In January this year, Ouso Chakola, spent a week capturing the bustle around the auspicious Mahashivratri festival at Tiruvannamalai, the temple town in Tamil Nadu. The 34-year-old photographed the rituals, the chaos around the Ramana Ashram and the casting of concrete into new statues of gods and goddesses. “The problem with such places is the exoticism,” he rues. “You have white tourists thronging (the place) and coffee table books touting it as the most beautiful temple in the world. Amidst that imagery, there are bigger problems, like sculptures being made using electric stone cutters and frescoes getting refurbished with shiny emulsion paint,” he says.
Chakola’s show, The Unimportant Histories of Architecture, which premiered at Mumbai’s Clark House Initiative last month, aims to capture the newer aesthetics that are taking over temples and their complexes in south India.
“It’s worth pondering if contemporary art is becoming an enemy of this country’s great legacy and culture,” says Sumesh Sharma, curator at the Clark House Initiative, who has worked closely with the Kochi-based photographer for the past six months.
Sixty photographs flank the white-and-grey walls of the Colaba gallery, the colour-stained effect lending them an antiquated quality, while the smeared edges make several of the images look like paintings. There is a picture of an intricately-carved temple dome of Tiruvannamalai, with sculptures of Lord Ram and a bare-breasted Sita, and a striking visual of a hand-crafted wooden chariot outside a temple in Ayodhyapattinam. The intricately-carved chariot, beautiful in spite of its dilapidated state, and a highlight of the temple town in the Salem district of Tamil Nadu, is likely to be replaced. “I’ve heard that a shiny, new motorised chariot will take the place of the wooden original. Since its wheels had given way, people believe it has lost its significance,” says Chakola.
“The Tiruvannamalai was sculpted during the early Chola period in the ninth century. But today, many families of the traditional sculptors work with imported granite and marble, using heavy electric stone cutters to produce more statues in lesser time . They also give them a European form. Due to this, the conceptual abilities that define Dravidian architecture, passed down from generations are losing their significance,” says Sharma.
Chakola chose to render his prints using alternative methods of printing — cynotypes, van dykes, argotypes and gum-bichromate — to showcase the traditional methods. “With pictures looking and feeling the same everywhere, photography is increasingly getting homogenised. I wanted to give a hands-on, tactile
painting quality to my images,” says Chakola, who studied these alternative processes of photography at Monash University in Melbourne.
The process is long-drawn: a chemical mix (pigments and sensitiser) is painted on watercolour paper. The negative of the print is then placed on the paper, and sandwiched between a piece of wood and glass. It is then exposed to sunlight. “It leads to these beautiful effects, where brush strokes become visible,” says Chakola, pointing to a series of three images of a devotee in front of a billowing puja flame that appears like a white painted cloud.
The recently-concluded show features Chakola’s work from his residency at the Ekalokam Trust for Photography (ETP), an organisation that works to preserve and popularise photography and other art forms in collaboration with Clark House Initiative, earlier this year. The Unimportant Histories of Architecture will soon travel to other Indian cities.