The Recovery issue of PIX — a photography quarterly — also has lots to read, including my poem “Tin Men”. Also includes poems by Annie Zaidi, Sumana Roy, Anindita Sengupta, Anand Thakore and an essay by Prayaag Akbar, as well as several wonderful photo features.
It used to be that the self-portrait was a revolutionary thing, a means of staking out the claim of the individual in a world where the common and communal ruled roost. In the birthday week of Frida Kahlo, the high priestess of exactly such behaviour, it might be nice to remember this – the power of the personal story and the documentation of the personal journey in an impersonal world. But people-watching at a tapas joint sometime last week, as a trio of girls passed their digicam repeatedly to the waiter and pursed their lips in that unsmiling expression popularly known as “sexyface”, I began to wonder: has the era of self portraiture as a genuine milestone marker made way for the era of self portraiture as farce?
There are photographs in which the beauty of the work lies almost entirely in the anonymity of the subject – devoid of name, stripped to only their appearance at the exact moment of capture – faces and bodies become illuminated with the pathos of multiple interpretations. But not so, in the age of having images of yourself tagged on social networking sites almost before you get home from the event. Almost as if to make up for all the unidentified faces ever caught on film, we snap, label and overshare with a vengeance.
The photograph as object in itself? Rarely. The photograph as proof, as social lubricant, as currency, as device? Constantly.
Why are we so obsessed with this constant clicking? Perhaps it’s the novelty of it – a camera is no longer a luxury in the average middle class home, and the virtual obsoleteness of film rolls empowers one with endless retakes, easy editing and instant gratification, every time. It’s no longer just special occasions that are recorded, but more often than not, the truly mundane. Take the phenomenon of photographing food – you’ve surely observed groups order large portions of food, take pictures of and with the dishes, and then leave most of them uneaten. I wonder sometimes if people really go on holiday just for fun anymore, or for the sake of the Facebook album (or three) that might result. The experience no longer seems to count, only the evidence of it.
I won’t lie – I’m as narcissistic as the next person, and cam-whoring is terrific fun. But it might pay to remember that in the early days of photography, some cultures mistrusted the camera, believing it to be a soul-sucking device. Just watch how a less than cozy bunch will transform for the flash – embracing, kissing or posing with a passion which, if it truly existed, would be very unlikely to occur with all eyes turned to the camera. I don’t know about an absence of soul – but a faking of spirit is obvious.
In our hurry to archive our daily doings, and even to engineer our visual catalogs to give the impression of a certain kind of life or personality, I wonder what happens to the symbolic value of the photograph as preservation. With so extensive a catalog of memories, will we stop cherishing images as we once used to? How long will it be before we reach a point of saturation where if something has not been recorded, it almost seems not to have happened at all in any significant way?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.
Without going into details, I was attacked last week and left with gashes on my chest which required medical attention and an injection. They were inflicted on me at the beginning of a nightmarish evening, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at the damage for myself until the next day. What happened then surprised even me.
Streaked across my decolletage, above my heart, were three bright, stinging maroon gashes. The deepest and longest rose from near my armpit like a wave unfurling in a torrent of movement. The one beside it looped in a small knot somewhere at the start of its trajectory. The last was shortest and extended almost directly under my suprasternal notch, that evocative hollow at the base of the throat. They were unequivocally, unexpectedly, beautiful.
Resting beside them on a thin silver chain was the rose quartz I had purchased just hours before the attack. I’d bought it to heal my heart chakra, and the literal effect – the surgery, if you will – laid bare across my flesh was not lost on me. Healing is rarely subtle work. I trust that which hurts.
Between the scarlet of the scarring and the calm pink of the quartz, dramatized against the brown of my skin, the only logical thing for me to do was to reach for my camera.
In the photographs that emerged, I look serene where my face can be seen. Where it cannot be seen I am all clavicle and throat, whisper of cleavage, shadow and light. The gashes tether every picture.
I know all about the documentation of scars. I’ve always found catharsis in creativity, in taking the trauma of a situation and subverting it. It is a manner of control, of reclamation, of hijacking Pavlovian associations before they fully form and replacing them with artistic ones. It is the duty of the artist to interrogate every experience. But although I had experimented with the subject of the self, in particular the wounded self, in a variety of disciplines – from autobiographical writing to self-portraiture in oil painting, and the body itself in dance – my photographic self-portraits had never been driven by anything but vanity. The horror of the scarring, however, and the overwhelming sensuality of their placement, had me transfixed.
