India is a land of a billion stories, largely left untold for lack of a narrator or documenter. In every village, town and city of this vast and culturally diverse country there are interesting stories waiting to be documented. Given the rapid change contemporary Indian society is undergoing, there is real danger of many of these stories being lost forever.
Photography is one of the means available that could be used to document such stories. Imagine if this is done in a focused manner in one town, one whole year long using emerging and well-known photographers! The potential for diverse narratives to emerge is manifold and exciting. Project 365, the brainchild of EtP (Ekalokam Trust for Photography) aims to do precisely that. Starting on August 15, India’s Independence Day, twenty-five emerging photographers will document the historic temple town of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. About fifteen well known photographers will also contribute to the project.
Appearing in recorded history from the ninth century onwards, the town of Tiruvannamalai has had a long and chequered history, having been part of many different kingdoms starting from the Pallavas and Cholas to the more recent British. It is best known for the Annamalaiyar Temple, around which the town developed. The town has an interesting connection to photographic history as it played host to the great Henri Cartier Bresson in the 1940s when he visited the town and photographed the spiritual guru Ramana Maharishi and the town’s inhabitants.
Now, Project 365 aims to bring the historic town more photographic attention. The twenty five photographers will seek to document urbanization, living spaces, the mystical life of shepherds, Saiva tradition, Jainism, Sufism, gender in Tamil culture and more during the course of the project.
To understand Project 365 and its aims, Aksgar’s Anil Cherukupalli undertook an email interview with the photographer and one of the co-founders of EtP as well as the Director of Project 365, Abul Kalam Azad.
Anil Cherukupalli: Congratulations on initiating this unique project! How did this idea come about? What was the motivation behind it?
Abul Kalam Azad: Thank you Anil.
It is EtP’s vision to document the ‘ancient tri-Sangam Tamilakam territory’, now meagerly represented in a geography comprising modern Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and parts of Andhra Pradesh. Tiruvannamalai, ancient South Indian heritage town, is selected for documentation during the first phase. During the next five years, EtP will document the ancient tri-Sanga ports Muziris (believed to be in Kondungallur), Tindis (believed to be in Kadalundi) and the entire Cauveri-delta culture and lifestyle.
To start with, EtP’s interest is to document this fast changing ancient town. Personally, I have been hearing about Tiruvannamalai since a very young age. The recurrent references to ‘Holy Hills’ during my cultural / religious upbringing always made me understand and respect nature worship. When I grew up, my first visit to Tiruvannamalai was incidental. Since then, I have been coming to this town frequently. To a photographer, this spiritual town is not an easy destination. However, I liked the landscape, light and lifestyle and it reminded me of ancient India in contemporary times. I started observing and photographing this town. However, for almost ten years I didn’t exhibit images of Tiruvannamalai. A part of me didn’t want to attract unwanted tourist attention to this ancient town; I was really concerned about the mystical dimension of this town having to bear the ignominy of being ‘groomed’ into a tourist destination.
During the recent years, we all know India is fast changing. This town is no exception. The fast changing landscapes and vanishing lifestyle made me re-consider my decision. In the absence of a comprehensive, non-biased, collective document, there is a possibility for our future generations to completely lose touch with our ancient landscape, lifestyle, culture and our mystical roots. Using the popularity and power of the medium of photography, I wanted to build our Nation’s visual treasure for posterity.
Also, rejuvenating the dying traditional photography processes and techniques is another area I am personally committed and passionate about. My interest is also to encourage EtP to initiate research to incorporate ‘Siddha’ knowledge in the yester-year hazardous processes and thus promote traditional photography techniques and processes.
AC: Why Tiruvannamalai? What made you choose this as the starting site for Project 365?
AKA: First of all, our Trust is registered in Tiruvannamalai. Second is the ancientness of this town. The first recorded history of the town dates back to the ninth century, as seen from Chola inscriptions in the Arunachaleshwar temple which states that the present masonry structure of the ancient temple was built during the same period by the Chola dynasty (from 850 CE to 1280 CE).
Thirdly, EtP’s main aim is to protect and promote contemporary photography. This town has one of the rarest collections of photographic prints (1880s – 1950) of eminent photographers PRS Mani, Dr. TN Krishnaswamy, GG Welling, Henri-cartier bresson, Eliot Elisofon and many other known and unknown photographers preserved by Sri Ramana Ashram photo archives. These images are pertinent to sage Ramana and the ashram that evolved around him. EtP wishes make its movement comprehensive by extending this service to other areas of this ancient town.
AC: How were the twenty five photographers who will contribute to Project 365 chosen?
AKA: This project was announced in social media network mid-June. EtP had devised interesting campaigns and messages that included information about master photographers who had visited Tiruvannamalai, catchy tid-bits about the town, its people and culture etc., The campaign was done in English and Tamil and within few weeks we received several hundred applications from all over India. The simple application included information regarding their background, concept within the broader framework of Tiruvannamalai / 365days and their preferred medium.
