A marvel of creativity and a work of massive magnificence, the Brahadisvara temple at Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu has evoked awe and admiration for the past 1000 years. It has inspired books, articles, and research papers by historians, archaeologists, sociologists, and art experts from India and abroad.
We now have a splendid pictorial tribute to the edifice — a 150-page book, Vibrant at 1000: Big Temple, Thanjavur, India. It contains some 160 photographs taken at different times of day and night, capturing the majesty and the varied brilliance of the temple’s art, architecture, structural engineering, and sculpture, as well as the reverence and religiosity of the devotees.
Surprisingly, the man behind this gently luminous photo book is an icon of commercial wizardry, famous for automobile and advertising photography. Iqbal Mohamed is a product of the Brooks Institute of Photography, California, and founder of India’s first professional photography institute, the Light and Life Academy at Lovedale, Ooty. His book Portrait and function photography has been published in nine languages. But Iqbal has, in recent years, switched to nature, wildlife, and the fine arts, and has photographed several temples in Kancheepuram district. He loves places of worship for their “beauty, peace, sanctity” and their energy. “Advertising photography seeks to make the ordinary look extraordinary. But documentary photography must show the subject as it is. In any case, we can’t add anything to something as awesome as the Big Temple. In fact, trying to do so would be to insult its creators,” says Iqbal’s wife Anuradha, who has written the sensitive text that supplements the photographs. She says the Big Temple is “exquisite but does not tax the senses. It is mathematically precise yet creatively dynamic.”
Iqbal spent two days in reconnaissance and 21 days for the photography — in several sessions spread over a year and more. He immortalises some rare moments. Turn the cover, and you see a striking two-page image: birds in flight on the left, a close-up of the Vimana, or the imposing temple tower, on the right. A few pages later: a mass of devotees, reverence personified, gopuram backdrop.
You are then taken on a “visual walkthrough” of the temple and its “cornucopial visual delights.” Iqbal and Anuradha show how the temple “reinvents itself over different times of the day and night, under varying light conditions, across seasons.” There are wide-sweeping outdoor shots; close-ups of detail; glimpses into worshippers.
Uniquely interesting for photographers, the book presents a diagram that shows the position from which every shot was taken and the equipment used. For any shot, only a single camera and lens were used, Iqbal says. Simple portable flash units or torch lights were used to illuminate the interiors, since strobes were not allowed by the temple authorities. The technique of “light painting” was deployed for some shots. Example: the picture of bas-relief Siva sculptures illustrating many dance poses (karanas) of sage Bharata. “There was hardly five feet between the tripod-mounted camera on one corner and the large-size sculptures. I used an 8-second exposure while two assistants kept running and aiming two flash units on the wall.”
Some of the most remarkable or intriguing images show people crowding around a priest performing Arti (a painting-like effect); the Ajanta wall frescoes (a wavy-fuzzy effect); the Darasuram temple (for which Iqbal used a combination of moonlight and flashlights to illuminate not merely the front face of the sculpture but also the detail on the ceiling); and ants in sharp focus in the foreground against the temple backdrop (for which Iqbal did a macro shot with a wide-angle lens, but used a high shutter speed and crawled sideways on the floor to follow the ants).
However, the photography “works within an aesthetic of restraint,” as N. Ram points out in his eloquent foreword to the book. He describes the book as a tour de force and Iqbal’s photography as “joyous, admiring, rich in art and historical whispers and intimations.” Whether your subject is history, archaeology, architecture, religion, or photography, this book would make a delightful acquisition.