Legendary Pathumma and her goat

Pathumma and Goat / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP archives

Pathumma and her goat / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP archives

[Vaikom Muhammed Basheer (21st January 1908 – 5th July 1995) was a Malayalam fiction writer from the state of Kerala in India. He was a humanist, freedom fighter, novelist and short story writer. He is noted for his path-breaking, disarmingly down-to-earth style of writing that made him equally popular among literary critics as well as the common man. He is regarded as one of the most successful and outstanding writers from India. Translations of his works into other languages have won him worldwide acclaim. His notable works include Balyakalasakhi, Shabdangal, Pathummayude Aadu, Mathilukal, Ntuppuppakkaranendarnnu, Janmadinam, and Anargha Nimisham. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1982. He is fondly remembered as the Beypore Sultan].

In the year 1985, Ramavarma Thampuran started a Malayalam newsweekly called ‘Preview’. Jamal Kochangadi was the editor in chief. The editorial team policy was to cover investigative journalism including photo-features. I was part of the editorial team. PREVIEW was one of the first few dedicated news magazines in Malayalam. Due to financial challenges, the magazine was closed after a  few issues. Those few issues did enhance investigative journalism in an effective way. Together, we did few good stories. One of the story was about the female infanticide practice prevailing in Usilampatti, Madurai District, Tamil Nadu. The infanticide story was done by Pattatu kumaran and I was the photographer.  We decided to do a story on Basheer’s characters of the noted autobiographical novel Pathummayude Aadu (Pathumma’s Goat; 1959). In this humorous novel, the characters are members of his family and the action takes place at his home in Thalayolaparambu. The goat in the story belongs to his sister Pathumma.

During those times, the tradition was to give the negatives to the agencies. Usually these negatives are neither archived nor preserved. So most of these valuable images are lost forever to the public. Due to my keen interest to preserve these images, I now have few images from this series of work that we had done. These images weave the story of this unique genius. Twenty years has passed since his demise. However, his memories and his words continue to vibrate in our heart. Basheer, Sulthan of words and legend, his real characters and the surrounding landscape continue to linger fresh in my mind. Salute you Basheer Ji. Thank you.

(C) All rights reserved. All the images published in this blog is copyrighted property of  contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad. Text transcribed by Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi. Reprinting / publishing rights reserved by the author and prior permission is required for reproduction / re-publishing, For more information call {0}4175 237405 / {0}94879 56405  or mail to ekalokam@gmail.com / FACEBOOK – Abul Kalam Azad 

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Two portraits of an artist

AP Santhanaraj / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 1986

AP Santhanaraj / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 1996

Most of the Southern Indian artists remember A.P. Santhanaraj as a guru. I am not a student of Santhanaraj and have never met him in person. In the year 1996, during my usual visit to Tiruvannamalai, I saw a familiar person rushing in his moped… he was wearing just a lungi and looked like a speeding Sadhu …. There was something special about him and he resembled Santhanaraj. In my curiosity, I turned my bike and started following his bike. I must have chased him for almost a km and missed him in a turning. I was lost…. I saw a policeman nearby and enquired about Santhanaraj. The policeman asked me with a fond respect, “oh… the artist? He lives in that house…” I knocked the house and the moment he opened, I fell on his feet. He asked, “I cannot recollect you….Are you my student? Did you study in Kerala?…” I replied, “No. I know you from your photographs and many of artists friends like NN Mohandas, K. Prabhakaran, Doughlas etc., have talked a lot about you….” The very same day I took this photograph of A.P. Santhanaraj.
AP Santhanaraj / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2009

AP Santhanaraj / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2009

In the year 2009, A.P. Santhanaraj passed away and as a tribute to this legend I made the second image titled ‘Eye of an artist’.

Born on March 13th 1932 in Tiruvannamalai, Tamilnadu, Andrew Peter Santhanaraj at the age of four was considered a child prodigy for his fondness for drawing. His powerful and influential mother often distracted him with illustrated alphabets indirectly kindling his interest to the world of visual perception. The young boy was already a rebel in his own right; he considered formal learning artificial and didn’t want to join the local Danish Mission School preferring to pursue a life studying and exploring art. He had heard of the prestigious Madras College of Arts & Craft (then school), and at the age of 10 wanted to join it, but was promptly refused for being drastically underage. He had to wait another 6yrs (1948) for his dream to come true.He completed his Bachelor of Art degree in 1953 with distinction and the gold medal. He then went on to do his Post Graduation (1953 – 55) with scholarship from the same institution. Here, two doyens of the era, Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury and K.C.S. Panickar shaped his artistic persona. Both believed in non-interference and freedom to the students in their exploration with techniques, materials and basic visual elements. An approach that was congenial to the budding artist, who firmly believed that originality of vision and newness of ideas, should be the very key to learning. Those formative years at the college shaped his vision as an artist. It was here under Panicker’s sway that he developed – the idea of an ‘Indian identity’ within the parameter of world art.