The potential photographers were short-listed, followed by a telephonic conversation. As the two prime objectives for EtP is to build our Nation’s visual treasure by documenting the fast-changing ancient culture and contemporary lifestyle; and rejuvenating traditional analog medium as a critical practice in contemporary photography practices, priority was given to photographers who had opted analogue medium with meaningful concept.
The project was open for photographers from diversified background and hence the Project 365 Team now has an interesting blend of photo artists, photo-journalists, amateur hobby, commercial and fashion photographers.
AC: What are your expectations from the photographers? What kind of work do you see coming out at the end of the project?
AKA: Most of the contemporary documentary photography and photo-journalism practices are done in digital form. Now-a-days, these images are most often not printed at all. Basically, photography is an ‘entity’, print-made. I wanted to encourage the traditional print-making techniques. More than mere one-button applications, I like to honour the making of photographic prints using time-tested diversified processes. Most of the photographers I have selected are passionate about experimenting with this medium and their subject. This public year-long photography project demands dedication and cultural interest from the photographers. I do believe my team will make historic images of the paradigm shift moment of this exemplar ancient town.
AC: If you were one of the contributing photographers what is the story that you would have liked to document? And why?
AKA: Of course, all the chosen concepts and stories… But then, how much can one photographer do???
AC: What role will the leading photographers play in the project?
AKA: The leading photographers are the strong pillars of this project. Apart from documenting the town, the leading photographers will also be sharing their experience and knowledge with the upcoming talents and local public. It is a great opportunity for the local rural Indian public to meet these great artists and enjoy contemporary photography.
AC: Twenty five photographers documenting a relatively small town over a year. Is there a danger of overkill or loss of quality? How will you guard against that?
AKA: Each of the project photographers have chosen their own project which is a continuation of their earlier interest / work. The chosen projects do not unduly overlap, and are very much interlinked within the broader framework of 365 and Tiruvannamalai. Also the photographers will be using diversified processes and multi-media approaches including painting over photographs, sandwiching text, pin hole etc., while there is no possibility for an overkill, overlaps would serve for seamless integration. I am sure these 25 projects will bring-out valuable body of work.
AC: The project is very ambitious and aims to achieve many different things, including a big exhibition and photo book at the end of the project. How easy or difficult has it been to find funds to support your vision and plans?
AKA: All missions are difficult. But it doesn’t mean it is impossible. EtP’s strategy is to raise funds from public. This phenomenal task of artistically creating locally based historic visual documents requires the support and solidarity of the public.
EtP has announced ‘Share a Rupee for Art’ campaign requesting support and solidarity of the public to this unique cultural initiative. We are also approaching other government and non-governmental art agencies to support this project.
AC: What are your plans on outreach? How will you ensure that the work coming out of Project 365 reaches a wide audience?
AKA: A grand exhibition of the Project 365 will be organized in Tiruvannamalai. In contemporary times, art initiatives are often centered in private houses and galleries in urban settings and do not reach the vast Indian audience. Every full moon, half-a million pilgrims visit the town to circumambulate the Holy Hill. EtP’s wholistic plans reach out to this resident rural and floating urban / international audience.
We belong to the lineage that properly believes ‘art is public property’, and that, more than as commodity, is a symbol of our culture and, therefore has to be owned and protected by the people. True to our art tradition, Project 365 will encourage public participation and create a locally placed permanent space to exhibit these valuable, individual copyrighted historic images for public access and use. EtP plans to partner with local government / other agencies / museums to permanently showcase the priceless document of the fast changing ancient culture and contemporary lifestyle.
The Project 365 exhibition will also move to other parts of the country and world. The publication is also another strategy to reach out to the wider audience. EtP plans to publish 25 miniature photography notebooks featuring the works of the photographers. The day-to-day use notebooks will ensure wider reach.
AC: When we last spoke, you mentioned that this is the just the beginning. Where will Project 365 go next?
AKA: As I had mentioned earlier, EtP vision is to document the ‘ancient tri-Sangam Tamilakam territory’. EtP has already announced their next five year plan to document Tiruvannamalai, ancient tri-Sanga ports Muziris (believed to be in Kondungallur), Tindis (believed to be in Kadalundi) and the entire Cauveri-delta culture and lifestyle. After completing this, EtP will announce their way forward.
AC: Contemporary photography in India currently is going through an exciting phase with lot of new work coming up. How do you see Project 365 making an impact on it?
AKA: Project 365 is a public photographic art project. That itself make bigger impact than all other individual / private efforts. This project is managed through public and individual donations. Public ownership of contemporary photography art is the vision behind this initiative. From a higher perspective this year-long initiative is itself a unique experiment of its kind in bringing together creative talents pursuing multifarious approaches fueled by diverse attitudes….all seeking graphic statement of Beauty and Elegance.
Using diversified techniques and processes is another added dimension. This is not one of those run off the mill site-specific photo mapping initiated in urban cities. Tiruvannamalai of rustic and mystic ambience is indeed an unusual location for photographic art initiatives.
Almost forty of us, for another whole year will be directing our energy towards collectively creating our Nation’s visual treasure.
Note: Aksgar is the online media partner of Project 365.