Gireesan Bhattathiripad, who has published a rare collection of photographs of the athirathram of 2011, says he feels a strong connect to ancient Indian culture and tradition

In 2011 at Panjal in Thrissur district, a yagam of epic proportions took place. Hundreds of namboodiri priests chanted the Vedas and performed rituals continuously for 12 days to appease the forces of Nature. “At the end, the effect was palpable. It rained and, I am sure, everybody felt infused with a strange energy,” says Gireesan Bhattathiripad. A participant himself, Gireesan got the rare opportunity to capture the ‘athirathram’ frame by frame.

He then collated the rare photographs into a book, ‘Athirathram 2011’ published by DC Books. The thick volume, fashioned as a coffee-table book, with glossy pages, details every step of the elaborate ceremony with photos and text. The book is perhaps the only one to have documented the athirathram, an ancient Vedic ritual performed for universal peace, as people from other religions/castes are not allowed on the yagam premises. Some of these are on display at an exhibition of his photographs and paintings at the Durbar Hall Art Gallery.

Spirituality apart, Gireesan was fascinated by the powerful visual effect of the rituals. “All the colours that you find are ethnic— of fire, cow dung, dried bamboo, grass, mud… every frame is a treat,” he says. In order to enhance the natural feel of the photos, he did not use the camera flash. He attended his first athirathram in 2005 at Moolangode in Palakkad district, which he videographed and sketched live. He has a series of about 100 sketches from the athirathram.

Creative high

For someone who has been painting since the age of 14, Gireesan has always been more taken up by the creative high that painting gives. “Though I enjoy photography as much, the mental satisfaction one derives from painting is unmatched.” He has always been guided by his instincts, Gireesan says. After Class X, he decided to stop studying and pursue painting instead. He discussed the idea with his father, who granted him the liberty to learn whatever it was that interested him. So Gireesan went to Ganapathy Peringode, who became his beloved mentor. “He started me on oil painting directly. For five years, I learnt from him. He followed a gurukula system of education.”

Later Gireesan earned a diploma in painting and drawing, too, and assisted art director Sabu Cyril for three years. He worked for several Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Malayalam films, his last Malayalam film being Pavithram. But creative satisfaction eluded him and he decided to bid goodbye to films. Teaching seemed like the next best prospect and Gireesan spent ten years of his life as a drawing teacher at two schools in Palakkad and Thrissur. Bogged down by the routine of a job, he realised that he could not put into practice what he was truly passionate about. He quit and decided to dedicate his life to pursue what he loved most— art.

As a freelance artist and photographer, he now undertakes projects and takes off on journeys to fuel his imagination. A recent trip to the Himalayas produced a series of photographs of breath-taking, ice-capped landscapes. “Travel is one of the most essential things for me, to keep myself motivated. Photographs are good, but I feel, they can only do so much, you know. I want to spend time there and do live sketching.” He is also planning to work on a photography book on Kathakali. “I want to trace the journey of a young student — from the starting point to the moment when he performs on stage. It is an ambitious project,” Gireesan says. A series of sketches on the characters of writer M.T. Vasudevan is another dream. “My idea is to sketch them live while writers discuss these characters. This is more ambitious, perhaps,” Gireesan laughs.

The paintings at the exhibition are mostly acrylic on canvas—of abstract forms filled with what seems like a random selection of colours. The highlight of the show is a series of geometric designs in black and white, inspired by traditional religious art forms such as the pootham and thira. “A single work contains at least 5,000 triangles and an equal number of semi-circles,” he says.

The exhibition is on till September 23.