Prints from photographs taken by Colonel James Francis Tennant (1829-1915). The upper picture shows the eclipse at the moment of totality, and the lower one immediately before its cessation. Observed from Guntoor, India. Total Solar Eclipse Observed from India in 1868, Pl. VII, published 1872, courtesy Science History Institute.

Earth’s Moon has a diameter about 400 times smaller than the Sun. It is also about 400 times closer to Earth than the Sun. This means that both the Sun and the Moon appear to be the same size in Earth’s sky. This hasn’t always been the case and it will not be the case forever. The Earth’s tides are gradually causing a movement of the Moon away from the Earth, about 4 cm every year, and in the future there will be no total solar eclipses, as the Moon fails to completely cover the sun’s photosphere. This orbital evolution also implies that total solar eclipses in the distant past would have been just that - completely obliterating the Sun from view. At this time, the Earth has the best view of a solar eclipse, comparable to none in the solar system.

This moment or window of opportunity to be able to view the total solar eclipse is about 100 million years wide. It has even been suggested that the evolution of human intelligence may be linked to the apparent comparable sizes of the Sun and Moon, providing an “anthropic” explanation of why we happen to be observing such a marvel at the epoch in geological time when it happens to occur [1]. Astrophysicist and science writer Ethan Siegel says “The anthropic principle simply says that we, observers, exist. And that we exist in this Universe, and therefore the Universe exists in a way that it allows observers to come into existence.”

Or perhaps as historian Lorraine Daston has said, this is simply as case of “Strange objects, strangely seen, often by strange people”.

In 2017 on a visit to Chennai I made a trip to what used to be the site of the old Madras Observatory. The Madras Observatory was founded by the British East India Company in 1786 to promote the knowledge of Astronomy, Geography and Navigation in India. Not much remains of the erstwhile observatory (now within the grounds of the Regional Meteorological Centre) except a few relics fenced off within the campus. One of these is a massive, 10 ton, 15-foot long granite pillar, erected in 1792, which once supported a 12-inch azimuth transit circle instrument, which was used to make observations on the meridian that began on 9 January 1793.

Inside of Madras Observatory with chronometer, Source Goldingham, J. (1827). Madras Observatory Papers

The only astronomical observatory in India for over a century, the site was also a tool of colonial rule, a means of demonstrating that Britain was now the dominant power in South Asia. Inscriptions at the site in Tamil and Telugu read “posterity may be informed a thousand years hence of the period when the mathematical sciences were first planted by British liberality in Asia”.

On August 18, 1868, the Madras Observatory was one of several to organise expeditions to study a total solar eclipse, known now as the ‘King of Siam’s Eclipse’. Pierre-Jules-César Janssen, a French astronomer, noticed a yellow line in the sun’s spectrum while studying the eclipse from Guntur in Madras. And so, helium, the second most abundant element in the universe, was discovered on the sun before it was found on the earth.

In May 1882, the then government astronomer at Madras, Norman Robert Pogson, proposed the need for photography and spectrography of the sun and the stars using a twenty-inch telescope, which he proposed could be at a hill station in South India. Transfer of equipment and personnel from the Madras Observatory to Kodaikanal began in 1895 and the Observatory was founded on April 1, 1899 as a Solar Physics Observatory. Regular observations of the sun began at the Kodaikanal Observatory from early 1900s.

A map of the solar eclipse of August 18, 1868. Credit: Internet Archive, from “Archives des missions scientifiques et littéraires.”

Helium spectrum; 400 nm - 700 nm, Date 3 June 2013, 16:39:48, source Wikipedia Commons

Today the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory [2], located on the southern tip of the Palni Hills in Tamil Nadu, is run by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and is one of only two observatories in the world that has over 100 years of data on the sun and its influence on Earth and its surrounding space. Every day, (weather permitting) since 1904, the staff at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory have recorded images of our Sun. This data [3], spanning one hundred and fifteen years, has now been digitised by astrophysicists from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru.

This historical observatory which has within its archives more than 157000 images of the Sun that are slowly being digitized. 157000 distinct portraits of our nearest Star. 157000 Sun’s , observations that range from hand drawn sun spots on small disks of paper, glass photographic plates to H-alpha and Calcium H images.