Most people who saw the photographs reacted with horror. “I can’t look at it, Sharanya – I’m sorry, I just can’t,” friend after friend told me. I’m certain there were some who reacted with a different kind of horror – appalled at my exhibitionism, perhaps. I am very well aware that what to me was a meditation on pain, a means of negotiating with the multiple complexities of an event that had left me shaken and hurt in more ways than one, was for others just victim vogue.
The responses intrigued me. I had shared these photos not to shock people, but because it was truly healing for me to have taken them. Those close to me, I realised, were reacting to the violence I had experienced, and not to the process by which I was dealing with it. Many avoided it altogether. “I wanted to call and ask to meet,” said someone, when we eventually spoke. “But I saw the pictures.” Only one person told me the photos were beautiful, and asked – almost as an afterthought – what had happened.
I answered the question very rarely, when it was asked. What mattered was that if I was well enough to subvert it, it meant I had survived it.
The body is the canvas of our personal mythologies, but we are conditioned to titivate and obscure its realities. The reality of my body today includes three beautiful gashes across my chest, just as it includes the scar at my navel and an assortment of idiosyncrasies better left to poetry. They may fade, or they may stay, testament. The body and its blood. All of it is beautiful. And every last mark I carry is mine.
There are scars we see, and then there are scars we can’t. Perhaps what drew me to honour these ones, etched across my body with brutal intention, was that to do so gave me another way of calligraphing the invisible ones. I was here. I am here. Here I am.
An adapted version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.
If you would like to see the cover of my new book of poems, out next month, please go here. And do consider this a personal invitation to join the group. On that note, please don’t add or message me on Facebook as I prefer to correspond with people I do not know over email.
I am immensely grateful to the photographer, Bradley McNeill.
No connection between the two (although I would be thrilled to bits if I could be the Mae West of Madras). It’s just that it was Mae West’s birthday today, and you should check out this interview of her. She was 83 at the time it was filmed (about four years before she died)! I love Mae West for many many things, and outliving the bad-girl-tragic-short-life archetype is one of them.
Speaking of bad girl writers, Thursday Love is pretty good. You throw a stone in the blogosphere, you inevitably hit a Carrie Sadshaw. But she’s different — not only does she actually write well and entertainingly, but I know her in real life and she’s one of the rare few who actually walk the walk more than they talk the talk.
And lastly and mostest mostest importantly, Madras Week starts tomorrow. TOMORROW!!! Hope to see some of you delurking. Remember that the open mics are open to all AND I am quite happy to read or find someone else to read any theme-appropriate pieces you email in to me, if you can’t make it.
We put up the exhibit today, and as I type this, some folks are still at Vanilla Place getting things ready. A few of my photos are also on sale, and if anyone actually buys them, please let me know. I’d like to know who the person behind such poor taste is. :)
Celebrate Madras/Chennai city’s 369th birthday with seven evenings of photography, folksongs and poetry! Seven nights of still life, song and sinful spoken word, saluting our city by the sea.
August 18 2008 – August 24 2008
MADRAS WEEK EVENTS AT VANILLA PLACE, MYLAPORE
CURATED BY CHANDRACHOODAN GOPALAKRISHNAN
AND SHARANYA MANIVANNAN,
WITH THE PARTICIPATION OF THE WORLD STORYTELLING INSTITUTE.
PHOTO EXHIBITION AND SALE
Opening night: August 18 2008
From August 18 to August 24 , organised by Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan and The Chennai Photowalk. Photos are of Chennai, as seen through the eyes of the photographers who participated in the first nine photowalks. All photos exhibited are available for purchase.
The Chennai Photowalk is a movement of the residents of Chennai to preserve the city’s heritage in the form of photos. Young and old, professional and the hobbyist, photographers of all description meet, walk and capture a view of the city mostly overlooked.
“THE SEA STORY”: A SPECIAL PERFORMANCE ON OPENING NIGHT
A special storytelling drama with folksongs by the Nochikuppam seafishing community, facilitated by the World Storytelling Institute and hosted by Eric Miller.
“The Sea Story” summary: One evening, a mother sings a lullaby to a child (Thalattu pattu). That night, some men go in a kattumaram to fish in the sea (Rowing pattu).
One man is lost in a storm, and some women on shore lament for the lost man (Oppari pattu). Finally, the lost man re-appears – he was rescued by a sea-turtle! – and the community members are filled with joy (Celebration pattu).
