Project Description

In the common discourse of History, the ordinary people are usually absent. The texts and poems composed/compiled during the classical period, combine history and hagiography to provide a spectacular narration of the life of the then rulers and dynasties, exaggerating their might, wealth, and generosity. In this regard, the classical tragedy Silappathikaram composed by Chera Prince-turned-Jain-Poet Ilango Adigal is different, as it tells the story of the common people and through their life and woes recounts the philosophy and moral ethics of the ruling dynasties. Contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad has been working on a large body of work titled ‘Story of Love, Desire and Agony’ that draws its roots from the classical tragedy Silappathikaram. The first two parts ‘Black Mother’ and ‘Contemporary heroines’ were done in present-day Kerala and the third part titled Men of Pukar is currently underway in Poompukar, Tamil Nadu, with the grant support of India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). This series has two more parts. Creating visual artworks based on literature is not new – Silappathikaram and its story or the variations of its core theme have been dramatically recreated in many art forms including cinema, all of them following an illustrative approach. Following an uncommon style, Abul Kalam Azad is providing a re-reading of the epic in the contemporary context. His works converge, diverge, and at times runs parallel to the classical tragedy, both providing vital information about the culture and lifestyle of their own times. Culture – that continuously changing complex whole, is usually acquired by a group of people at a particular time, either through natural progression or through external force. It is often used politically as a tool of the elites to manipulate the lower classes and create a false consciousness, and certain societies remain chained by these symbolisms. Silappathikaram, believed to have been composed/compiled two thousand years ago was one such tool that had deeply penetrated the southern Indian mindset. In this series, Abul juxtaposes the still lingering bits and pieces of the sangam society’s culture and tradition with the shifting social reality. His parallax vision of the epic and contemporary society is not exotic; the aesthetics is not that of the forlorn foreign perspective – he is more than a mere spectator. Abul’s view of this influential text necessitates further reading. Metabolism of culture, a series of writings by Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi is one such attempt to deconstruct the images and decipher the hidden meanings and layers of thought behind these seemingly simple and straightforward monochrome images.

“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, Silappathikaram

This particular image of the horse was taken by Abul Kalam Azad in modern day Pukar1. There is no record of the identity of 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 too will fade away. The names of most of the artists and sculptors who had contributed towards the building of the famed South Indian temples/palaces are not known. Their works are held as a credit to the patron dynasty, the ‘history’ (meaning his-story, the king’s) of whom is 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), has made the creators of these ancient exquisite art works ‘irrelevant’.

As the tradition dictates, this stucco sculpture is not ‘signed’ by anybody either, even though it is not that old. Stucco techniques have been known to sculptors for millennia. Some historians opine that the pyramids (approx. 4000 years ago) were plastered originally white. The Greek and Romans are known to have used stucco in constructions and sculptures. It must be during this period that Sangam era Tamils (the predecessors of modern south Indians) learnt this technique, through maritime traders. Numerous imperial Chola period temples have their facades 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. One 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 (Chennai) in 1904, and within a decade it became the standard use due to their low cost. Since then, this sort of painted cement sculptures have been decorating the façades and premises of the new temples; standing in stark contrast to the granite and bronze sculptures that were built to withstand for a longer period.

In all probability, this sculpture will fall apart within two or three decades. The ancient artisan guilds that had carved the Chola sculptures that dates back to 8th century CE, has today limited its artistic endeavors to the creation of something that has 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, while in many countries stucco has become unpopular with the modern architects, to the extent that there were widespread movements to remove it from existing tenements.

Now, in this image what we can see is only the back of the horse statue. The uncommon square format is problematic – the space being lesser, compared to that of the usual rectangular format, the possibilities are restricted. Only an adept photographer can play around 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. Hailing from a Tamil family generally known as ‘Rowuthar’ (the native name given to equestrian Arabic warriors, who were also involved in horse trade), it is possible that he is subconsciously drawn to animals. To Abul, these are ‘taboos’ and ‘totemic’ animals having symbolic mythological and mythical connections. They become a holy to one and taboo to another. His ‘animals’ are shown in parts, laden with meanings or simply because that’s 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 could be found in the megalithic cave paintings in Marayur, Tamil Nadu. Historians claim that the traveling artists guilds could have gotten the knowledge from Harappa and Mohenjadaro, as horses were not introduced in this part of South India at least until the Iron age (1000BCE). This opinion is also countered by several other historians, as there are no clear evidences of the presence of horses in Indus valley civilization 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 when maritime trade was at its peak. The Port of Pukar was one 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, and largely served as the hip-hop point, where the traveling ships anchored. The Cauvery’s perennial fresh waters and inter-connected network of waterways enabled the emergence of a flourishing civilization around it.

The culturally rich ancient Tamil land, was united by their cultural and literary tradition, yet divided in their power – conquests and endless fighting over wealth and territory was 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 much preferred by these rulers and dacoits – prized for their speed and endurance.

Silappathikaram narrates the Chera King Cenguttuvan’s mighty cavalry. In one scene, the hero Kovalan whilst parading with his lady love Matavi, was described to be riding on a mule, the genetic hybrid first bred by the ancient Turks (around 6000 BCE). Horses have been part of many native rituals as well.* Offering terracotta horses to agamic (pre-vedic) deity 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.  Pottery inscription in Tamil-Brahmi dating to 1st century CE, in the name Catan has been found at Port Quseir-al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. Silapathikaram also describes about Catan cult that is intrinsically related to Aiyanar or Sasta worship practices and details the animal and human sacrificial offerings performed there. We can assume that Aiyanar probably was a mighty local warrior, ruler, or a village guard who was fond of horses. The superstitious belief that even now the mythical Aiyanar rides on his horse at night and protect the villagers is prevalent amongst 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. He has chosen a frame that includes an array of objects and details – the fragment of the horse, the wide coastal landscape, piles of tetra pods, a water can, the bunch of electric wires becomes the signifier of contemporary life…. The distracting tetra pods piled together to dissipate the powerful waves indeed looks like an installation of interlocked phallic objects – and along with the erect penis of the warrior horse, they become symbolic representation of men and power. The epic Silappathikaram describes the sweet and ever flowing River Cauvery that merges into the ocean in Pukar and until two years ago, the fresh Cauvery water still reached here, irrigating the several acres of agricultural land and households. Since Indian independence, the south Indian land and its people have been divided into different states based on their language preferences. Its topography and culture has gone through to enormous changes, in tune with changing global phenomenon. Two thousand years ago, when this text is believed to have been composed, this area was united by its language and culture. The cities and towns along the river bed were fertile and agriculture was a major occupation. Here, the presence of a mineral water can, although a very recent phenomenon, suggests an altogether different scenario – the scarcity of fresh water.


[1] Ancient flourishing port city of Pukar comprised of about 30 villages, extending around 76.8 square kilometres 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.

Men of Pukar © Abul Kalam Azad 2017. For More Images Log InText © Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi

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. Abul’s works makes an active intervention in the common illustrative discourse of cultural history. Using the same tool, photography, that chisels history out of a block of ‘real’ human experiences, Abul makes a parody of it.

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.