Historian of science Lorraine Daston has described how,

“The practices of taking notes and paying attention as they were cultivated by early modern observers tended to fragment the object of inquiry: numbered, dated notebook entries chopped up time into slices; narrowly focused attention dissolved wholes into tiny parts. The challenge was to glue all these fragments back together again into a coherent mosaic – but not to reconstitute the actual object of observation. Instead, the result of the synthesis was a general object – variously described as an archetype, an ideal, an average, or a pure phenomenon – that was more regular, more stable, more universal, more real than any actually existing object.” [4]

Each of these tens of thousands of Sun’s are archetypes in a sense. Each a conjunction of direct observation and experience on one hand; and information and data on the other, each representing specific ways to try and understand the Sun, the Moon and our position relative to them, philosophically and scientifically.

A glass photographic plate showing a solar eclipse on June 20, 1944 as observed from the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. Image credit Rohini Devasher, courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore and the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory.

Observation log of the Sun. Image credit Rohini Devasher, courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore and the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory.

Hand-drawn observations of the solar disk. Image credit Rohini Devasher, courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore and the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory.

In 2019, as part of a project titled Saros 132 realized within the framework of Five Million Incidents, 2019-2020 supported by Goethe-Insitut / Max Mueller Bhavan in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective, I planned an expedition to the KSO. December 26, 2019 at 08:07 am, the cities of Kodaikanal, Ooty, Dindigul in Tamil Nadu, Mangaluru in Karnataka and Kozhikode, Thalassery in Kerala, among others witnessed one such spectacular celestial event, an Annular Solar Eclipse, where because of its distance from the Earth, the Moon was smaller than the Sun and so we saw an ‘annulus’ or ring around the Moon, which gives this kind of eclipse its other name ‘the ring of fire’. And on December 26, 2019, I was at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory standing once more in the shadow of the Moon.

What would a reading of the categories of Event and Site open up for how we observe time and ourselves within the solar system? The history of observation is also a history of methods of imagining and understanding time. Time, both dynamic and precise, as lived, imagined and understood through the history of observation both personal and abstract. The work that is in progress as a result of this research ( text, videos, drawings and prints) hopes to bring into conversation the geometry of the Earth, Moon and Sun, but also the geometry between event (the solar eclipse) and site (the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory) in some sort of spatial and temporal conjunction.

An eclipse of ideas; of direct observation and experience on one hand; and information and data on the other, each representing specific ways to try and understand the Sun, the Moon and our position relative to them, philosophically and scientifically.

[1] Walker, John, Moon near Perigee, Earth near Aphelion , July 10, 2004
[2] The Kodaikanal Solar Observatory by Astroproject https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5QKV2CKazw
[3] Sun through the eyes of the Kodaikanal Observatory (1909-2007) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_RY-M60U2M
[4] Observation as a Way of Life: Time, Attention, Allegory, Lorraine Daston, THE HANS RAUSING LECTURE 2010, UPPSALA UNIVERSITY


Conjunctions, Rohini Devasher, July 2020.
This Essay was originally published in the Migration Editorial of Arts Cabinet, 2019-2020.

Chennai Photo Biennale thanks the artist Rohini Devasher and the Migration Editorial for permitting us to reprint the essay for CPB3 – Maps of Disquiet

CPB-III Screening Room

300 kilometers or the Apparent Path of the Sun

Two channal video
Duration: 10:30 mins
Language: English subtitles
Location: Goethe Institut, Chennai
Days Timings
Wednesdays & Saturday 11:00 AM & 6:00 PM
Goethe screening room schedule here.
About the artist

The artist and amateur astronomer Rohini Devasher has chased solar eclipses -- literal dialectics of negative and positive. She has worked with a community of amateur astronomers in India, building a chronicle of these people whose lives have been transformed by the night sky. Most recently she spent 26 days on board the High Trust, an oil tanker which spanned the Pacific Ocean. This journey reinforced the role of ‘observation’, and the ‘field’ or ‘site’ in her practice. Her films, prints, sounds, drawings, and mappings of the antagonism of time and space walk the fine line between wonder and the uncanny, foregrounding the 'strangeness' of encountering, observing and recording both environment and experience. In August 2021, Devasher and Pallavi Paul co-founded SPLICE, an artistic and curatorial collaborative practice.

Upcoming projects include ‘The Observatory: Second Site' an extension of the collaboration between Devasher and Legion Seven. By transforming the ordinarily immobile observatory into a peripatetic entity, this excursion into cosmological bodies and our relationships to them investigates how questions of time, scale, perception and resolution shift with the virtual interface.

Devasher is currently the Embedded Artist in Residence at The Open Data institute (ODI).

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