SPOKEN WORD READINGS AND OPEN MICS
From August 18 to August 24 at 8pm every night, hosted by Sharanya Manivannan.
August 18 – “Cities+Pride” (Opening Night)
August 19 – “Cities+Envy”
August 20 – “Cities+Wrath”
August 21 – “Cities+Sloth”
August 22 – “Cities+Greed”
August 23 – “Cities+Gluttony”
August 24 – “Cities+Lust”
Local poets both famous and soon-to-be-famous explore the idea of cities as hubs of sins from different angles. Debauchery or divine redemption? A bit of both is promised each night, along with poetry and prose both original and admired. Performers include Kuttirevathi, Vivek Narayanan, Deesh Mariwala and Sharanya Manivannan.
Open mic readings are open to all. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the organisers
Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan is a writer (of prose, poetry and carefully worded commercial fiction) and a photographer (of people, places and the occasional abstract) from Chennai. His great-grandfather was an epigraphist, translator and the first Tamil novelist. These genes, always unpredictable, waited three generations to surface in Chandrachoodan, causing him to take a great interest in his city and its heritage. Which in turn took form as a monthly photowalk.
As a spoken word artist, Sharanya Manivannan has performed to critical and popular acclaim at dozens of venues, including an abandoned pier, a cemetery and the 11th century Borobudur Temple, as well as more conventional locations. Her book of poems, Witchcraft, will be published this year, and carries a foreword from celebrated Sri Lankan-American poet Indran Amirthanayagam that describes it as “bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils… a glorious, chilling and sensual debut”. Sharanya is committed to the creation of a spoken word scene in Chennai, and regularly co-organises and hosts events that encourage the open mic format, in which anyone willing to share their work is welcome.
The World Storytelling Institute was founded by Eric Miller and Jeeva Raghunath in Chennai, in December 2007. Mr. Eric is the director of the WSI; Ms. Jeeva is the director of its section on storytelling for/by/with children. The WSI’s mission is to facilitate training in, performance of, and discussion about, forms of storytelling. In Tamil Nadu, three traditional styles of storytelling are 1) Kathaiyum Pattum (Story and Song); 2) Villupattu (Bow Song); and 3) Katha Kalak Chebam, also known as Harikatha (God Story). In cultures around the world, there are similar styles. We seek to help these styles be meaningful and useful in the modern world. Eric is Assistant Professor of Story and Storytelling at the Image College of Art, Animation, and Technology (Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad), which trains students in the design of 3D Animation, Cinema Visual Effects, and Computer-video-Internet games. He is near completion of a PhD in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia): his dissertation concerns the use of videoconferencing for educational and performance applications. Originally from New York City, Eric has settled in Chennai. He is married to Chennai native Magdalene Jeyarathnam, the founder-director of Chennai’s Center for Counseling, and they have a daughter.
Vanilla Place, No. 8/57, 1st Street Luz Avenue, near Nageswara Park, Mylapore.
All events are free and open to the public.
For further details, please contact Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan – 9884467463
Some very friendly boys and their dog, on Thalankuppam beach. All photos above are by me. Larger sizes and black and white versions are on my Flickr page.
Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan and I came up with the idea of holding a poetry reading at Thalankuppam, north of the city of Chennai, while talking about coasts. Like many artists, we are both obsessed with them to some extent. When I told him about my own favourite beach, which is widely regarded as a crappy excuse for one but stirs me still, he told me about Thalankuppam. He had discovered it by accident, while riding without any particular destination in mind, leaving the city behind. By this time, we and a few others had been having a lot of discussions about the necessity and opportunity present to create a community, one which not just writes and reveres the written word, but takes joy in the spoken.
Thalankuppam made sense on several levels — gorgeous yet discreet, it has an interesting story which few know. We wanted a small event, something in the indie spirit. No sponsors, no pish-poshness. We also wanted something that had the ethos of the city in it — an ethos which we hope to shape, in our own small ways. As I have written and said elsewhere before, I feel blessed to be at this point again for the second time in my life. The right place at the right time, just as I was six or seven years ago in KL. Chennai is pulsing with something which, if harnessed, will set the city alight. Trust me on this one. I’ve seen it once and am certain I’m about to witness it again. Or the city will, in any case, with or without me.
On the afternoon of March 9th, a small group set forth from Madras University, hugging the beach northwards for under an hour until we reached the area of Thalankuppam. We entered a settlement area, and the further into it we drove the more I realised that truly, this was the kind of beach that could only be stumbled upon. When we finally parked to walk, near a delta, we were confronted by a small hill of sand. Human-made, from sediment that clogged the factory-bordered river otherwise.