In 1958 at the behest of Panicker who then was the Principal of the Madras College of Arts & Craft, he was appointed as a Lecturer at his alma mater, in the painting dept. In 1985 he became the Principal and continued till 1990. As an art master, he was considered an exemplary mentor, a genius, a pioneer and a trendsetter. In that role he shaped the futures of many promising artists of Chennai like K M Adimoolam, R B Bhaskaran, C Douglas, R M Palaniappan, K. Muralidharan and others. His eccentric nature and emotional passion left a deep impression on them. AP Santhanaraj played a dominant role in the growth and development of the ‘Madras Art Movement’. He is considered by many in South India to be the most influential artist after K.C.S. Panicker and S. Dhanapal that came out of the Madras College of Arts and Craft.

Central to his work from the start was his love for the line; its’ meandering through pictorial space. At some point in his interaction with Panicker he had said “a line is a line, it is universal”. But later in his career when Panickers’ Indian ethos had taken root within him, he qualified this statement to say …”There was something Indian even in a line”. This ethnic sensibility manifested in the primordial quality of his line drawings, giving birth to what could be termed ‘the indigenous line’. Colour was secondary to the line; its use was mostly bright and outlandish. One of the most defining aspects of AP Santhanaraj’s works is the quality of his line. It is this fundamental element, which sets apart this artists stylistic norm. He uses this element spontaneously exploring it endlessly and creating unique visual compositions with it.

A.P Santhanaraj’s contribution to Indian modern art was immense. As an artist he was dedicated to his artistic research, passionate in exploring different mediums and materials. As a teacher he was enthusiastic about his students’ progress and relentless in his effort to make a difference with his pioneering vision. He is considered as one of the pioneers and forerunners of the modern art movement in the country.

(C) All rights reserved. All the images published in this blog is copyrighted property of  contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad. Text transcribed by Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi. Reprinting / publishing rights reserved by the author and prior permission is required for reproduction / re-publishing, For more information call {0}4175 237405 / {0}94879 56405  or mail to ekalokam@gmail.com / FACEBOOK – Abul Kalam Azad 

Chemical strategies of violation

{ In the year 1990s, I met Johny ML and Mrinal. Instantly, we became very good friends. During that time, I was preparing for a show titled ‘Violence undone’ to be shown at the photography gallery of Max Mueller Bhavan. Johny had completed his Art history and on the look for good opportunties. Those times, the art world was indeed very quiet and photography was not a big bandwagon. There were not that many write-ups on photography as well. I asked them to write a piece on photography to be printed in the catalogue. This article was and is one of the most important write-ups on contemporary Indian photography. Time has changed and Johny is now one of the youngest art historians in India. He writes regularly and uses the online social media networks effectively. He discusses and deliberates on contemporary art issues in his blog http://johnyml.blogspot.in. Thank you Johny and Mrinal. }

Photography plays a double role in society as an image-making entity. On the one hand it traces an existing reality, and on the other it creates a reality of its own. By the third decade of the 19th century, photography started tracing the surroundings within painterly frames. Since then, irrespective of the models objectified by photography, it has been haunted by the ghost of painting. But certain radical approaches introduced by some exclusive photographic artists released this art form from the captivity of painting. Later on, it could exercise a sort of commanding force on other visual arts (as in Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism, Constructivism, Kinetic art, Optic art, etc).

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Serigraphy print on silver gelatin prints

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Serigraphy print on silver gelatin prints / 1990

At present, a talk on photography cannot be stretched to the extremes of formal plays. The social role it performs as an image-making entity has to be seen in certain critical perspectives. Image making is a political as well as an economic activity. In modern societies, production and consumption play a chief role. The act of mediation done by ‘images’, helps the product to reach the maximum number of consumers. Susan Sontag, in her book ‘On Photography’, says that the image determines our demands upon reality and are themselves coveted substitutes for first hand experience.

While Sontag talks about the power politics or political (as well as sociological) power of photography, Roland Barthes approaches it in purely phenomenological terms. To him, photography is another form of death. The surface of a photograph is a layer which distances it from the living society. In turn, by enacting the role of an observer, society detaches itself from the photographic image with its own outer layer, i.e. the skin.

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Doodles on Silver Gelatin prints / 1995

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Doodles on Silver Gelatin prints / 1995

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Doodles on Silver Gelatin prints / 1995

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Doodles on Silver Gelatin prints / 1995

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Doodles on Silver Gelatin prints / 1995

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Doodles on Silver Gelatin prints / 1995

This distancing process is continued in the act of photography too. The experience of photography lies in the observed subject and the subject observing. Again Barthes stresses this dual experience in terms of pure objectification. The role changes happen in the observed subject and the subject observing. This eventually makes the resultant experience (the photograph) a museum object.

The different forces that underlie the act of observation and the experience of “being observed” become clearer in portrait photography. Barthes says in ‘Camera Lucida’: “Portrait photography is a closed field of forces. Four image repertories interest here, oppose and intersect each other.  In front of the lens, I am at the same time the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he make use of, to exhibit his art.

John Berger approaches photography in sociological terms. From the characters, captured in a photograph, he deduces several social meanings: their social positions and individual positions. These different approaches by three eminent critics make us think more on this medium of art as an exclusive genre. With far advanced technologies, our times produce photographs instantly and for various purposes. It would be interesting to see the role of photography in contemporary society.

