‘Stories of Kannagi’: a Tamil classic in the Blake Art Prize

A contemporary video artwork reinterprets a 2000-year-old Tamil tale to resonate with life today.

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“Kannagi begins as an ordinary woman; well not that ordinary, and then transforms into a goddess of justice!”

So says Bulli-based artist filmmaker Zanny Begg, whose video Stories of Kannagi has been nominated for the Blake Prize, an art prize that engages artists creating works about spirituality, religion, and justice (or their lack thereof).

“It’s about the central female character Kannagi, who is known to be a chaste and docile woman for a long time, but when she is confronted with injustice, she transforms into a fiery character who delivers a strong speech to the king,” Zanny told Indian Link. “Her speech is so powerful that the king gives up his power and the city is consumed in flames.”

Zanny Begg Artist filmmaker stories of kannagi
Artist filmmaker Zanny Begg. Source: ACMI/Twitter

She was introduced to Kannagi when Jiva Parthipan, cultural development officer at a non-profit called STARTTS (Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) approached her with the idea for the project. Jiva has been working with the Tamil community (including Tamil refugees) for the last 3 years teaching them about filmmaking.

The idea immediately appealed to Zanny, all of whose works are defined by strong female leads.

The story of Kannagi

Kannagi is the protagonist in a 2000-year-old Tamil epic called Silappathikaram meaning ‘the tale of an anklet’ in Tamil. A classic, it is taught in local language schools as part of the Tamil curriculum in Australia.

There are Kannagi temples all over southern India and Sri Lanka to this day. Devotees visit these temples to ask for divine intervention when faced with problems.

“In Sri Lanka, it took on another angle. In 2009, at the end of the war, the UN had departed and there were no external witnesses. So, people believed that Kannagi was the sole witness to the war and will give them justice and to the people who are still missing,” Jiva Parthipan explained.

Jiva Parthipan

Stories that stand the test of time, especially stories of survival and resilience, deeply interest Zanny. Additionally, Kannagi is not perfect, and flawed characters, Zanny muses, are “the most interesting”.

“Hers is an ancient story which resonates with life today, particularly in the Australian context, where we have total injustice towards refugees and migrants,” Zanny stated. “So, having this powerful figure who basically tells the ruler of the land that he doesn’t deserve to rule anymore because he hasn’t been a just ruler, resonated with me. I felt a powerful attraction to the story.”

READ ALSO: ‘Stories of Kannagi’ earns judge’s nod at Blake Art Prize

The power of language

The video also features Sri Lankan Tamil writers Niromi de Soyza, Shankari Chandaran and Srisha Sritharan, to interpret the idea of love in Silappathikaram in current times. All three writers are based in Australia and prominently use language as a form of dissent.

“I was interested in the power of language and Jiva was creating an exhibition called Older Than Language which was about the role of language in exiled communities,” Zanny Begg said. “So, I chose to focus on three writers who were using language to challenge injustices whether it was through books, memoirs or slam poetry. I thought it was a nice bounce point between this 2,000-year story of Kannagi and the way in which these women were using language as a form of resistance today.”

Begg initially created a film called I am Kannagi about a young Tamil woman seeking asylum in Sydney which made the rounds at film festivals, and later collaborated with linguists to create Stories of Kannagi, a video artwork for exhibitions.

Rubi Balasingam as Kannagi. stories of kannagi
Rubi Balasingam as Kannagi. Source: Zanny Begg

Aside from making a few calls to casting agents, it was difficult to find bilingual actors and actresses for the project.

“It had to be people from within the project we were working on and nearly all of them were untrained actors,” Jiva Parthipan added.

Even the visual language in the video lends itself to a beautiful and vibrant landscape. Stories of Kannagi shows an incredible wedding sequence which was filmed at a wedding reception venue in Pendle Hill.

“I did all the drawing which formed all the drapes for the mandap of the wedding. We kept that background even with the contemporary interviews with the writers to maintain a visual link between the old story and the contemporary context,” Zanny said.

The music in the film was created by local composer James Brown in collaboration with Srisha Sritharan, a Sydney-based poet who lent her voice to the composition.

Being named as a finalist for the Blake Art Prize was moment of great pride for Zanny.

“I’m just proud of the whole team. I feel like the story has this incredible spiritual dimension and looks at justice, exile, and colonialism through the prism of stories, culture, and spirituality. Feels lovely that there’s that kind of recognition for this project. I feel like I got to know the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Sydney more and I’m so grateful to Jiva for asking to me to come onboard,” she remarked.

See Stories of Kannagi at the Blake Prize Exhibition at Sydney’s Casula Powerhouse Art Centre, 13 Feb – 11 April 2021.

READ ALSO: Falling into Ramesh Nithiyendran’s ‘outstretched arms’ at the Archibald

Bageshri Savyasachi
Bageshri Savyasachi
Truth-telling, tree-hugging journalist.

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