Beyond this hill was the beach. And jutting from this beach was the abandoned pier. Chandroo’s camera will say things best, so please go ahead and harass him to post his photos up.
We settled on the beach to start the reading, which was pleasantly delayed by the far from camera-shy boys above. Matthew played sacrificial lamb, reading a poem which Sivakami, who had had to leave once we reached Thalankuppam, had left with him. He delivered her homage to the masculine and feminine properties of the sea beautifully. Chandroo read three poems, one of which was a translation of Subramania Bharathy. Katia, Matilda, Sarah and Jenny — the unsuspecting newspaper interns we whisked off to this deserted, untouristy part of greater Chennai — most impressively shared some of their favourite poems by others from memory. Katia read some musings from her journal. I read a few pieces, including one about a dream I had about a sea that was startlingly similar to the view mid-way on the pier. Julian did not read, but lent his quiet support.
We had held off from actually getting on the pier and walking to its end because Chandroo, whose 25th or thereabouts trip this was, had recommended we wait until closer to sundown, when the colours of our surroundings would take on different properties. He was right — it was worth it.
Walking the pier itself was probably the most incredible experience of an altogether brilliant evening. The good kind of scary, like a rollercoaster, only more dangerous, because the only safety devices we had were each others’ sweaty hands and our own intrepid footsteps. You can’t tell from the picture we used on the flyer, but that is no bridge. It’s like a horizontal ladder. Lose your step and you plummet into the water.
It was like walking on waves, the ocean surging around us. Absolutely stunning.
At the end of the pier was a wonderful little sheltered platform. I tried to imagine watching a thunderstorm from there, the terrible thrill it must be like. We were joined by two latecomers, who hadn’t carpooled and had gotten lost hence. Here, I read two more poems before we headed back, beating the dusk.
Thank you all — who were interested but could not make it, who came, who will come to future events. We had a wonderful time and will keep you posted about the next event. Suggestions, ideas — let us know. Sivakami Velliangiri left a poem responding to the event in the comments section of the announcement post; do check it out.
The famous photographer has declined. His agency gave the reason as his decision to not allow the use of that particular image for any book cover.
Okay. As an artist, I completely respect that.
What this means, then, is that I’m now on the lookout for a new cover. I’m veering toward photography and not a painting or other visual art. But have no concrete demands and am completely open to suggestions at the moment.
What I liked best about the Chennai Sangamam, performances aside, was how it had the air of a real festival. Performances weren’t preceded by speeches in English about culture and tradition and excavation. There were no tickets. No formal rustle of sarees and elite arts-patronage gossip. The night I attended, at Nateson Park, there was no stage. The crowds followed the sound of drums; circles formed of their own accord, within which performers stampeded and sang and shone.
I loved it. I loved how in my flat slippers, I could barely see above people’s heads. I loved how I could only hear the action most of the time, could barely photograph a thing, could only catch glimpses of bright costumes between the throng of bodies that was the standing audience. This was street performance at its truest. This was real, unfettered culture.
The festival was initiated last year, and mainly features folk dances, music and food from around Tamil country. Held over a week at various locations around the city, mostly public spaces like parks and beaches, I think it’s a wonderful way to encourage interest in heritage. Free of the co-opting and monopolizing that overpowers what we urbanites know of heritage, there’s a certain liberty to things. A certain authenticity.
Now that I’m on one of my sporadic trips to the land of the employed and days that end at 4am are no longer an option, I only managed to go one night of Chennai Sangamam. It’s an amazing addition to the city’s calendar of events, and I’m hoping that it turns into something as entrenched into our ethos as the Margazhi season — sans the cloying institutionalization.
A few weeks ago, I joined Chandrachoodan and a small crew of people armed with cameras on the first Chennai Photowalk. Ambling from Chennai as we know it to Madras as it was, to paraphrase how Chandrachoodan put it recently, the photowalk covered locations including the Armenian Church, St Mary’s Church, an uncharacteristically deserted couple of train stations and Mylapore.
And a few I found on my father’s hard drive, from when I visited my folks in February. I recall taking several more I liked, but can’t seem to find the rest of the pictures.
The pics don’t enlarge even when you click them, something I realised only a moment ago. Saved them at 148×111 pixels because of the WordPress space limit. Get in touch if you want, for some reason, to see larger versions.