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 proud peasants sing in elation
Having great faith in their occupation:
Their god is the god of the plow
Which they garland with lily,
Aruku grass and bunches of paddy;
In this season of much affluence
Even the drummers and the musicians
Play on merrily sounding soft and loud
In sheer artistic indulgence.” – Ilango Adigal, Silappathikaram

The man in the photograph has just completed his ritualistic oblation that includes a dip in the holy Cauvery. The saltiness of the water must have been a surprise for him. He may have realized that it was not the pure fresh waters of Cauvery – a pre-requisite for a ritual of this nature. Or probably, it did not matter much to him. He was simply going through the motions as prescribed by the priest – without giving heed to the fact that Cauvery waters didn’t reach here, as it should have. It did not reach last year as well.

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. The last rites of the deceased are performed here during every new moon day, and the asthi (ash) is immersed and allowed to dissolve in the river. This and other rituals performed at River Cauvery are mentioned in the epic Silappathikaram, supposedly composed about two thousand years ago. The rituals still continue, even though Cauvery’s waters do not reach here anymore.

Rituals and worships around rivers and other natural elements are found in many civilizations. Their origin dates back to ancient times. Recent genetics studies confirm what historians and linguistic experts have long opined – the migration of humans from the African region approximately 55,000 to 65,000 years ago. These migratory groups, for easy navigation and safety stayed close to the coast – and took only little diversions here and there for accessing food/water. This must have enabled them to track fresh water/food trails and retract when they were met with impossible terrains or other dangers. At some point during their endless journey, our ancient travelers would have recognized the rarity and preciousness of fresh surface water that accounts for about 0.01% of all the water available on Earth. A darshan (meeting) with fresh water is a sight they may have craved during their long walks and would have celebrated this occasion, thanking the unseen superpower that had answered their call for help. They may have danced; hunted an animal and made customary offerings. Then, sat around and enjoyed the feast.

Early humans were nature worshippers. The everyday challenges posed by the changing weathers and terrains led them to believe in a higher power that controls and directs these powerful manifestations and phenomena of nature. Death is another aspect that would have eluded their reasoning and to justify these projected “out-of-this” world, superhuman happenings, they developed different explanations and concepts, which in due course became rigid practices/rituals passed down from one generation to another – followed with no question asked whatsoever. The thoughts, ideas, concepts and rituals proposed by philosophers of a bygone era took the form of extra-ordinary shapes, forms and expressions through the imaginative minds and skillful hands of artists – the beginning of folklore, traditional art forms like dance, theatre, drama and the visual art forms like sculpture and painting. The personification process happened at a much later stage and was often indicative of the matriarchal or patriarchal societal structure of that particular community or ethnic group, while a few mythical creatures were presented gender-neutral.

Life changed for the traveling groups, when they started organized cultivation. They became settlers. In the beginning, they opted to settle near fresh waterfronts – for irrigating the crops as well as rearing animals. Civilizations started growing around it. Different types of occupations evolved – a few specialized in farming, the rest in fishing or cattle rearing or hunting. Tools and equipments – including pottery – started developing. The excess produces were shared in the beginning stages and were later traded. With trading, land grabbing started and eventually the culture of defining “territories” came about. Fights between different territories, stealing and dacoit were becoming commonplace. The gods became more powerful and ferocious. The settlements evolved into what as we know today as “Nakaram”, with streets, specific places for market, worship etc. started developing during the classical period. New heights were reached in farming as well as maritime travel. For all these purposes, predicting the changing seasons was imperative.