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints / 1995

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints /1995

As a mode of communication, photography plays a dominant role in our image-saturated world. Our communication media is so saturated that most of the images coming cut out remain excess and floating. They impose rather then guide. The over-abundance of image makes the intended meaning banal.

In this atmosphere of total banality, how does an image work effectively? Besides its power of creating an unreal demand, how does it precisely create a real understanding of the message which it carries? The difference between the banality of an image and its power of communication is very subtle. Therefore, the artist who works with an image, especially in that of a photograph, should be extremely careful in discerning this subtlety.

Thanks to scientific advancement, the field of photography (the camera as a physical device and the film as a comical one) has attained an unprecedented progress in recent years. Its use in cinema and computerised visuals has revolutionised all the pre-existing concept of photography. The observations made by Barthes, Sontag and Berger, find their respective limitations in the present visual arena. Though these theories are still applicable, the day to day progress in photography demands a more radical approach in its uses (by creative artists) as well as its reading (by critics).

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints / 1990

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints / 1992

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints / 1994

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints / 1990

Abul’s photographs (or work with photographs?) necessitate such a different approach for their successive readings. There is something blasphemous in the conversion of a news photographer into an artist who uses photographs for his creative expression. The blasphemy lies in his bold attempt to subvert the common norms attributed to a photo journalist. The masters in Indian photography most often follow a set pattern. “Photography makes exotic things familiar and familiar things exotic”, says Sontag, “and therefore has a depersonalizing effect.” This depersonalisation of Indians, whether from rural and metroscapes, by the ‘masters’ made India an object of consumption.

Abul’s photographs negate this kind of objectification. He has taken photographs of the ethnic type not only in India but also abroad. He has portrayed the working boys in Mumbai streets as well as the monumental sculptures (of bygone luminaries) in Mumbai city squares. But his specific selection of angels prevents them from being museum objects or exotic pieces.

Photography itself is a violation of the privacy of somebody or something. The clicking sound of a camera shutter is analogous of a death knell. In the act of photography, Abul says, a violation and a killing happen simultaneously. Once these chemicals impressions are presented as they are, it would be a reassertion of violation. But Abul makes another violation on the photograph, which is already a result of the primary violation.

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints / 1990-95

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints / 1990-95

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints / 1990-95

Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Scratches and doodles on silver gelatin prints / 1990-95

Abul draws on photographs. The act of scratching and drawing certain images, mainly images of violation like sword, torch, etc., on photographs brings forth a sort of witchcraft. Violation is vigorous, and the result could be a resurrection. Hence the two-dimensional works of Abul find their way directly into the discourse of contemporary social life. He negates the negation, and violates the violation. So the resultant works oscillate between the social dialectics; creation and destruction, spiritualism and fundamentalism, pacifism and fascism.

Deriving a homogeneous opinion about Abul’s works is a difficult matter. Due to the diversity in the process of work, arrangement and presentation, these works fall in and out of a logical groove. The difficulty that Abul finds at times in positioning his works as well as himself in the current art discourse seems mainly because of his overindulgence with Barthesian ideas.

By comprehending his subjectivity historically and its interaction with social and art practice politically, Abul could make his peripheral strategies politically clear in the current discourses. If Abul is able to keep this perspective intact and work persistently, he could bring the matter in the mainstream discourses on peripheral issues.

By,

Johny M.L. and Mrinal M.Kulkarni

This article was originally published in the catalogue of the show, Violence Undone, 1996. The solo show was done at Photography Gallery of Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi.

(C) All rights reserved. All the images published in this blog is copyrighted property of  contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad. Text (C) Johny ML and Mrinial Kulkarni. Reprinting / publishing rights reserved by the author and prior permission is required for reproduction / re-publishing, For more information call {0}4175 237405 / {0}94879 56405  or mail to ekalokam@gmail.com / FACEBOOK – Abul Kalam Azad 

Truth of the Matter; Reality of the Image

[ I know R. Nandakumar through his writings on photography and art. In the year 2005, I met him in Trivandrum during artist K. Prabhakaran’s exhibition. A common friend, Lt. K. Ravindran (Chinda) connected us. Those times, Joesph Chakola was opening his new gallery called ISHKA. The inaugural show was a solo show of mine titled ‘Animals’ curated by  R. Nandakumar. Below is the curatorial note. R. Nandakumar now lives and works in Delhi. He has received Nehru Foundation Fellowship 2014.

– Abul Kalam Azad ]

R. Nandakumar,  on the photography of Abul Kalam Azad

If representations positioned subjects ideologically then a politics of photography had a broadly political role to play in contributing to the transformation of dominant forms of subjectivity. It was less a case of theorizing photography than placing photography in a theoretical relationship to politics.

