Chennai Photo Biennale: A 206-year-old library provides a vintage setting

The brick-red building of the Madras Literary Society library, with its massive collection of vintage books and first-edition copies, is hosting site-specific installations.

Published: 22nd March 2019 08:24 PM  |   Last Updated: 23rd March 2019 12:35 AM   |  A+A-

Chennai Photo Biennale

Online Desk

50 photographers. 13 countries. The Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB) is without a doubt India's largest event dedicated to photography. The second edition is now drawing to a close this weekend. Big and diverse, it has transformed multiple spaces across the city into temporary art galleries. One such location is the Madras Literary Society which has turned into a go-to destination for book and photography lovers alike during the event.

Madras Literary Society library. ( Photo | Rakesh RK)

The brick-red building of the Madras Literary Society library, with its massive collection of vintage books and first-edition copies, is hosting site-specific installations and has the work of three artists namely Canadian photographer Angela Grauerholz, Indonesian artist Putu Sayoga and Liz Fernando from Germany. 

Angela Grauerholz's works, on display at the Literary society, contain image after image of charred remains of books destroyed by fire. Unlike other photographic works, this collection consists of scanned images of covers, spines and pages blackened or partially destroyed. What makes Angela's work so fascinating is that all the scanned images evoke a strong sense of destruction. Outdoors, Indonesian artist Putu Sayoga has captured a ‘horse library’ where books are delivered on horseback, to children in a village in Bali.

Pushpamala N, the artistic director of Chennai Photo Biennale, has selected each and every site keeping in mind certain aspects. While leading the visitors through the works of artists as part of curator’s walk along a dark passage of Madras Literary Society library she explains, "More than the artist, I select the particular works that I was interested in, and that would work in different ways in terms of what I saw as photographic practice today. Also, the work has to gel with the place. One of the main features that endear the Madras Literary Society library is its lighting. This place is nearly 100 years old and is flooded with natural lighting".

Pushpamala N, the artistic director of Chennai Photo Biennale. ( Photo | Rakesh RK)

"If you see the work of German photographer Liz Fernando, she has created an archive of people by transferring photographs onto delicate rice paper. I wanted a place which has ample natural lighting to place these works and this building was the best with sunlight streaming in through arched windows," adds Pushpamala. Some of Liz Fernando's photos are framed in glass and kept in a little tin box with the lid open and other photos hang from the arched windows where the sunlight have its way in.

Prabhu Viswanathan, a member of the Madras Literary Society and also one of the advisors to Chennai Photo Biennale, feels that the photographs of all the three artists that Pushpamala has chosen for this place blend with the architecture of this building. "Be it Putu Sayoga's 'horse library' or Angela Grauerholz's work on burnt books on display, everything focuses on books, libraries, and old memories. Founded in 1812, the Madras Literary Society was housed in a different building in the DPI complex before its current location.

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"When the Chennai Photo Biennale came to us looking for space, they were taken aback by the unique architecture of this building built by Robert Fellowes Chisholm. We were more than happy to be associated with CPB which itself is an amazing event showcasing the work of the highly acclaimed artist from Chennai and all over the world. I am sure the CPB will evolve over the years like Kerala’s Kochi Muziris Biennale," adds Prabhu. 

The external corridor of the building has the display of the Indonesian photographer Putu Sayoga’s body of work which depicts the journey of a little mobile library hoisted on the horseback by a man named Ridwan Sururi. The photographs show how Ridwan Sururi took books around the villages and towns to give children a chance to read.

Indonesian photographer Putu Sayoga’s 'Horse Library'. ( Photo | Rakesh RK)

"We ourselves are a 200-year-old institution and the present building itself is 100 years old with a collection of more than 55000 books, maps, and records," says Prabhu while accompanying Pushpamala during curator’s walk.       

In store for coming days at Chennai Photo Biennale

CPB also intends to be a showcase for Chennai just like Kerala’s Kochi Muziris Biennale, which has grown into a landmark event for both domestic and International tourists. With the Biennale winding up, here are some of the exciting events one can catch during the weekend.

  • A discussion on Architectural Photography comprising a panel of Bharat Ramamrutham, Harshan Thomson and Sreenag. The discussion will be moderated by Kavitha Selvaraj and is scheduled on March 22 between 3pm-5pm at Hindustan University, Padur.
  • Curator’s walk led by Pushpamala N at the Art House on March 22 between 4pm-5pm and the Senate House on March 24 between 4pm-5pm.
  • Renowned photographer Amar Ramesh will hold a workshop on techniques in mobile photography titled ‘The SmartER Mobile Photographer’ on March 22 between 4pm-6pm at Studio A.
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