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.

“In a flower-topped hall of diamonded pillars
And under a blue-roofed pavilion
Hung with pearls, bridesgroom Kovalan
Married the maid, chaste as the star of stars,
Observing vedic rites, on priestly direction
At the blessed time of the conjunction
Of the moon and Rokini; the young pair
Walked round the sacred fire
Gazed on by eyes of wonder. ” – Ilango Adigal, Silappathikaram

One of the important early critical discourses on photography revolved around the question of photography as an art. Many theories and concepts supporting and opposing this view were discussed at length. These dialogues primarily tried to bring out an analogy between painting and photography and some even stood for the greatness of photography over painting, to an extent that the development of photography was perceived as a death knell to painting. On the contrary, painting was reinvigourated by the medium of photography, so much so that it influenced a myriad of artists like Ravi Varma, the renowned Indian painter – who used photographs as references to paint his famous portraits. photography’s challenge to the practice of painting was also immediately answered by the Impressionists, who revolutionized the medium with their experiments with colour and brushwork. The Fauvists were instrumental in de-linking colour from form, rendering their images with wild energy, disregarding finer details – which were easily achievable in photography. Pablo Picasso’s experiments in deconstructing the single-point perspective were a counter-argument by a painter stumped by a new medium that questioned his practice. Thus, photography and painting challenged one another, enhanced their practices and at times led to newer forms and expression, and within a century, the medium of photography had gained acceptance as an art, even though the critical debate on whether journalistic photography that are commissioned/published by magazines/dailies could be bracketed as works of art as well is still fresh.

The early critics of photography had the tendency to critique the medium informed by the same aesthetics as that of painting – by analyzing its technique, lighting, composition etc. In this nascent stage, attempts made to categorize photographers into different ‘schools of photography’ became futile, in the sense that the ground for such aesthetical evaluation could not be found in photography; a large body of photographic works by an individual did not necessarily mean a coherent style/approach and it became all the more superficial when efforts were made to group photographers into one particular school1. What was possible then, was a broad categorization of photography in terms of its function and presentation – pictorial, documentary, humanistic, street, fashion etc.

Presently, a hundred and eighty years after the advent of photography, with the innumerable images created by six generation of serious and amateur photographers, the medium has gained popularity comparable to music and poetry. There was a time when this medium, which immortalizes a fleeting moment, was considered to be a mere mechanical work that was easily replicable. But the masters of the medium had made it clear as to the complex thought process that makes each photograph distinct. Regardless of the easily decipherable style, technique, composition etc., distinctive ideas and philosophy influence the works of any serious photographer. It is possible that over the period, the ideas of an individual photographer could change – however, in any given time, grouping together and categorizing collective ideas as ‘schools of thought’ in photography seem to be the new way forward for deciphering this modern medium. One could say that photography has indeed reached the age of maturity.

Chiseling and showing only part of a visual experience is a recurrent style in Abul’s photographs. It was in his most popular Divine Façade series (done in the year 1994), that he first started employing this style. Here, a farmer (whose head is cropped out) is seen standing with his cow in front of the iconic Qutb Minar complex. In this powerful visual, the man (whose face is not visible) occupies the central position, while the architectural marvel looks dwarfed in comparison; emphasizing the importance of humanity over the iconic buildings – symbols in the name of which riots and mass killings are usually carried out. This and such other iconographical and symbolic fragments are not ‘hit or miss’ decisive moments, but premeditated. A man with an inquisitive mind, Abul argues and counter-argues his own point, and then strives to achieve a middle ground – an act of balancing, so to say. Infused with his own experience of contemporary social reality and prior knowledge on the subject at hand, he edits out the superfluous and re-adjusts his focus on the very core – and the resultant chiseled part embeds within it several layers of history, sociology, and issues of identity and polity.

In this photograph, the focus is on the bright white thread that hangs loosely across a man’s body. The practice of tying “sacred” threads as a mark of identity has a long history. There is no clear record as to its origins; however, many ancient tribes and ethnic clans have used magic-infused threads – often tied after an elaborate initiation ceremony. The followers of Iranian prophet Zoroaster tie a sacred thread called Kushti which is made of 72 white, woolen threads (representing 72 chapters of their scripture called Avesta), wound three times around the waist. The Tzitzit – four strands of white2 sacred thread, each made of 8 finer ones, attached to the four corners of their prayer shawl – is worn by Jews and Samaritans since antiquity.

Presently, in India, the Vishwakarma community (carpenters, blacksmiths, bronzesmiths, goldsmiths and stonemasons; also known as Vishwa Brahmin), Chettiyars, Jains, and the Brahmins wear the sacred thread in this fashion. This photograph shows very little, like any other chiseled image, but the frame includes the agarbathi and other pooja materials. It is this little detail that gives away the identity of the man in the photograph – a Brahmin priest, the tribe that continues to reserve the exclusive right to do pooja and conduct rituals. The thickness of the thread (specifically, the number of strands) gives information regarding the various stages of a man’s life3.