– John Roberts

Man with tools / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition/ Painted photographs on canvas / 2012

Man with tools / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition/ Painted photographs on canvas / 2012

Ever since the modernist phase, photography has moved into the aestheticised institutional space of the gallery, subjecting itself to the protocols of the gallery system and finding its place in the arts discourse, rather leaving behind the context of the portfolio editions and the mass circulation illustrated magazines, through the curatorial efforts of the likes of Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and John Szarkowsky. But for photography to be faced with the threat of aesthetic closure in which the modernist norm of self-referentiality amounted to a refusal to communicate, was plainly a contradiction in terms. While the snapshot tradition of the family album and the ephemera of the free-floating vernacular photography in its ubiquitousness have been appropriated into the canon of modernism, it got an aesthetic legitimacy in the name of pop. However, the process of aesthetic appropriation had invariably blunted the political edge and played down the social relevance of the factographic and the reportorial functions of the early documentary tradition and its contribution to a realism of the everyday as by the workers’ photography movement. As most of the theorists of modernism had conferred the long-awaited artistic status to the photographic image, it had at the same time liberated the medium from some of the long-debated conceptual and theoretical issues centred on the problematique of the ‘ontology of the photographic image’ (to say after George Santayana), especially in its indexical relation to reality. However, this shift by no means took photography to the untroubled area of the aestheticised image production by attracting and invoking the normative preconditions for it in terms of the signature style, the authorial presence and the ‘singularly’ artistic disposition of the photographer. On the contrary, its new uses in the ‘art’ tradition has again aligned it to a more radical practice with political orientation as in the works ranging from photo-conceptualists like Victor Burgin to Jeff Wall, Jo Spence and Cindy Sherman. The contradictions here are too glaring to be overlooked by any sensitive practitioner as, for one thing, such a practice has to take recourse to the ways of the art world even as it finds itself at odds with it. Like any radical artists anywhere who have learned to live with these contradictions even as they feel called upon to resist them by problematising the very relations that define their subject position vis-à-vis the Art (with A capital A) Establishment and get the better of them, Abul Kalam Azad in choosing to do what he does as a photographer, does not assign his works to be subsumed under the aestheticised notion of ‘official’ art photography predicated on signature styles.

Man with tools / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition/ Painted photographs on canvas / 2012

Man with tools / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition/ Painted photographs on canvas / 2012

Preoccupied with the contradictions and aporias involved in the critical practice of the photographic medium, Azad can be seen to be addressing some of the tenuous issues that have been haunting the medium and the social and political implications of its theoretical premises in the postmodern Indian context. For one thing, Azad has an ambivalent relation to the legacy of the positivist-realist aesthetic underpinnings of the produced image in its representational function as upheld in the reportorial-documentary tradition, though the latter has for long been his remit in his career of photojournalism. At the same time as he creates an ambivalent zone of referentiality around the image as signifier, Azad does not go all the way to negate the referential function of the photograph as the realistic image of reality by divesting it of its indexicality. In a sense he has been consistently trying to circumvent the instrumental rationality that has been invariably associated with the medium by reworking the transparency of the ‘obvious’ as a kind of counter thrust against the empirical facticity of ‘correspondence’. The various non-perspectival (and anti-graphic) stylistic means that Azad employs as a visual strategy to under-narrativise the ‘obvious’ in his work have in fact a bearing on this concern. As for example, to create a pictorial space that is different from the monocular in its function as the field of spatial signification, he evokes an afocal and non-projective space as the site of (pictorial) articulation. It is in this context that the differential focus that he uses in the Divine Façade series or the soft focus he uses in the Black Mother series has to be seen. Though his preferred medium remains basically the analogue, he has of late turned to digital mode because of the possibility it offers in countering the claims to unmediated ‘truth’ of the specular image as representation that characterise the chemically produced image. Related to this is also why, even from earlier on, he has been scratching the negative with doodles in an attempt to deface and mar the glossy cosmetic finish of the print surface which in corporate photography has been used to equate the ‘quality’ (technical) of produced image with a specific ‘value’ (aesthetic).

Over all, the corpus of Azad’s work can be seen to have a thrust towards an archive of local micro-history at the level of personal memory and in that sense, his works add up to a kind of social anthropology of his land and its people, though not necessarily in the line of tradition of the objective documentary. In fact, the antiquated mediaeval-looking small town environment of Mattanchery in central Kerala (where Azad presently lives) with its still visible colonial legacy bequeathed by the successive foreign rulers from the Portuguese and Dutch to the British, forms a world by itself in his photographic oeuvre, with its local legends and local worthies.   Coming under the influence of the savant and social reformer of the early part of the last century in Kerala, Sree Narayana Guru, Azad’s work is informed by a worldview that is evidently a convergence of the two strands of progressive social thinking and a form of spirituality that does not deny the material world. This can be seen from the way Azad thematises his perceptions of the unheroic and mundane local history through the tableau of his staged ‘realism’ as much as in his use of the predominantly sombre tonality of the monochrome in most of his work. Added to this is the choice of his angle so as to enframe spatial vista that is allusive of the sky s the realm of aether and an aspect of the elements in cosmological reckoning. Here the richly nuanced monochromatic tonality, though it adds a certain crepuscular lyricism to most of his work, is more than anything expressive of a certain ambivalence in his attitude to the phenomenal world of appearances as is only consistent with his perceptions as mentioned before.

