Thursday, 1 June 2000

Saffronart I Art Café I Interview with Clare Arni I 2000

Pushpamala N interviews photographer Clare Ari

Photographer Clare Arni is a British citizen who has chosen to live and work in India. After a childhood spent in Madurai, Tamilnadu she studied History of Art and Film and Media in Scotland and moved to Bangalore in 1984 to work as an independent architectural, travel and fashion photographer. She has traveled around India extensively photographing historical architectural sites building up a library of slides, which she directly sells to art publishers in the UK.

She is an incorrigible traveler, and with her sense of adventure and terrific sense of humour she has a fund of interesting stories and anecdotes to relate about her various projects. She talks to Pushpamala N. about her work.
PN:    Clare, about the documentation work you have been doing for the new Marg volume on Hampi- the site with its dramatic rocky outcrops and rich history must be really interesting.

CA:    I'm working with George Michell who is an authority on the Vijayanagar Empire for the Hampi project. He's been coming to Hampi for the last 21 years when it was practically an unknown site and there was only one tea stall there- the team used to just sleep under the stars! The book is concentrating on the last twenty years of archeological research that's been done by them.
The shoot involved covering till now unknown sites in Hampi, which involved a lot of trekking through fields and up hills. The whole of the Hampi site had piped water- the canals which are still in use today were built by the Vijayanagar kings. The piped water went into the palaces, you can still see the clay pipes- it was not only for agricultural use. There's going to be a whole chapter on the water system, which was an astounding engineering feat. When they made the canals they made use of the contours of the existing rocky site, so you find sometimes the canal takes a turn and there's a ten foot high menhir in the middle of it- and they also dug deep channels into the rock. It's visually very dramatic.
The book basically concentrates on the archeological facts but there are many myths and legends associated with the place- like about the Zenana enclosure. You know, all the sites have names which have been given arbitrarily by some Englishman, which are irrelevant to their original use! The Lotus Mahal is within the so- called Zenana enclosure but it's proven that it wasn't for women at all. There's a story that the last king was locked up there by his minister...
Hampi is important today as a religious centre because of all the Hanuman legends associated with it. He was supposed to have rested there on the way to Lanka on the Anjaneya Hill... I was documenting all the sites. In one place we found large stone slabs with smooth circular shapes dug out in them. No one knew what they were- they've now realized that they are huge thalis carved out in the rock- people used to directly eat off them!

PN:    You had a lot of adventures doing the earlier Marg book on the Kaveri.

CA:    The Kaveri book involved a four month trip from the source of the river in Coorg all the way to Poompuhar in Tamilnadu, where the river joins the sea. I'd get carried away a bit about taking good shots and not worry about the dangers- but I had a faithful driver who felt it was his duty to protect me. At Hogenakal in Karnataka, the river has just passed through the forests. It's supposed to be full of medicinal herbs and have curative properties so people come to bathe there. I decided to go down to the edge of the waterfall so I could get a view from the bottom where it hits the water. We were in a coracle which is a round wicker boat - and the water was gushing around us, when I heard my faithful driver yelling to the boatman -'I am my mother's only son!' But finally we just got a bit splashed.
We were floating down through a high gorge- one side was Tamilnadu which was a dry state and the other side was Karnataka which was wet. We saw a funny sight - Tamil farmers were getting into coracles and crossing the river to Karnataka, where there were arrack shops lined across the top with plastic bags of hooch hanging over the edge- and then weaving back home on their coracles singing drunken songs. The whole gorge was echoing with the music...

The Kaveri splits into a fan shaped delta where the river meets the sea. There are very interesting little known places there, like Pichavaram, which has mangrove swamps. You go in a boat through the swamp and you see naked men walking all around you, picking shrimps off the roots of the trees and putting them in plastic bags attached to their underwear. Tranquebar is the only Danish settlement ever built outside Denmark- there's a big fort there, huge important buildings, churches, falling to ruin. Then there are holy places of different religions like Velankanni. It's a very powerful place with a big 17th century Portuguese church of Our Lady of Help, where you give offerings of whatever you want, or want mended. So there are legs, organs, little houses, boats, all made of silver being sold outside in the shops. There is a museum there with a collection of all these objects given over the years, some of them specially made: like silver stethoscopes, a silver aeroplane, silver penises...
There's a Muslim Darga, also very powerful, in Nagore- it was full of people dying who had come there to be cured. I was walking through the outer corridors when I saw these cheap frames with broken pieces of glass, bits of hair, rusty nails- I was told they were objects that had been found inside peoples' bodies and removed during exorcism rituals...all carefully framed.
I wanted to document the whole river in its course, including natural sites as well as contemporary life and crafts, but Marg was interested mainly in the historical sites. I may use the rest of the material for a future book.

PN:    You've done a lot of contemporary architectural photography as well.

   I've been lucky to work for leading architects like BV Doshi, Charles Correa and Geoffrey Bawa. One of the interesting projects for Charles Correa was documenting the North Karnataka town of Bagalkot. It's a very old town with monuments, mosques and traditional houses- and because people knew it was going to be submerged by a dam, they hadn't bothered to modernize the buildings. So it was a very good example of traditional architectures of different kinds: weavers' houses, merchants' houses- they had amazing features like secret compartments and secret passages within the walls. When they were invaded they'd be able to throw jewels and money down these passages so that they'd be stored in the underground cellars!

PN:    Tell me about your photography, how do you like to work?

CA:    I use available light as much as possible. I like to shoot natural scenes and portraits rather than orchestrating the pictures- so I shoot long exposures in interiors to capture the ambience of a place, how the builder imagined it, or how it originally functioned in terms of light.
I like to use Fujichrome Provia slide film because of its fine grain and rich colours- and I basically work in colour, I'm not a black and white photographer. 

Pushpamala N 
Bangalore  2000