CHARIOTS OF FROLIC
I vividly recall walking the streets of Arni, Tamil Nadu on a sweltering hot evening, temperatures can touch 45 degree c in the summer in this district. I was on assignment to document the lives of Sari weaving artisans in this town that has become a cost effective production outpost for the famous Kanchipuram sari. The sound of the looms I was around all day, was still ringing in my ears when I encountered my first chariot of frolic – loosely translated from it’s Tamil name “Ullasa ratham”
A curious juxtaposition of the medieval and postmodern, enterprising wedding decorators had modified the iconic Fiat Premier-Padmini car to resemble a chariot. Anandan, the chariot’s driver informed me that his duty for the night was to pick up a bride and groom from a nearby Ganesha temple and drive them to their wedding reception hall.
In Indian mythology and folklore the ratha or chariot has had a pivotal place as the vehicle of choice for gods, demons, and mortals alike. Much has changed since the horse-drawn chariots of yore. Contemporary wedding processions across the country mostly feature sleek vintage cars. Which is what made it really exciting to encounter these vehicles.
A relatively recent addition to the local wedding industry, automobile chariots have been popularised in the past couple of decades. Prior to their advent, wedding processions were conducted on foot or using bicycle driven carts. Sensing an opportunity, enterprising wedding decorators introduced these vehicles targeting upwardly mobile families.
An embodiment of Indian jugaad, these vehicles are spectacles of low-cost innovation. They are fabricated using discarded cars sold at scrap prices that are no longer in production by their respective companies. Fabricators then remove the rear seat to accommodate an elevated platform on which a sofa or chairs are placed for the bride and the groom to facilitate a wedding reception on wheels. The platform has an ornate background referred to locally as a ‘disco’ which is made of papier-mâché decoration around a fiber board housing LED or tungsten bulbs. The lighting is powered by a generator tucked away in the trunk of the car.
The vehicles are photographed at night to accentuate its most unique feature –the ‘disco’. The presence of trees in a majority of the compositions is a nod to the name of the town where I first encountered these vehicles – Arani. The town derives it’s name from the word ‘Aar’ which is the Tamil word for Cluster Fig trees, it is believed that these trees were once abundant in this region.
Considering they are usually observed in crowded processions, I consciously presented these cars devoid of human presence in order to depart from the way Indian weddings are usually represented. The quiet settings are a tranquil remnant of the chaotic celebrations that the vehicles facilitated.