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Snapshots From A Bygone Era: A Century of Image

Snapshots From A Bygone Era: A Century of Image
Item Code: NAM983
Author: Dr. Chithra Madhavan
Publisher: MNK Charitable Trust, Mumbai
Language: English
Edition: 2011
Pages: 102, (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.0 inch x 9.5 inch
weight of the book: 545 gms
About the Book

This coffee-table book has approximately a hundred photographs taken by Sri M.K. Rangaswami Aiyangar. The photos are mostly of temples in South India, of the time of the Pallavas, Pandyas, Cholas and Vijayanagara rulers. A few are of temples in the north like the famous Jagannath temple in Puri, Orissa. Spectacular views of the Jama Masjid, Delhi and the Taj Mahal have been taken by this remarkable amateur photographer. Photographs of temple tanks, bronze images, landscapes and palaces are also part of this collection. Comments on these photos have been penned by illustrious photographer Iqbal Mohamed while the notes about these monuments have been written by historian Dr. Chithra Madhavan Dr. Chithra Madhavan completed her M.A. and M. Phil. from the Department of Indian History, University of Madras and her Ph.D. from the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Mysore. She has received two Post- Doctoral Fellowships from the Department of Culture, Government of India and from the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi. Chithra has published five books - History and Culture of Tamil Nadu (in two volumes) and Vishnu Temples of South India (in three volumes). She has also co-edited a book South India Heritage which contains five hundred articles on various aspects of South India's heritage and culture.

About the Author

IQBAL MOHAMED studied History at Loyola College, Chennai and Business Administration at Madras University, before pursuing study of professional photography at Brooks Institute of Photography, California.

In his career as an advertising and industrial photographer spanning two decades, he has shot memorable images for hundreds of photography projects. He has won several national and international awards.

Iqbal's serious desire to impart professional photography education inspired him to set up India's first professional photography institute in Ooty - Light & Life Academy.


For a conservative Tamil Brahmin in the 1930's, steeped in religion and the rich culture of Tamil Nadu, to take to the most recent of arts, photography, when options in cameras and lenses were limited, when the variety of films and chemicals available were limited, limiting the magic that we could create, when photography was mostly done in black and white, when awareness as well as access to knowledge and information about photography was limited and difficult to access (no internet), when transportation and accommodation facilities were very scant, when prediction of weather was a factor of intuition and instinct and not a science, when there were very few photographers, especially in Southern India with whom ideas and experiences could be shared and discussed; would have required passion of a very high level.

Shri MKR was just such a person.

It is sheer co-incidence (or is it?) that I am based in and writing this foreword from the very place where Shri MKR got his first camera (glass plate), Ooty. Shri MKR started his career as a teacher of some repute and it was when in the process of tutoring the scions of a Zamindari family that he made the acquaintance of a British photographer engaged to take photographic portraits of the family in Ooty. When the photographer went back to England, he sold his camera with some instructions on how to use it, to Shri MKR. His tryst with a passion that would be with him through his life had begun.

Interestingly, this was the period when in the west, photographers such as Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, Arnold Newman, Bill Bryant, Minor White, Yousuf Karsh, Irving Penn and a few others were making their way to becoming legends in the areas of documentary, portrait and landscape photography.

Those were also the days, when in India, photography was mainly confined to portraits and a person shooting outdoors was stared at. The 1930's saw the formation of Photographic Societies and Clubs, with the hubs being Kolkatta and Mumbai. Shri MKR seems to have been one of the few active travel photographers of his time in southern India. It is commendable that Shri MKR, took the effort to travel to so many places of interest, captured all that he felt was glorious about this country, with equipment that was rudimentary and with a great deal of improvisation to get the frame he wanted.

His fascination with the work of artists that survived hundreds of years and still retained a freshness and rightness, enthused and inspired him to begin with a photographic study of temples in southern India, even if it meant spending a day and half just to get to Mamallapuram from Chennai and back.

The most striking aspects of his images are the composition and the way he has anticipated and used light. They are also proof that he had immense patience when it came to photography, no amount of effort and physical hardship was too much if it meant he had the opportunity of getting a frame to cherish. And when we look at his images, they also show a rare connection with every subject that he photographed, obviously he studied each of them deeply and could therefore capture the essence of his subjects so beautifully.

He was also fortunate to have a wife who encouraged him in his passion for photography, helping him pack his cumbersome gear every time he went on an official trip which offered even a remote chance to take pictures. She even helped him prepare and process his glass plates.

About fifteen years after he started his photography, he got his first film camera, a Rollicod and then a Rolliflex, still continuing to shoot in black and white. When colour films made their appearance in India, he was not too keen on shooting with them. Instead he began experimenting with sepia toning and even hand- colouring to add to the variety of his images, continuing his penchant for exploring new areas, a trait that kept him young at heart to the very end.

Going through his images, I am overwhelmed with the feeling that in his self appointed task of being the visual custodian of things great and beautiful, he is sending us a message to revere and not just revel in our legacy, natural and manmade.