UNTOUCHABLES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2000 - 2005

UNTOUCHABLES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2000 – 2005

UNTOUCHABLES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2000 - 2005

UNTOUCHABLES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2000 – 2005

UNTOUCHABLES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2000 - 2005

UNTOUCHABLES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2000 – 2005

UNTOUCHABLES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2000 - 2005

UNTOUCHABLES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2000 – 2005

UNTOUCHABLES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2000 - 2005

UNTOUCHABLES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2000 – 2005

Black Mother series, done during the period from 2000 to 2003, on his return to Kerala after a stay outside, depicts the female oracles at the time of the festival at the Devi temple at Kodungalloor which is related according to local legends to the myth of Kannaki. These oracles in the various stages of trance, can be seen stomping around, sword in hand, in convulsive movements of frenzy. Weird-looking in their hysteric outbursts, the women oracles are part of the temple functionaries who devote themselves at the service of these unique customs and rituals observed in the temple that are related to ancient and possibly, pre-Brahminic mother goddess cults. Though the atmosphere is charged and overwrought with a kind of high-strung atavistic fervour, the images of these women in their redemptive bodily movements of self-mortification, have hardly any religious awe about them. Far from the casual gaze of an outsider looking at an esoteric spectacle in bemused curiosity, Azad’s register of visual engagement in these works, at the same time, eschews that of subjective identification at the level of a participant or devotee though the choice of his angle is perfectly in empathy with what is seen at that level of experience. Whether the figure of the oracle or some ritual object on the ground, his angle keeps them on level with the camera eye which does not necessarily correspond with that of the normally positioned human eye. He allows a certain intermediary spatial distance so as not to foreground the figures by letting them loom large within the frame. Though there is a conscious avoidance of any high-definition clarity of the image, the remnants of the ritual paraphernalia in the background and the ritual trappings on the body of the performer are an invariable part of the composition such that they together inflect meaning tangentially in a different direction. This becomes clear when the oracle series (significantly called “Body, Blood and Song” originally) is read alongside the other series called “Goddess” – both challenging the accepted notions of the cultural stereotypes of feminine subjectivity in relation to the female body. Though the frame itself emphasises frontality of point of view, the figures in the former are at times partially left out or cut at half length or are silhouetted but, however, are invariably seen with their ritual accoutrements like the anklet, the sword, the string of bells around their waist, etc. These part objects (as partial drives, in the Lacanian sense) evoke a specific referential field in the whole range of Azad’s work as the metonymic image. For instance, the anklet, here though in the context of the specific ritual has feminine connotations through its mythical associations with Kannaki, the protagonist of the myth, is in the performative context gender-free as it is worn by both male and female oracles as well as performers of other dance forms. However, the sword that the female oracle wields and with which she inflicts self-torture, has culture-specific and trans-cultural phallic associations, to follow the argument of David Shulman in his study of the local Tamil versions of the Mahishasura Mardini myth. Considering the fact that the occasion is also marked by the loud and uninhibited singing of frankly erotic songs replete with pornographic details, especially by women, the psycho-somatics of trance as the interface between devotion and deviance, mark a form of gender transcendence and switching of identities through the bodily experience of the ritual. The withered and world-weary look on these abject faces that is unrelieved by even the ritual trappings that attest to their sanctified status, makes of them less of any divinity than what is discreetly suggested of their socially marginalized existence.

'Black Mother' - Heroine of Silapathikaram / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Bromoil prints / 2000

‘Black Mother’ – Heroine of Silapathikaram / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Bromoil prints / 2000

'Black Mother' - Heroine of Silapathikaram / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Bromoil prints / 2000

‘Black Mother’ – Heroine of Silapathikaram / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Bromoil prints / 2000

'Black Mother' - Heroine of Silapathikaram / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Bromoil prints / 2000

‘Black Mother’ – Heroine of Silapathikaram / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Bromoil prints / 2000

'Black Mother' - Heroine of Silapathikaram / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Bromoil prints / 2000

‘Black Mother’ – Heroine of Silapathikaram / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Bromoil prints / 2000

Never the less, as embodying two aspects of femininity, the two series The Black Mother and The Goddess have a point of convergence in that as representations they are halfway between narcissistic self-projection (erotic) and voyeuristic social construction (self-induced trance transmitted to others by look). In the latter series, the sexual visibility of the representations of femininity related both to voyeurism and self-display as they figure in the narratives of culture, is turned against itself in a subversive gesture. The prurient and the surreptitious about them which have been accorded an aesthetic gloss in the fine art traditions in terms of the idealized classic female body, are here laid bare by a kind of vandalisation of the image by erasing its indexicality to become a transformed somatic grotesquerie. The frayed edges, the tattered look of the picture surface, the sequined private parts of the body and the body itself in negative impression, while asserting the aspect of image manipulation as a process in representation, work against any voyeuristic identification with the fetishistic representation of the sexualised female body. The enlarged screen dots on these photocopied images make visible their accessed source and point to the banality of their context of circulation in the scopic regime of mass culture.

