-05-12T14:19:34+05:30

Manigramam, Prehistoric Merchant Guild of Tamil Legacy

The existence of Manigramam (Manikkiramam) in Pukar, in this context, is an important surviving evidence of our shared lineage. As literary sources attest, Pukar was one of the gateways through which the Afro-Arabian traders entered Southern India. This simple board points to three thousand and odd years of cultural exchange that happened across borders.

2021-05-12T14:23:19+05:30

Sacred Thread, Hierarchal hegemony and identity

Controversy surrounds the origin of Brahmin clans, which is divided into ‘gotras’, and as such mutually opposing thoughts and evidences – both scriptural and historical – are put forth by the differing factions. As far as South India is concerned, the Tamil Brahmins and their Vedic ideas started spreading during the period when Buddhism and Jainism was gaining popularity (around 5th century BCE).

2021-05-12T14:24:40+05:30

Palmyra, Caste system in India

In South India, coconut palm and palmyra tapping was practiced by the indigenous population who, later during the process of class/caste consolidation, were called the Shanars (Channars). These early settlers considered Palmyra as the single most miraculous tree and were the largest consumers of its products. Scaling a Palmyra, which can grow up to 100 feet, is a rather specialized job done by the men.

2021-05-12T14:25:31+05:30

Parathavar, Etymology of Naval Force

The life of fishermen has a certain rhythm and the timings are in tune with nature – the weather, the water current, the movement and the life cycle of fishes. They all go and return at different times - the modern day ‘nine to five routine’ is not applicable here. For example, the crab catchers usually go during the late evening to spread their nets. They would go back again in the early morning to collect their catch.

2021-05-12T14:26:06+05:30

Cauvery, River Valley Civlisation

River Cauvery - the lifeline of South India – that traverses through all the four states and Puducherry Union territory is personified as a goddess/woman. Several rituals, along her course, have been practiced since pre-historic times. The most important amongst them are the ones conducted at the mouth where the river merges with the infinite ocean – the end of a journey often analogized with the journey of a human life.

Abul Kalam Azad has taken this image of a stucco horse sculpture in the modern-day region corresponding to ancient Pukar1. There are no records about the sculptor. It is neither inscribed on the sculpture nor anywhere in the temple premises. Maybe, some of the locals know the name of the Sthapathi (chief sculptor); however, as time passes, this knowledge will also fade away. Information about the artists and sculptors who had contributed towards the building of the famed South Indian temples/palaces are not available. Their works are usually credited to the patron dynasty, the ‘history’ (meaning his-story, the kings’) of whom are well written – with volumes of literature and countless performances in their praise. But, the efforts of the common people, artists, artisans, and sculptors are ‘elevated’ and attributed to the collective consciousness of this ancient land. The divine, mythical and mythological connotations attached to vasthu silpa (art and architecture) have made the creators of these ancient exquisite artworks ‘irrelevant’.

As the tradition dictates, this stucco sculpture is not ‘signed’ by anybody neither, even though it is not that old. The sculptors knew stucco techniques for millennia. Some historians opine that the pyramids were plastered white2. The Greeks and Romans are known to have used stucco in constructions and sculptures. It must be during this period that Sangam-era Tamils learned this technique from the maritime traders. Numerous imperial Cola period temples have their façades decorated using this technique. With the invention of Portland cement in 1843, the traditional method of making lime-based stucco was replaced by cement-based ones. The drawback of cement stucco is that its life-span is low compared to that of plastered stucco. The first cement factory in India was established in Madras (now Chennai) in 1904, and within a decade, it became popular due to its low cost. Since then, this sort of painted cement sculptures has been decorating the façades and premises of the new temples, standing in stark contrast to the granite and bronze sculptures that were carved to withstand for long period.

In all probability, this sculpture will fall apart within two or three decades. The ancient land that had carved the marvelous Cola sculptures as early as the 8th century CE has today limited its artistic endeavors to the creation of something that has a lesser life-span than that of an average human being. It is painful to note that the old temples of South India continue to be renovated and new ones built using this technique. In many countries, stucco has become unpopular with modern architects, to the extent that there were widespread movements to remove it from existing tenements.3

Now, in this image, what we can see is only the back of the horse statue. The uncommon square format is problematic. Space is lesser compared to that of the usual rectangular format. So, the possibilities are restricted. Only an adept photographer can play around with this self-imposed limitation. It also has an immediate impact on the viewer. Our eyes are trained to seeing performances, theatre, dance, etc., on a rectangular stage. Even television screens, cinema projections follow the same geometrical format. In the square format, our optical vision becomes narrowed or rather more focused. However, it is not the first time Abul has presented a fragment of an animal. ‘Torso of a bull’ is one popular work done in the 80s, in which all one could see is the torso of a bull, as the name suggests, and scratches and doodles on the print’s surface – a violation of sorts. ‘Prostrating elephant’ is another example. Horses have also featured in much of his earlier works. 

Reading these particular photographs demands two approaches – one is that of the artist’s reason and inclination to include imageries of animals and the second is the sociological context and symbolism. In this case, the personal history has links to the collective memory of the people. Abul hails from a Tamil Muslim family migrated to Kerala. Belonging to the Rowuthar4 community, the traditional warrior horse keepers, maybe Abul is subconsciously drawn to animals. may be Abul is subconsciously drawn to animals. To the photographer, these are taboos and totemic, having symbolic mythological and mythical connections. Abul’s animals are often shown in parts, laden with meanings or simply because that is how he chose to show them.

