hoto archive is an initiative by EtP that archives the life and work of contemporary photographers. The project has begun with contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad. As part of this initiative, EtP had organised a video documentation of Abul Kalam Azad’s photo shoot at Koovagam, is a small village in Tamil Nadu that comes alive annually for the Koothandavar festival, which takes place during Chithra Poornima at a small stone temple dedicated to Iravan (Aravan in Tamil). The Koothantavar cult is an ancient Tamil folklore tradition that venerates Aravan, the deity of Third Genders. Legend has it that Aravan agreed to be the sacrificial victim for the Kalappali (literally “sacrifice to the battlefield”) to ensure victory for the Pandavas, but requested to be married before his death so that he would be eligible for funeraral rights and cremation. Bachelors of that time were customarily buried, not cremated. With no woman volunteering to marry Aravan in the face of guaranteed widowhood, Krishna assumed the form of Mohini, married Aravan and spent the night with him, consummating the marriage. Aravan was sacrificed, and Mohini lamented the death, breaking her bangles, beating her breasts and discarding her bridal finery. This epic scene is re-enacted by the Transgenders and other devotees who take part in the Kottantavar festival that happens every year in the full moon of Tamil month Chithra (April – May). The gathered transgenders and devotees take part in the ritual marriage, which permeates a joyful celebrative mood, followed by the apparent death of ‘Aravan’, which is expressed in dramatic mournings and profound sadness. The now “widowed” Thirunangais, with their hair dishevelled, lament the death of Aravan by breaking their bangles, beating their breasts and discarding their bridal finery, akin to the legend of Mohini-Krishna. They cut their thalis, which are flung at a post erected for the ceremony (vellikal). After bathing, they put on white saris as a mark of their widowhood. Thirunangais, wives of the epical Aravan, are revered as social widows, sacred and divine. Traders, travellers, police, villagers, sex workers and many other devotees also take part in this festival and the crowd is made up of professionals and pleasure seekers of all kinds. The grand celebration of marriage followed by dance, music, sacrifice, love, sex, ecstasy, sorrow and widowhood is performed dramatically, as an unspoken symbol of the acceptance of sexual ambivalence.
Since 2010, due to his interest in the lives of subaltern people as well as the mother goddess cult rituals and practices, Abul has been documenting the Third Genders and other common people who take part in this ancient cult festival. This year, Abul used large format view camera to document third genders and commoners who take part in the ritualistic marriage offering. Koovagam festival has been documented by quite a few Indian and International photographers. However, photographers over the years have tended to be graphic when dealing with subjects that have taboos attached to them, in many cases sexualising the subject to an extent of almost obliterating the other aspects of the personality or the topic being dealt with. Photography has come to mean, at some levels, a celebration of the exotic – exotic to the photographer and presented as such to the audience. Such an approach does not facilitate a deep understanding of the subject, or a human connection with the characters, but simply creates a spectacle – a visual treat with no real humanism. In Abul’s photographs, the transgender characters who appear in the frame are not exotic nudes, but everyday folk, and cross dressers smile at the camera, in complete comfort with the artist and the surroundings. The non-graphical images create a silence, a phenomenon originally implicit to the medium of photography, but increasingly ignored with the created loudness of commercialised works. The presence of Thirunangais forms only a part of the scene that the series explore which is of the cult and its rituals. Abul does not intervene in his capacity as an artist, even to the extent of influencing the available lights, but takes part in the festival as a fellow human being.
The three day photo-shoot began on 21st April and was concluded on 23rd April 2016. In the absence of a state of art lab, Abul has processed the films by converting a bathroom to a temporary dark room. He says, “Even a make-shift toilet could be used to process professional analog photography. To me analogue medium is not alternative, but creating our own lab using the existing resources is indeed an alternative practice”. It was indeed a moment of heightended tension and momentous pride to see the process and developed negatives. It was memorable experience, and we thank Abul for his dedication and efforts to create these visuals with such limited resources and support structure. We also thank Project 365 photographer Thierry Cardon, for lending the large format view camera for the photo shoot as well as for supporting us with films and bountiful good wishes.
EtP had also organised a video documentation of the shoot (Link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1b8bFdGXflQ ). Our sincere thanks to all the team members. Abul has titled his series “War Wedding Widows” and we intend to bring out a fully illustrated multi-color photo book. This book and the documentation is being done as part of EtP PHOTO ARCHIVE project, that archives the life and work of contemporary photographers. We also have plans to establish a fully functional community photo lab for young and professional photographers to explore the analogue medium.