GODDESSES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Sequence on silver bromide prints / 1995

GODDESSES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Sequence on silver bromide prints / 1995

GODDESSES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Sequence on silver bromide prints / 1995

GODDESSES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Sequence on silver bromide prints / 1995

GODDESSES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Sequence on silver bromide prints / 1995

GODDESSES / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Sequence on silver bromide prints / 1995

In keeping with his perceptions, Azad historicises the referentiality of the image in a particular way as in the series Man with Tools or the series on animals. Through the staged realism of the anecdotal in the former series he invokes an indirect association of the genre and an allusion to the colonial practice of ethnographic photography. The anecdotal is transformed into a historicized referent signifying the occupation-based social division that had been the ideological base and historical determinant of the caste system and its present day manifestations. And as genre the images seek to thematise the familiar and the socially recognizable in a formally uncoded and under-aestheticised representation of the everyday. All of them are posed photographs of their subjects and the avoidance of anything suggestive of the candid and the spontaneous is a significant deviation from the norm of the genre. This also invests these figures with an assertive self-identity and an awareness on their part of their respective class position, making them rightly the protagonists of historical process. Their look straight out at the camera ready to be photographed make those images more in the manner of posed studio snap shots but used as a visual strategy it establishes the fact of their being a construct. For example, the toddy tapper for whom the ‘tools’ are an identity prop indicating the community he belongs to, for which toddy tapping is the hereditary occupation and hence derives his social context and subject position from the ascriptive caste identity. In a significant twist to the theme, he shows the picture of a young man, apparently a hireling with political connections, happy with himself sitting smugly under the images of his patron saints who are at the same time his tools and for whom he is the tool.

In the latter series, the animals with their ancient totemic associations characteristic of an indigenous tradition and bestowed later with an otherworldly mythical status through appropriation by the dominant religion of the land, have been transmogrified as it were, into an intermediary state between the sacred and profane. As for instance, the image of the prostrating elephant is not that of any elephant; but the partially seen image of the animal is image as metonymy with its mythical associations of the elephant in the Dream of Maya associated with the birth of the Buddha which has many sculptural representations in ancient Indian art. If the use of metonymy here is expressive of a kind of perspectival ambivalence between representation and indexicality, sign as metonymy inflects meaning from the referential of the represented image, in this case, through intertextuality.

Digital Moon / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2006

Digital Moon / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2006

Digital Moon / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2006

Digital Moon / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2006

Digital Moon / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2006

Digital Moon / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Archival pigment prints / 2006

His concerns both photographically and ideologically come to a point of convergence in the series the Divine Façades. Here also the human figures are self-consciously posed but are foregrounded in the frame and take their place in front of historical monuments. The dominant spatial relations as articulated in the various interpersonal modalities of behavioural spaces in a society gain a particular cultural visibility as embodying the institutionalised patterns of inter-subjectivity. In this series of photographs Azad uses photography as a means of engaging these dominant spatial relations and of re-spatialising the human figure in its relation of an anonymous presence to the public sphere. By subverting the normative human module of classical proportions Azad creates an unobtrusive spatial disjunction between the figure and the ground that throws the scale relations into disarray which is made the more so by the discreet use of differential focus between the frontal figure and the ground. The result is that the use of foreground details that are at times conspicuously truncated by the frame evoking a metonymic referentiality in relation to the human figure which itself is less in focus than the background including the historical motifs, allows the space of human presence to be inscribed with a certain transitoriness of temporality that moves it out of the theme of history. The stillness of archaeological distance of the background comes into interaction with the live human presence which at the same time activates a spatial and temporal immanence of which the historical motifs are themselves a part, for it to engage with. In fact, in a work that is singularly distinguished in the whole series – the photograph with an outstretched hand almost covering the lens – Azad asserts that he has still resort to the pictorial and graphic means of visual resources to make a point photographically. The outstretched hand in a gesture of covering the lens and by extension, of blotting out the image, is a connotative manipulation of the part object (the hand) to signify the powers at work to suppress and to gag freedom of expression. The choice of a slightly low angle accentuates the directional opposition between the two axes of the hand and of the monument, to pull apart violently, thus dramatising the spatial articulation.

Divine Facade / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Doodles on silver bromide prints / 1995

Divine Facade / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Doodles on silver bromide prints / 1995

Divine Facade / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Doodles on silver bromide prints / 1995

Divine Facade / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Doodles on silver bromide prints / 1995

Divine Facade / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Doodles on silver bromide prints / 1995

Divine Facade / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / Single edition / Doodles on silver bromide prints / 1995

Azad’s method of working in a sense seeks to be aligned as much with the tradition of the artist’s print as with photography itself as is borne out by his painstaking use of layering and superimposition in the large digital prints on canvas, his use of bromoil to achieve a jaded, archival quality in his monochrome chemical prints and his manner of scratching the negative to debunk the aura of the unique, all in a gesture of resistance to the slick and glossy finish of commercial photography. Where he resorts to the digitally reprographic resources of image production, as he does of late, it is because it offers the image to be “reproduced” as image-units that can be worked over and deployed as it were, in multiples and serials in various compositional schema. These images as recurring motifs in their connotative function are like morphed mutants, so to say, that keep reappearing in different configurations with minimally variable attributes and go to make an intertextuality at the level of discursive meaning representation.