In this case, the back of the horse is enough to reveal its breed – Arabian. There is little information on how and when horses reached South India. Motifs that resemble horses were found in the megalithic cave paintings in Marayur, Tamil Nadu5. Seeing precludes depiction, but horses were not introduced to the Southern part of India at least until the Iron Age (1000BCE). Some historians claim that the traveling artists’ guilds could have gotten the knowledge about horses from Harappa and Mohenjadaro, but this opinion is also countered by several other historians, as there is no clear evidence for the presence of horses in the Indus valley; And the topic becomes all the more interesting and controversial as it is related to Indo-Aryan migration. Sangam literature mentions that horses were imported by the Arabs during the Sangam period.6 The Port of Pukar was an important gateway through which horses were imported to ancient Tamilakam. The strategic location of Pukar at the mouth of the River Cauvery made it one of the prominent ports of Sangam-era. It served as the hip-hop point, where the traveling ships anchored. The Cauvery’s freshwaters and inter-connected network of waterways enabled the emergence of a flourishing civilization around it.

The culturally rich ancient Tamilakam was united by their cultural and literary tradition, yet divided in their power – conquests and endless fighting over wealth and territory were common. Hence, it was natural for the ever-warring rulers, chieftains, and local warriors of the Sangam period Tamilakam to take particular interest in horses, which played a major role in the wars. Dacoits were aplenty during the period as well. The Arabian horse breeds were preferred by these rulers and dacoits – prized for their speed and endurance. Cilappathikaram narrates the Cera King Cenguttuvan’s mighty cavalry. In one scene, the hero Kovalan was riding on a mule while parading with his lady love Matavi. This genetic hybrid was first bred by the ancient Turks around 8000 years ago. 

Offering terracotta horses to agamic deity7 Aiyanar-Catan is a common practice in South India. The origin of this ritual is unknown. However, the earliest reference to Aiyanar is a hero stone (menhir) found in Arcot, Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, pottery inscription in Tamil-Brahmi dating to 1st century CE in the name of Catan was discovered at Port Quseir-al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. Cilapathikaram also describes the Catan cult, which is related to Aiyanar or Sasta worship practices. It has a detailed narration of the animal and human sacrificial offerings performed there. We can assume that Aiyanar probably was a mighty local warrior, ruler, or village guard who was fond of horses. The superstitious belief that the mythical Aiyanar rides on his horse at night and protects the villagers is prevalent among the locals.

Abul Kalam Azad has taken this image of the horse statue in an Aiyanar temple in present-day Pukar, possibly constructed twenty years ago. Today, there are no horses in Pukar. However, almost every shrine dedicated to the local deities has a statue of a hero with his horse. Through this, in the collective memory of the people, the once upon a time warriors and their proud horses continue to live. Nostalgia may be. Or is it possible that the men of Pukar muse over their lineage by unconsciously recreating fragments from their distant past? Do they also retain certain aspects of their warrior-like spirit? Or have they delineated that fiery strength to the gods and have become subdued citizens of the modern world? The bits and pieces of memories – do they cause friction? Especially today, horses have once again come to the forefront of discussions. The cultural continuity of the South Indian Dravidians with that of the Indus civilizations is becoming more evident. The polarization of viewpoints as to the origins of the Aryans, more importantly, whether Aryans – Dravidians were distinctive races, have become common discussions. Horses that way, are symbols of power, war, and conflict. 

Yet another important aspect to this symbolism is the role of the traveling Arabian horse traders and care-takers, who had introduced this powerful animal to the landscape. Arunagirinathar, a Tamil poet, has written that Murugan, the Tamil deity was from the Ravuttar community. While there can never be any definite proof as to this, horses also remind the heroic contribution of the Ravuther community. It reminds the period during which beliefs and classifications weren’t hindering the intermingling of cultures and traditions. 

Abul Kalam Azad has chosen a frame that includes an array of objects and details – the fragment of the horse, the wide coastal landscape, piles of tetrapods, a water can, the bunch of electric wires – all of which becomes the signifier of contemporary life. For some reason, the distracting tetra pods piled together to dissipate the powerful waves look like an installation of interlocked phallic objects. When seen along with the erect penis of the warrior horse, they become a symbolic representation of men and power. 

There is another object in the frame that catches one’s attention – the mineral water can. Photographers usually avoid such elements in the frame – it looks like a distraction. The otherwise aesthetically pleasing image becomes somewhat distorted by this abject inclusion. We look for certain unwritten norms and perfection in photography. Exotic visuals are preferred over minimalistic expressions. Market orientation demands only such images, and all camera equipment focuses on making picture-perfect image creation easy and cost-effective. Curiously, violent and agony-filled images pass the test and are accepted by the mainstream. Here, the inclusion of mineral water symbolizes modern time. But, seen against the century’s old practice of horse worship it looks as if time has moved forward and backward as one continuous moment. 

But that is not all. The mineral water can also act as a pointer to a contemporary socio-political context. Cilappathikaram describes the sweet and ever-flowing River Cauvery that merges into the ocean in Pukar. However, the presence of mineral water bottle in the photograph, although a very recent phenomenon, suggests an altogether different scenario – the scarcity of fresh water.