Controversy surrounds the origin of Brahmin clans, which is divided into ‘gotras’4, 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). The Brahmins who also knew how to read and write were originally ‘assigned’ the responsibility – which in later days fabricated to become their exclusive right – to teach, hold positions related to maths and arithmetic, be the official scribes, conduct rituals and of other jobs related to science and meteorology. Although there was scientific knowledge in the South, the Brahmins had applied it better in astronomy and mathematics. At that time – 2500 years ago or “a million years ago” as they claim – this knowledge/skill they possessed was redoubtable, advanced and progressive. They had in their sleeve information and analytical skills that were very much required for dealing with every aspect of governance. The ‘right time’ for starting a gruesome invasion, for sowing the seeds, for starting endless travels across land and sea etc., needed to be carefully charted out. Today, it is this outdated science, combined with mythology, which is being passed off as astrology. Quick to pick up new knowledge, they easily learnt the Ayurveda medicinal practice, a 5500 year old tradition that was developed into a complete system during the period of Buddha, and the priests doubled as ‘medicine men’.

The spread of Brahmin cult in South India was a slow process. Here, cults based on the worship of the mother goddess of fertility (Kotravai) and Murugan, the son of Kotravai (who was later appropriated by the Vedic Brahmins, and re-cast as the son of Siva and Parvati) was more rooted. While phallus worship was prevalent at that time, the Shiva-Shakthi philosophy was unheard of. Each member of the household was conducting their own prayer and women played a major role in the rituals – offering flowers to their gods. In stark contrast, women played a much more suppressed role in Vedic society. Furthermore, the main role of the Vedic corpus was to vest the exclusive right to conduct rituals on the Brahmin men. But, the early settlers neither had the scriptures nor rigid practices to uphold their nature worship.

Soon, armed with their scriptures and by incorporating the local tradition and appropriating many of the native practices/deities including the fertility cult and worship of phallic objects, the Brahmin tribe started influencing the rulers of ancient Tamilakam, especially the Ceras and the Colas, who were followers of Jainism. The Pandyas were Buddhist and were reluctant to accept this philosophy, especially the elaborate rituals. Cilappathikaram, written by Ilango Adigal, who was born to a Cera princess and Cola King, starts with the marriage ceremony of Kannaki and Kovalan, officiated by a priest. The propagation of the epic amidst the commoners through various art forms led to the popular acceptance of marriage (and other Vedic rituals) as well as the superiority of the priest clan. During this process of assimilation and hybridization, human/animal sacrifices, eating beef, drinking alcohol etc. were stopped which laid the foundation for normalizing the Sanatana Dharma – which is falsely attributed the title of ‘Hinduism’ and is marketed as a religion, today.

The chiseled image also includes the spatik mala – a crystal rich with minerals, the knowledge of which the Brahmins possessed – which was originally worn by almost all the South Indians, is now exclusively considered as a ‘Hindu’ symbol. This priest in the photograph is conducting the ceremony – at the now dried-up Cauvery river bed – with all the ‘required’ instructions detailed in their Vedic literature. In all probability, he would have been reciting a hymn from the Vedas with proper rhythm/intonation. It is this practice that allowed them to excel in music – during the classical period, their efforts elevated singing/instruments as a separate entity, independent of dance/drama to which they primarily served as mere accompaniment. These lakshana vidhwans (connoisseurs) were expected to achieve aesthetical perfection. Trained to look at everything with a critical eye, they are more attuned to find discordant notes and off-beat rhythms, which would lead to untoward material damages as per the Vedas/classical scriptures.

As it is proudly claimed, it is not sure exactly when the Vedas were originally composed, the hymns, prayers and ritual prescriptions were not altered much and it was studiously passed from one generation to another, orally at first and later, probably during the medieval times it was committed to scriptural forms. Even after it was compiled in written form, secrecy was maintained – lest its not-so-metaphysical aspects become known to all. In fact, a major part of the text strives to address the challenges faced by a nascent civilisation that had just shifted from pastoral economy to an agrarian one. It comprises of several hideous rituals and some of its parts are outrageously obscene.

It is important to note here that most of the Vedic hymns were written by the ruling class and the Brahmins, and unsurprisingly, it systematically vested more power and privilege in their hands – kings as gods on Earth, and the Brahmins who spoke the god’s language as the only mediators between the gods on Earth and God in heaven. Thus, they enjoyed better status and more privilege; and by introducing the concept of ‘purity/impurity by birth’, they reserved a special place for themselves, forever, which the kings were also happy to reinforce, as their children and so forth would be ensured a crown no matter what, as opposed to the ancient practice of being selected/elected by the tribal assemblies.

