The art of photography

Kotas in the Nilgiris photograph by The Madras School of Industrial Arts.

Kotas in the Nilgiris photograph by The Madras School of Industrial Arts.  

I don’t know whether the Madras Photographic Society has anything to do with the recently-publicised Chennai Photo Biennales, the first last year and the next scheduled for 2018, but participant or not, it certainly deserves a bow for being the country’s first photographic society. Its founder was an Army doctor, Alexander Hunter. The Society was founded in 1857, shortly after Lord Canning arrived as Governor-General. Canning and Lady Canning, both photography enthusiasts, were responsible for the famed Government series, The People of India. Hunter had still earlier, in 1850, privately started the Madras School of Arts. The School, taken over by Government in 1852, moved from Popham’s Broadway to Poonamallee High Road. There, he and an eight-member committee revised the syllabus, offering two streams, Industrial and Artistic. Hunter was put in charge of the institution, renamed the Government School of Industrial Arts, in 1855. It was the first formal school of Art in the country. In it, Hunter introduced Photography.

Dr. Alexander Hunter

Dr. Alexander Hunter  


Hunter retired in 1868, to be succeeded by Robert Chisholm. No mean photographer, Hunter encouraged the School, it is now the Government College of Arts and Crafts to build up a photographic collection. Unfortunately, little seen is this work, especially the monuments of South India captured by Government photographer Linnaeus Tripe and his assistant C Iyahsawmi. Hunter himself did a series of pictures of the ‘Seven Pagodas’ (Mahabalipuram) and worked with his wards on photographs of the five hill tribes of the Nilgiris for the ‘People of India’ project. It was at a prize-giving of the School that Hunter urged the Governor to provide it more suitable premises. They came up on the PH Road site in Chisholm’s time and to his design — and remain there.

The earliest mention of a photographic exhibition organised by the Society that I have been able to trace dates to 1858. That year too, ‘Photographers’ were listed separately in the Trade List of The Madras Almanac. In 1859, Tripe won the Gold Medal at what promised to become an annual exhibition, but when told it was for amateurs only, he accepted the decision gracefully, then refused the medal awarded for ‘Amateurs and Professionals’, saying his employment gave him an unfair advantage “both as to the variety and number of subjects” photographed. By the next year, the exhibition’s reputation had spread and entries came not only from throughout the country but also from Australia, parts of Asia and Europe.

Over the next 50 years Madras had a galaxy of photographers, their work known to this day. They included the Nicholas Brothers, Albert Penn, Samuel Bourne, Capt Tripe, Willoughby Hooper, Edmund Lyon, Wiele, Theodor Klein and Willie Burke. In comparison, how many of the Madras photographers of the 20th Century will go into posterity for their work? Harry Miller is the only one I can think of, but I welcome additions.

The Father of Tamil Prose

Statue of Arumuga Navalar

Statue of Arumuga Navalar  


In my Colombo days, a senior Tamil Income Tax officer, a close friend, would often speak of Arumuga Navalar and I’d listen with a blank mind. I must have, however, absorbed something for Arumuga Navalar has figured in this column a couple of times. My latest mention was on September 25, when I spoke of him pioneering Tamil prose. That reference had me recalling I’d never noted Navalar’s progress in life.

So, today, we start in Jaffna’s temple town, Nallur, where Arumugam was born in 1822. He inherited his father Kandhar’s love for Tamil, even while studying at Jaffna Methodist School, run by Rev Peter Percival, later to be a Professor at Presidency College, Madras, and Madras University’s first Registrar. Percival, recognising Arumugam’s outstanding proficiency in Tamil, hired him as the School’s Tamil pundit as well as his own. Arumugam also taught English.

Percival next had Arumugam helping him translate The Bible. When Percival moved to Madras, Arumugam came to help see the Tamil Bible through the press. Whether it was the lack of recognition he received or not, Arumugam returned to Jaffna and became critical of the Christian missionaries. He began to focus on spreading Saivite thought and established printing and publishing houses in Jaffna, Chidambaram and Madras (Miscellany, October 29, 2012) to propagate Tamil and Saivism. His eloquence during speaking tours in Tamilzhagham and Ceylon, lecturing on Saivisim, earned him the description ‘Navalar’.

Even as he campaigned for the revival of Saivism, Arumugam urged that Tamil be written in prose. His demonstrations of prose being the best way to spread Tamil learning, made him a major figure on the Tamil literary scene. Rev Constantius Beschi and a couple of other Tamil writers had tried prose before him, without making the impact he did in transforming the language of poetry to that of prose. Writing the Periapuranam and Thiruvilaiyadalpuranam in easy-to-understand prose, reaching them to a wider audience, he found himself designated as the greatest Tamil prose writer of the 19th Century and called ‘The Father of Modern Tamil Literary Prose’. He also became a prolific editor of the Tamil Classics, in which work he introduced English punctuation marks.

But for all that Arumuga Navalar did for the Tamil Classics and Saivism, many feel his most successful work was his four-volume Balapaadam, offering children easy understanding of religion and Tamil culture. I believe they are still in print.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 1:33:48 PM |

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