Legendary Photographers – Eliot Elisofon (1911 – 1973)

Since tri-sangam period, Tiruvannamalai had been a preferred destination for creative people from various traditions and the Annamalai hill in this historical town has found mention in many Sangam period literatures. The light, landscape and people of the sacred hill and its surroundings attracted many photographers to document this town. The earliest known photograph of Tiruvannamalai was taken in the year 1880. During the late 1940s Life TIME Magazine had sent noted American commercial / documentary photographer Eliot Elisofon on an assignment to document the Annamalai (Arunachaleshwarar) temple in Tiruvannamalai.

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Eliot Elisofon, (1911 – 1973) was an internationally known photographer, filmmaker, author, artist, and art collector. He started as a commercial photographer in 1935 but soon after developed an interest in photography as social documentary and decided to devote his career to photojournalism. He joined Life TIME magazine in 1942 as a war photographer-correspondent and worked on staff or freelance for the magazine until it ceased publication in 1972. After the war he worked on large geographical photo features in the United States and around the world. He was appointed a research fellow in primitive art at Harvard University in 1958 and was a member of the Harvard Peabody Museum’s 1961 expedition to film tribal life in New Guinea. He published more than 20 books, made documentary films, wrote numerous scholarly articles, and was a founding trustee of the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. He died in the year 1973.

Photography (C) Eliot Elisofon
Photography (C) Eliot Elisofon
Photography (C) Eliot Elisofon
Photography (C) Eliot Elisofon

Eliot’s assignment in India was to depict the art and ancient rock cut architecture of Hindu and Buddhist temples at various locations in India, including cave temples at Ellora, Ajanta, Elephanta Island, and Māmallapuram; Lingaraj and other temples of the Hindu god Siva in the temple city Bhubaneswar; the Sun Temple of Konārak and Arunachaleshwara Temple in Tiruvannāmalai. He had made several photographs of Tiruvannamalai, the Annamalai (Arunachaleshwar Temple) and Sri Ramana at his Ashram. Eliot’s photographs on Tiruvannamalai was published on 30th May 1949, the article was titled “Holy Man”, written by Winthrop Sergeant.
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Disclaimer: Images (C) Eliot Elisofon / Time LIFE magaziine archive. Text research Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi / Ekalokam Trust for Photography


Notes from a photographer – Part 1

Sri Ramana Maharishi / Photograph © PRS Mani / Sri Ramana Ashram Archives / Source internet
Sri Ramana Maharishi / Photograph © PRS Mani / Sri Ramana Ashram Archives / Source internet

Photography, rendered in Tamil as ‘pugai padam’, means ‘images derivated from the fumes [of mercury]’. The ancient Tamil minds have captured the essence of this innovative original scientific photographic process in which hazardous mercury fumes create images. Tamils worship visuals on an everyday basis. Probably that’s why photography easily became a part and parcel of our lifestyle.

When photography was introduced in India, word spread about the camera’s almost magical abilities to create images, something that was so far been attributed to the gods. The earlier belief and reaction was a fear factor that ‘photographs can steal a person’s soul’. Not many a saints and believers were coming forward to be photographed.

Ramana Maharishi had taken keen interest in the photography medium and would invite photographers from different parts of the country and engage in lively dialogues with them to create living images of a time gone by. The earliest known photograph of Sri Ramana Maharishi was taken by an unknown photographer in the year 1902. Sri Ramana also has been instrumental to preserving these invaluable documents and Sri Ramana Ashram photo archive has one of the rarest collections of photographic prints (1880s -1950) of eminent photographers PRS Mani, Dr. T. N. Krishnaswamy, GG. Welling, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Eliot Elisofon and many other known and unknown photographers. These images are pertinent to sage Ramana and the ashram that evolved around him. EtP wishes to make its movement comprehensive by extending this service to other areas of this ancient town.

In this series of ‘notes from the Director’, I will be presenting the known and unknown photographers and artists who have created a body of photographic / art works based on Tiruvannamalai and the holy town.

In this note, I am going to present PRS Mani, the first official photographer of Ramana Ashram. P.R.S. Mani’s most famous photo of Sage Ramana titled ‘Mani bust’ has been circulated and worshipped in South India and abroad since late 1930s. I remember looking at ‘Mani bust’ for the first time – a well framed portrait of an unusual old Indian man. Later, I found out that it was an image of Sage Ramana. I was curious to find out the photographer….. He was unknown to the world of contemporary photography. I started digging and found out that the image was taken by Sri. P.R.S. Mani Iyer. He was born at the turn of the 18th century as the first son to the couple Ramaseha Iyer and Sivasankari who hailed from Pattamadai, a village in South Tamilnadu. After his honour’s degree in Arts, Subramanian took to professional photography and joined the then famous Modern Theatre of Salem as an executive photographer. Modern Theatres Ltd. was a motion picture movie studio in Salem, Tamil Nadu India started by Thiruchengodu Ramalingam Sundaram (aka TRS) in 1935. The early South India Cinema headquarters was based in Salem and this sophisticated studio produced over more than 150 movies until 1982. Modern Theaters is situated in the outskirts of Salem – Yercaud road, which is currently in ruins. Only later the Tamil Cinema base had moved to Chennai.

During the 1930s, N.R. Krishnamurti Aiyer was asked by the ashram Sarvadhikari to send photographs of Nataraja, the majestic idol in the Meenakshi temple, in front of whom the boy Ramana stood for long spells of time, shedding copious tears of ecstasy, before he left Madurai for good. He also wanted a photograph of the house where Ramana was born in Tiruchuzhi and of some other places there. These were meant to be placed in the Tamil biography Sri Ramana Vijayam by Suddhananda Bharati . N.R.Krishnamurti Aiyer brought P.R.S.Mani who was his student and an expert photographer. Ramana used to call him Mani and he spent almost 14 years under the loving care of Ramana. Mani married the daughter of Ganapati Sastri, Tiruvannamalai. He died at the young age of 33 years.[1]
During the short span of his photographic career, he made several marvelous images of the Sage Ramana, especially during the Skandasramam days and many other historical photographs of the town as well. There is very limited information about Mani and his contributing during his time with modern theatre is unknown till now. If one starts digging they will find marvellous images of those early cinema days taken by this photographer.

PRS and I have never met in person but I am seeing him through the prolific images he has made. Salute you PRS. Mani. Your contribution to the ‘dying art’ photography is amazing. We photographers looking to the light in your images !!! Thank you…..

Abul Kalam Azad


Project 365 is a PUBLIC PHOTOGRAPHIC ART PROJECT initiated by EtP to photo-document the fast changing ancient culture and contemporary lifestyle of the ancient Tamilakam territory. During the first phase, forty photographers will be documenting the multi-cultural aspects of #Tiruvannamalai, South Indian heritage town over a year period (Aug 2014 – July 2015). This Project is led by contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad. FOR MORE PROJECT 365 IMAGES, see #etpproject365 In the next five years, EtP will document the Sangam period ports Muziris, Tindis and the cauvery basin culture and lifestyle.”


[1] excerpts taken from Face to Face with Ramana Maharishi, Published by Sri Ramana Kendram, AP, ISBN: 81-903538-0-2, Sri Ramana Maharishi / Photograph © PRS Mani / Sri Ramana Ashram Archives / Source internet