The Vedas also clearly specified the fees and donations to be made to the priest – cows, land, and women – and the benefits of doing so. In pastoral economy, the wealth was largely measured in terms of the number of cattle one possessed, especially bovines. For these ice-age fire worshipers, the cow was all the more sacred – it provided them ghee, an essential ingredient for kindling fire. When the agricultural economy became more stabilized, the value of land grew exponentially, which the priests openly demanded and received aplenty from the kings and the landlords. However, they were not the ones cut out for hard labour and they needed somebody else to do the job – the war criminals/victims, who were ostracized from the society became the ideal labourers, and eventually, the menial jobs were vested with these groups. The rulers and the Brahmins relegated them to sub-human status – with the help of the Vedas. At this juncture, they concentrated their efforts to excel as a priest, lawmakers, and musicians, and discontinued certain other practices, medicine for example, as it required ‘touching’ the patients and involved the use of alcohol and meat. They demanded a settlement, separate from the rest, often close to the temples.

Our dark-skinned priest here must be a Saivite – the one who believes in the Advaita philosophy propagated by the 8th century philosopher and theologian Adi Sankara as part of the Bhakthi Revival movement that started in the 6th century CE. The other sect is the Vaishnavites, the believers of monism – the doctrine that only one Supreme Being exists. Both these sects quote Bhagavad Gita to confirm their philosophies – yet, ironically, they squabble over whose philosophy is superior. Their gods also quarrel – Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma – over who is superior. It is interesting to note that there is also a similar triad of quarreling gods in Greek mythology – Zeus, the god of thunder, Poseidon, the lord of the seas, and Hades, master of the underworld – who, at times, unite to deal with a larger problem. It is also important to know that in the Vedas, Indra was the most important god, and the trinity found very little mention, a clear evidence of the clan’s adoption of many its values, philosophies, and gods to reflect the prevailing social reality in order to retain their upper hand.

Claiming superiority over the rest has been a constant attribute exhibited by this clan – just like any other ancient tribes. The physically weak and lazy Brahmin tribe used their knowledge, intellect, and philosophy to combat the fighting tribes – like the Jews who claim that they are genetically intellectually superior. It was Ramanujar, who first opposed the divisive Vedic idea of Varna system and encouraged people from different caste/class groups to be initiated. He openly shunned his own community’s hegemony and its superstitious and ritualistic practices. It did create a ripple, however, when the Cera, Cola, and Pandya rule and their Jain/Buddhist philosophy declined, and the decentralized small powers called Nayaks (local chieftains) took control, who with the lack of experience and exposure, heavily depended on the ‘priests’ and their ‘supernatural’ rituals to retain power, wealth, and expansion of their territory. This period, at the dawn of the 12th century, marked the beginning of a serious caste struggle – with the number of war victims and slaves multiplying; and this land endured its worst nightmare for another four centuries. During colonial rule, as is their nature, the Brahmins were close to the imperial powers and the traders, and enforced their divisive philosophy. Even now, there are many instances of caste-based violence and the ‘double tumbler’5 system is in practice – in Pukar as well.

The postmodern deliberations on ‘identity’ were progressive – it aimed at addressing the issue from the view of the minority in coalition with the majority, by bringing out the shared aspects of their identity. As many critics have pointed out, the approach merely left the people more engrossed and stay put in their differential status. In India, even after so much of scientific advancements, the Brahmin clan stick to their self-projected superiority and wear their symbols of identity with pride, just like any other tribal group – and those who were considered ‘lower’, remain the same way, holding on to their imposed inferiority. This causes a victim-perpetrator relationship – each accusing the other, influenced by the centuries-old pity and rage. There seem to be no mutual grounds whatsoever that would resolve this issue altogether. The deliberations are not bringing out the truth that these are mere social structures, springing out of the primitive mind with the view to gain control over the land and its people. Even now, the people who were put in the category of lower caste – the hard-working labourers, aspire to become ‘socially’ higher (even if some of them have already climbed up the economic ladder), by learning Vedas and becoming a priest, or in the contrary outrightly degrading the ‘good qualities’ of the Brahmin clan.

This chiseled image, however, is neither accusing nor glorifying any idea. It shows a simple man from an ancient clan, deeply involved in his ritualistic practice, trying to meet his economical needs, grudgingly holding on to a dogmatic science and philosophy – like any other archaic scripture-based tribes/clans, their clock is stuck in a timeloop several centuries behind the contemporary society – in the same age that their books were compiled.


[1] On Photography by Susan Sontag | [2] Earlier Jews were using a thread with blue dye | [3] Three strands for Brahmachari. Six after marriage. Nine after having a child. Twelve after age 60 | [4] Genealogy has always been an area of interest to the Brahmins and they considered themselves as superior by birth – by tracing their origin to a particular ancient or legendary sage. This way, originally the Brahmin clan was divided into eight gotras. Later, many other ancestral sages were added in the genealogical list and the main gotras were subdivided into 49 gotras[3]. These ancestral sages not necessarily belonged to a particular race and many modern genealogist opine that the Brahmin clan could not considered as a separate race, but that there had a intermingling between people of different skin tone since time immemorial and that accounts for them of having different facial and physical features. Initially, marriage within a gotra was allowed, however, observing that it was causing physical disabilities, marriage within a gotra was prohibited. | [5] The practice of untouchability, in which separate glasses for lower, middle and upper caste people are given in tea shops and hotels

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.