Prof. R. Nandakumar

Thiruvananthapuram,

November 2007

*John Roberts, The Art of Interruption: Realism, photography and the everyday, (Manchester University Press 1998), p. 148

(C) All rights reserved. All the images published in this blog is copyrighted property of  contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad. Text (C) Prof. R. Nandakumar. Reprinting / publishing rights reserved by the author and prior permission is required for reproduction / re-publishing, For more information call {0}4175 237405 / {0}94879 56405  or mail to ekalokam@gmail.com / FACEBOOK – Abul Kalam Azad 

Magnetic light of the fire mountain

Photos of the gods

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24"x24" / 2008 - 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24″x24″ / 2008 – 2010

My first encounter with the Agni Shylam was incidental. Aruncahala hill is considered as one of the important elements ‘fire’. Geologically this hill is dated to be older than Himalayas and theologically Arunachala hill is equivalent to Senai, Machapuchare and other holy hills. Dravidians (nature worshipers) worship the hill and perambulate the 14 km circumference through out the year. The recurrent references to hills, caves, saints, idols, angels, gods, and goddesses during my early childhood religious (Islamic) surrounding made me search for the deeper essence of nature and nature worship. Even though I came here incidentally, I realised that this is a place that celebrates light, an important ingredient for my medium. I was being pulled by the magnetic light of the fire mountain.

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24"x24" / 2008 - 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24″x24″ / 2008 – 2010

I started observing and visiting the town regularly. For almost twelve years I didn’t take any photographs, I was immersed into the mystical dimension of light. In the year 2011, I moved to Tiruvannamalai. ‘Photo’s of the gods’ is one of the earliest series (12 photographs) that I made in Tiruvannamalai. All the analog images of the ‘Photos of the gods’ series is taken along the 14km girivalam path. Everyday, I encounter these sculptures as mundane objects, but then these are owned and worshiped by millions of people. For me, ‘Photos of the gods’ series is a symbol of Dravidian culture and identity. It is not a philosophy but a dharshanam (visual culture) in Dravidian (pre-vedic / paganistic) society. May be, I am worshiping these forms at my subconscious level or I am using them as contemporary art objects for my art practice. Either way, it makes me feel that I am part of the pre-hindu (vedic) society and I look this images as a parallax of the culture…

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24"x24" / 2008 - 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24″x24″ / 2008 – 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24"x24" / 2008 - 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24″x24″ / 2008 – 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24"x24" / 2008 - 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24″x24″ / 2008 – 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24"x24" / 2008 - 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24″x24″ / 2008 – 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24"x24" / 2008 - 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24″x24″ / 2008 – 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24"x24" / 2008 - 2010

Photos of the gods / Archival pigment prints / 24″x24″ / 2008 – 2010

19th October 2014
Abul Kalam Azad

(C) All rights reserved. All the images published in this blog is copyrighted property of  contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad. Text transcribed by TSL Nadar. Reprinting / publishing rights reserved by the author and prior permission is required for reproduction / re-publishing, For more information call {0}4175 237405 / {0}94879 56405  or mail to ekalokam@gmail.com / FACEBOOK – Abul Kalam Azad 

Senti-mental (2005-2010)

A Kaleidoscope view of life, history and time

Kaleidoscope reminds me of those memorable childhood times… I remember the weekly chandha (market) in my town. An old Muslim fakir used to sell colorful paper covered kaleidoscopes. Almost every week my father had to buy me a new one, as I would have already opened the mysterious kaleidoscope to see what is inside, to know how it works and in the process would have destroyed the kaleidoscope. The joy of looking through those mirrors remained with me like a psychedelic trip…. During early 90s, my experimental photography works included double exposure; scratching on negatives; doodling / painting / needle work on expensive prints; cutting, cropping and manipulating the prints to bring about a Kaleidoscopic view, etc. During 2005, I also had to give way to the growing digital medium and had to start using digital platforms. Using photoshop, I created this body of work titled ‘Senti-mental – a Kaleidoscopic view of life, history and time’. Most of the original analog photographs were taken by me. I also collected / bought quite a few studio portraits from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Those Polaroid images have become a mirror image of that time, space and memory…  I worked on this series for about 5 years. These works have not been exhibited so far.

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60"x60"/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60″x 60″/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60"x60"/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60″x 60″/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

 

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60"x60"/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60″x 60″/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60"x60"/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60″x 60″/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

 

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60"x60"/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60″x 60″/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

 

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60"x60"/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

Senti-mental / Photograph (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 60″x 60″/Archival pigment prints 2005-2010

8th October 2014

Tiruvannamalai

(C) All rights reserved. All the images published in this blog is copyrighted property of  contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad. Text transcribed by TSL Nadar. Reprinting / publishing rights reserved by the author and prior permission is required for reproduction / re-publishing, For more information call {0}4175 237405 / {0}94879 56405  or mail to ekalokam@gmail.com / FACEBOOK – Abul Kalam Azad 

A Devil in God’s own country

They call it God’s own country. We call it Keralam. It was part of Ancient Tamizhagam. It is a beautiful strip of land mass along the western coast of India. In fact Keralam lives in the minds of people, in memories, in songs and in general nostalgia. This land is a land of imagination, anxiety and restlessness. Those who could put up with it continue to live there and those could not just get out of that place and go elsewhere. They see the land from a distance. Those who have left for economic reasons look at the place with intense nostalgia and those who have left it for intellectual reasons look at the state with a sense of detachment tinged with affection that people show for estranged beloveds. It is a familiar and unfamiliar place for many. It renews itself through the changes in its topography. Trees give way to concrete buildings fitted with air conditioners, wastelands turn into malls, imagination migrates into cyberspaces and monotony of daily lives merges with incestuous relationships. We underline our achievements with literacy, heightened sense of morality, schools, colleges, hospitals and the proliferation of all other ideological state apparatuses. In short, whether we live in Keralam or not we are a sort of happy people with pain hidden behind our intellectual and emotional veils.