Astrology, one of the earliest forms of calendar system based on mathematics and lunar cycles, was used by the early migratory groups and settlers to predict seasonal shifts. This knowledge started developing in many cultures simultaneously – with similar ideas but different in their specifics, largely due to their different landscape and time zones. Zodiac signs and the deities associated with that were native to each region. Among Indo-Europeans, astrology has been dated to the 3rd millennium BCE. Forming about 1000 years later, Babylonian astrology was the first organized system of astrology. They had developed arithmetic techniques for calculating astronomical phenomena. Later, Greek astronomers had developed geometric models for calculating celestial motions.  It was Ptolmey (CE 100 –170) who proposed the geocentric model of Navakrahangal (9 celestial bodies) – considering Earth as the centre and sun as one of the planets. In fact, Anaxagoras and Aristarchus of Samos who had lived few hundred years before Ptolmey (around 450 – 200 BCE) had suggested the heliocentric model, which was rejected outright. And 1800 years later, Giordano Bruno was burnt alive for theoretically ascertaining the heliocentric theory. It went against what The Bible prophesized – a blasphemous idea at the time. However, within a few hundred years, through the works of many other modern scientists, the distance between sun and other planets were measured accurately and finally Sun was accepted as a star.

Thus, the theoretical basis of astrology was disproved by scientists and this scholarly tradition lost its academic standing and became redundant in the modern context. However, by 20th century, they had been re-packaged and popularized as a tool that predicts and foretells the life of humans based on the position of celestial bodies. It was the amalgamation of Indian and Hellenistic cultures during the Sangam period that influenced much of this present day “horoscopic” astrological system. It took prominence in the Northern parts of India, and through maritime trade, it started spreading to South India. Scientific progress did not find a place in this system – sun is still a planet, and along with other planets it is believed to affect the fortunes of humans. Advocated by the priests/godmen, rituals and offerings to deities associated with these celestial bodies are done to “mitigate” bad positions. In fact, they have become rigid dogmas strictly adhered to, irrespective of their relevance in the postmodern world. There is a vested interest in continuing this tradition – without which, religious factions and related businesses cannot survive. Education would set the masses free. It was this strategy of hiding the knowledge of mathematics and scientific developments in the name of ‘divine secrecy’ that made people fear and believe in the superhuman concepts and philosophy. By predicting the occurrence of rain or full moon through straightforward mathematical calculations and observing “time”, but delivering the messages as ‘divine revelations’ sent from the heavens, the elite were promoting cultural hegemony – then and now.

The man in the photograph is busy completing his ritualistic responsibilities. He may have lost one of his parents, or his dear wife or his own son or daughter. This particular ceremony may have offered him some solace for his grief. It may help him to come to terms with reality. Two thousand years ago, when this ritual was performed, Cauvery was flowing in all her glory. The seventy hundred and sixty five kilometer stretch was blessed with her magic touch. She made the lands fertile, she provided drinking water to the people, she never failed the animals and birds who relied on her, she nourished the fishes and other living beings, she made trading possible – with ships anchored at the bay, goods were transferred throughout the inland south Indian surroundings through her intricately- connected delta. Praising her nurturing nature, several places of worship were built along the riverside, which also served as trade centers.

Contemporary Pukar is no longer a flourishing trade center, although fish is still exported. Until recently, agriculture was a major occupation and the majority of South Indian demands for rice were met by produces from Cauvery river delta. This scene would change soon, as the farmers were dependant on Cauvery for irrigation. Since the first Kallanai (stone dam) built by the Cholas (6th – 8th century CE), about 100 more dams have been built across her course – disrupting the flow. While the man made dams serve the other intended purposes – over the last two years, water has not reached the mouth. Several acres of farmlands are left barren and with the failing rains, the situation progressively getting worse. With Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in a constant tug of war, it appears that there is no solution. Whether it is a man made disaster, or the result of poor management or a situation fuelled by the politicians or a natural course that happens every now and then – the reality is that the fertile marutham (cropland) landscape is slowly becoming a palai (desert) land.

The man in the photograph would not have felt any responsibility towards this changing time. He may not even be aware of these. Even if he was, he may have thought it all as divine curse or “fate”, so to say. He may have gone back to his home, which could be a couple of hundred kms from Pukar, contemplating death. But, the non-decaying threads of the flowers, the plastic covers and other accessories that he had left behind will remain. It may add to the already happening disaster, causing further deaths – to the fishes, to the birds, animals and other living beings, to the ecological system…

Will this action-filled image be a testimony to the dying holy river?

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.