The monuments of India, of the ancient and medieval times, are testimony to the architectural and engineering skill of those ages. The more famous ones, like the Brihadishwara temple in Thanjavur of the Chola era and the Taj Mahal in Agra of the Mughal period are well known and much visited. In contrast, there are innumerable monuments constructed through the ages, found in every village, town and city in India, about which most people, other than the locals, are unaware. Sri M.K. Rangaswami Aiyangar, who was passionate about photography and visiting monuments, has taken spectacular photographs of both the famous and the little-known edifices of India, especially of South India. Despite not being a professional art-historian or archaeologist, he knew the importance of certain parts of the temple, which have much significance. For example, many of the gopuras or the entranceways to the temples of South India, particularly those constructed during the Vijayanagara era from the 14th century A.D. onwards, have stone sculptures personifying the river Goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, which are important not only from the viewpoint of sculpture but also from the perspective of tradition. The photographs he has taken of such sculptures reveal not only his knowledge of temple art and architecture but also his skill as a photographer.

This book is particularly valuable as some of the structures and areas around look different since the time the photographs were taken. The Adi Varaha cave- temple in Mamallapuram wears an abandoned look in the photograph Sri M.K. Rangaswami Aiyangar took many decades ago, whereas it is well-maintained today, with many devotees visiting it. Many will be surprised to see the photograph of the gopura of the Meenakshi-Sudareshwarar temple in Madurai, with much greenery around and multitudes of people absent!

The bronze images of Tamil Nadu, especially those of Nataraja, have, down the ages, been much admired. Sri M.K. Rangaswami Aiyangar, who had an unerring eye for beautiful artifacts, has captured the grace and fluidity of motion of the celestial dancer in an ancient metal image made by an anonymous artisan. Equally eye-catching is the photo of an image of a lady holding a lamp (Deepalakshmi) with the shadow cast alongside.

The photographs of temple-tanks, festivals like the chariot-procession (ther or ratha-utsavam), with the large crowds, taken from a carefully chosen vantage position, have indeed captured the vibrant sprit of the temples of India. The abandoned mandapas and ruined gopuras in remote places also have a melancholy beauty, which this intrepid photographer had obviously admired and wanted others too as well.

To the extent possible, the photographs in this book have been arranged in a chronological order. The comments by the famous photographer, Iqbal K Mohamed, Founder & Director - Academics, Light and Life Academy, Ooty on the photographs of Sri. M.K. Rangaswami Aiyangar, add much value to this book.

Altogether, this tome is a collection of excellent photographs of remarkable monuments, taken with great sensitivity and with an eye for detail. Photographers, art-historians and in general, all those who value the rich architectural and sculptural wealth of India will treasure this book.


Choose what you will. MKR was that; actually all of them rolled and neatly blended into one. When one met MKR, one chose to sit at his feet as one would with an omniscient teacher to quaff his wisdom. His first professional choice in life was teaching. And he was Master and Teacher of no mean merit, be it Music, Mythology or Mathematics; Art, Architecture, or Archeology; Religion, Romance or Romanticism; classics in prose or poem in Sanskrit, English, Tamil and Telugu and of course his most abiding passion, Chess.

MKR was born in 1886 in the holy birth place Sri Andal-Srivilliputhur deep down in the South of India. After graduation in Tiruchirapalli, he became a teacher, married Padmasini (their romance in their married life is still spoken like a legend). Inspired by his young wife, he reluctantly left her behind to attain his LT qualification. The compelling need for enhancing his means to maintain his growing family and near relations drove him into Life Insurance business and by dint of hard work and merit he rose to senior positions. He retired in 1946.

Unlike other people who also serve in one job or the other and go early and easily cynical with the burden of family obligations, MKR managed them extraordinarily well within his means and still found more than enough time to be fascinated by the sheer beauty of the nature around him, the temples, the legends around them, their archeology, intricate architecture, the magic of the sculptures, the music and their meaning and above all the simple faith and pride of the people.

It was not enough for him to imbibe all of them by himself Like the great Saint Sri Ramanuja, he HAD to share his joyful and inspiring experience with the world. What better means than his rudimentary camera using glass slides? One is amazed at the kind of distances he had traveled, the obstacles he had crossed and the altitudes he had precariously climbed with the heavy, unwieldy equipment and the times he had waited for the correct light conditions to take such breathtaking pictures literally in hundreds in almost every nook and comer of our country.

His articles on temple architecture and temple sculptures with photographs taken by him years earlier was a regular much awaited feature in the print media for several years. He had himself published several booklets and the more popular among them, are Mahabailipuram, Thygaraja Thathvam, Sri Ramaratnamala, Therindhu Paadalaam.

Recipient of several awards, one of the most impressive exhibitions of his photographs was titled 'Tirumala to Tillai'. It was held not only in Chennai but also in Kalahasti and Tirunelveli to the delight of thousands of viewers. Sixty of his best pictures of the Holy centers in South India including Hoisala were chosen by the Great Pramacharya himself for display in his Sadas in Kanchipuram.

SRI RAMA was his favorite deity. RAM NAM was his perpetual chant whatever he might be busy at. He detested waste of whatever kind and would always recycle material from one use to another. Until in his late eighties, when he became bed ridden days before his death on the 2nd of October, 1974, he was totally self-sufficient and took care of all his needs himself.

A prolific writer of not only the print media but also to his loved ones, and a man of extraordinary humor and insight in human nature, he would write incisively on national, international affairs, sports, movies and describe even minor family episodes in such colorful details that each of his letters would read like a classic in English literature.

Most people fade away, when they retire from service. MKR shone like the Lode Star after retirement and like that star would always be there to show each one us how to well and truly live and not just exist, at whatever may be our age. And the badge he wore was 'Love' - Love of God, of Nature, of our Culture, of our Music, Dance and Drama, of our Temples and the Faith and beauty of and with-in them and of our myriad people.

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