Hari Narayanan's room / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

Hari Narayanan’s room / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

I am an insider and outsider at the same time. I am born to a Tamil Muslim family but was brought up in Kochi. Growing up was interesting as Kochi had a history of migration, colonization and imagination. And from there I understood what a nation means. I was fiercely attached to my place of growing up. I breathed the winds of history and registered in my eyes the remnants of past and the evolution of the present. But the time came when I was in college pursuing my degree. The sails had filled with air and the mast was up, the ropes were untied from the dock and the siren was blown. My journey then onwards has been in the boats of silver nitrate coated plastic films. I sensed life through images. Each time I came back with new equipments and experiences I saw a different motherland- a changing Keralam.

With a smile I take pride in my Keralam. It is here that you see a temple, a mosque and a church squatting at the same square with loudspeakers spreading the same messages of love, adoration and worship in different languages and tones. Below the sound waves the cacophony of life moves on. When I zoom into the religious zest of people here the cacophony fades out and when I focus on the people religions become a blurry image. Along the streets new gods look at me; perhaps they are not new gods. They have been there for a long time exhorting people to fight for their rights. The triumvirate of the religion of Marxism- Marx, Engels and Lenin- sit pretty at the glossy flex boards the way the triumvirates of any religion sit authoritatively. Intense heat of summer months drive people behind these flex boards and hoardings. That’s how politics give shelter to people in my state. But isn’t it a world phenomenon?

Hari Narayanan's room / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

Hari Narayanan’s room / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

Hari Narayanan's room / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

Hari Narayanan’s room / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

Keralam consumes everything that comes its way- literature to cinema to tandoori chicken to Chinese food. Consuming becomes a spicier affair for a Malayali in Kerala because it is always tinged by intellectual resistance. And one could see the silver and golden lining at the horizon. Former fields where rice grew and the distances where hills merged into the foliages of trees and airbrushed by the fronts of coconut trees amongst which small little temples with a lonely devotee lighting up a single lamp visible from a distance like a wandering minstrel’s humming of ecstasy, all have been now barred from vision. In their places there stand large hoardings with slender bodied female models selling off gold ornaments. In Keralam women don’t look like the models in the billboards. Still they starve themselves to buy gold. People say gold is an investment. So has become the purdah. I see the advertisements of burqa all over.

Hari Narayanan's room / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

Hari Narayanan’s room / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

Each Malayali is like a hummingbird that makes its nest. Malayali flies away to different places only to come back to the state to make their concrete houses. They make it and then fly away, leaving the forlorn relatives to live in these places as security guards of someone’s ego and pride. Intellectual Malayali lives in a sepia tinted time and space. He sings old songs, he sees classical movies and he argues endlessly over cheap liquor. Drinking liquor has levelled the status of Malayali. If drinking had once determined the level of intellectual quotient of a Malayali (intellectuals always reeked in the smell of alcohol), today Keralam is a landmass of intellectuals who have embraced the life of bottle; gold and booze have become the two guiding principles. Literature happens in intervals of waking up.

Hari Narayanan's room / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

Hari Narayanan’s room / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

Artists, film makers, singers, dancers, office goers, factory workers, labourers and idlers understand Kerala only when they move out of the place and see it from a distance. If so, this place is like a coral reef full of glittering fish that never want to move away from its soothing aqua blue. Men live like film stars and women like characters in serials. Those who live elsewhere keep thinking of the possibilities of living such a life in Keralam once they come back for vacations. Everything is complacent here. If someone is allowed to drink tea and read newspaper, if someone is allowed to watch all television news, if someone is allowed to lead a procession to a temple or the secretariat, if regular supply of liquor is not cut, if gold is bought, if dowries are arranged, if deviant sexual activities are conducted, everything is fine with a Malayali. It is very difficult to be a different Malayali in Keralam.

Hari Narayanan / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

Hari Narayanan / Image (C) Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives / 2012

If you are different you should be a devil. Harinaryanan is such a Devil in God’s own country. By portraying his life and the objects in his living space, I want to see how difficult is to be different in God’s own country.

[Hari Narayanan, contemporary South Indian percussionist. He lives and works in Calicut, Kerala.]

2nd October 2014

Tiruvannamalai

(C) All rights reserved. All the text and images published in this blog is copyrighted property of  contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad. Reprinting / publishing rights reserved by the author and prior permission is required for reproduction / re-publishing, For more information call {0}4175 237405 / {0}94879 56405  or mail to ekalokam@gmail.com / FACEBOOK – Abul Kalam Azad 

Published in Gallerie  / July 2013 Issue