Thiruvannamalai, famous for the Ramana Ashram, the seat of sage Ramana, doesn’t look like a lucrative abode for artists. Spiritualists of different kinds from both India and abroad sit in silence in prayer halls of the ashram. Some of them stand still, contemplating on the lives of the equally still cows, mules and donkeys that mind their own business without heeding much to the spiritual tenderness and sublimation of these keen onlookers. Yet another lot sit at the shacks, sipping black tea, smoking cigarettes and just watching life passing by. Artists aren’t spiritualists though they claim to be so. (Their spiritualism ends where their concerns for the creature comforts begin.) Still, you wouldn’t be surprised if you happened to see a few familiar faces in the Indian art scene hanging around in this place which definitely has a spiritual pull to it.
Abul Azad, the ace photography artist who has shifted his base to Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu a few years back, is now a familiar face not only to the inmates of the Ashram and the people around it, but also to the who’s who of the Indian art scene. Though many artists have visited, lived and worked in Thiruvannamalai much before Azad had shifted from Mattancherry where he had his salon and studio exotically called ‘Mayalokam’ (the world of illusions), today most artists find it pertinent to visit Azad when they are in Thiruvannamalai. The shift to this spiritual abode has helped Azad perhaps widen his world view. Azad, an erstwhile photographer with the Press Trust of India, had many feathers in his cap as a daring lens man. He chucked all that for pursuing a creative career in his beloved medium. Being a true Fort Kochi ‘freak,’ Azad already had a cosmopolitan view on art, politics and religion which has now got more clarification and depth with his sojourn in Thiruvannamalai.
Vibhooti (sacred ash) on his forehead, a rudraksh mala around his neck, a smart phone and a camera in his hip purse, Azad travels by a TVS moped. This trigger-happy man walks in a twilight zone. Half Hindu-half Muslim, a near Sufi with ample amount of anarchism, half conventional–half radical: Azad likes it in this way. He laughs off strong identities and affinities for ideologies. “One could function from a fluid zone of existence,” says Azad.
He isn’t particularly keen on the Ashram of Ramana Maharshi though. In the initial days he used to be a regular there, and over a period of time, he took away the philosophy with him and left the baggage of other spiritual paraphernalia. From Mayalokam, Azad moved to establishing his pet project with his partner and manager, Tulsi Suvarna Lakshmi, titled ‘Ekalokam Trust for Photography’. The shift is curious and to the point: in Kochi he was living in a world of illusion, and here in Thiruvannamalai, Azad has found the need for the ‘one world’ (Ekalokam). The itinerant photographers (both young and established), who come there for residency programs, document the Tamil ways of life with their focus on Thiruvannamalai. This 365 days project has already completed the first year, and with a rare sense of determination, Azad and Ekalokam have embarked on a different journey of documenting the old Muziris and Thrikkana Mathilakam in Kerala, connecting Tamil Nadu and Kerala using Sangham Literature. This semi-archaeological and semi-anthropological and semi-documentary project is a huge undertaking for Ekalokam because it functions almost without funds. “It runs because there are people around us who still believe that things could happen slowly but steadily,” says Azad, whose Ekalokam Trust for Photography today attracts more Malayalees to Thiruvannamalai.
Anand Gayatri, a poet and environmentalist, had taken a rebirth in Thiruvannamalai a couple of decades back. He lives in Thiruvannamalai with his artist wife from Spain, Gayatri Gamuz. Anand was one of the leading figures who had initiated the Tree Festival in Fort Kochi in late 1980s and early 1990s. Anand and his brother Anoop were instrumental in many cultural activities in Fort Kochi in those years. They were slightly different from the mainland cultural activists, as they preferred to live in the dreams of sunny beaches wafted by colonial breeze. The Mattancherry setting was perfect with its historical buildings, regular flow of foreigners, reggae and jazz and a tremendous amount of promiscuousness. No wonder the place became a haven for artists, writers, singers, photographers, and permanently radicals. They exhibited their works, sang, boozed, quarrelled and slept in those places. Anoop went on to establish the famous Kashi Art Cafe and Kashi Art Gallery with his American entrepreneur wife, Dory Younger, and Anand married Gayatri Gamuz. Shifting to Thiruvannamalai was a sort of spiritual calling for Anand. “We needed a space to practice our life,” Anand says. They built their own huts in a plot and cultivated around it. While Gayatri painted, Anand wrote poems and managed Gayatri’s artistic career.
Noted painter Shibu Natesan is a regular visitor in Thiruvannamalai. An artist who divides his time between Attingal in Trivandrum and London, an annual visit to Thiruvannamalai is a must for Shibu. His works reverberate with the energies of the Hill Shrine of Thiruvannamalai. Perhaps Shibu was the first one among the Malayalee artists to ‘find out’ Thiruvannamalai. “I was living in Baroda in early 1990s and I developed a huge fascination for Reggae music. This took me to anything spiritual. My reading changed though it took a few more years for me to change the course of my paintings. It was then my wife, Kate Bowes, a British Artist and Art Therapist, who initiated me to Thiruvannamalai. That was almost two decades back. Since my first visit, I have never stopped visiting the place,” says Shibu. It is not the spiritual pull of the place anymore for the artist. “I go there and do a lot of watercolours. People there know me now. I could go to any tea shop and I get my models ready. They are very happy to model for me.” However, Shibu, as a keen travel painter and a landscape specialist, these days loves the ambience of Thiruvannamalai because of its strong sense of nature. “You go to any part of the place, you get to see the imposing presence of Hill Arunachala. The more you paint the landscape there, the more you come to know the pull of that structure. I am enamoured by the painterly possibilities that the nature in Thiruvannamalai offers,” observes Shibu. Besides, he goes for regular ‘Girivalam’, a ritual walk around the hill, which is almost fourteen kilometres. “This is a daily pilgrimage and you don’t feel like going back though you have to,” he says.
Facebook has played a big role in making Thiruvannamalai famous among the Indian artists. Shibu Natesan’s posts of his paintings and sketches done in Thiruvannamalai have got huge fan following. The same is the case with Azad who has a very strong presence in the social media. My article series on Thiruvannamalai in 2014 created an added enthusiasm among artists and many have visited the place ever since. Anil Dayanand (artist), M.K.Iqbal (photographer), Shajahan (Journalist), Shabbaz Aman (Gazal Singer) and Shaji Appukkuttan (painter) have become regulars in Thiruvannamalai. Shaji’s solo exhibition at the Durbar Hall, Kochi in 2015 was based on his experiences in Thiruvannamalai. Meanwhile, years before Anand, Azad and Shibu found Thiruvannamalai for their own purposes, another Indian artist had become a strong follower of the Ramana philosophy and has painted a few series on the life and philosophy of Ramana Maharshi. Hyderabad-based V.Ramesh established his artistic identity with his paintings on Ramana, and as an artist he carries the ‘Ramana’ in his personality.