Metabolism of Culture 5 2017-09-20T01:32:54+00:00

Project Description

In the common discourse of History, the ordinary people are usually absent. The texts and poems composed/compiled during the classical period, combine history and hagiography to provide a spectacular narration of the life of the then rulers and dynasties, exaggerating their might, wealth, and generosity. In this regard, the classical tragedy Silappathikaram composed by Chera Prince-turned-Jain-Poet Ilango Adigal is different, as it tells the story of the common people and through their life and woes recounts the philosophy and moral ethics of the ruling dynasties. Contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad has been working on a large body of work titled ‘Story of Love, Desire and Agony’ that draws its roots from the classical tragedy Silappathikaram. The first two parts ‘Black Mother’ and ‘Contemporary heroines’ were done in present-day Kerala and the third part titled Men of Pukar is currently underway in Poompukar, Tamil Nadu, with the grant support of India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). This series has two more parts. Creating visual artworks based on literature is not new – Silappathikaram and its story or the variations of its core theme have been dramatically recreated in many art forms including cinema, all of them following an illustrative approach. Following an uncommon style, Abul Kalam Azad is providing a re-reading of the epic in the contemporary context. His works converge, diverge, and at times runs parallel to the classical tragedy, both providing vital information about the culture and lifestyle of their own times. Culture – that continuously changing complex whole, is usually acquired by a group of people at a particular time, either through natural progression or through external force. It is often used politically as a tool of the elites to manipulate the lower classes and create a false consciousness, and certain societies remain chained by these symbolisms. Silappathikaram, believed to have been composed/compiled two thousand years ago was one such tool that had deeply penetrated the southern Indian mindset. In this series, Abul juxtaposes the still lingering bits and pieces of the sangam society’s culture and tradition with the shifting social reality. His parallax vision of the epic and contemporary society is not exotic; the aesthetics is not that of the forlorn foreign perspective – he is more than a mere spectator. Abul’s view of this influential text necessitates further reading. Metabolism of culture, a series of writings by Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi is one such attempt to deconstruct the images and decipher the hidden meanings and layers of thought behind these seemingly simple and straightforward monochrome images.

“Proud yeomen worshipped God fashioned
Like their plows which with garland
Of waterlillies, aruku grass and paddy
They decorated; and sang songs in their glory
Standing by their plows in a posture
Of preparedness to plow the land entire.” – Ilango Adigal, Silappathikaram

Yet another image of a farmer. If we do a simple Google search, there will be thousands of images of them. If we further browse through the main articles, a majority of these photographs are used to illustrate a story. It could be a joyous one, celebrating them as the “soul of this land”, “the sons of earth”, “the providers of nourishment” etc. These articles will have images of farmers who are happy, holding their produce or pulling their plough with a smile. Photographs of Pongal will also generally show such gaiety. Another reason for the abundance of the “smiling farmer” photographs is that they are mostly published by NGOs or foundations or governments that have intervened to bring about the so-called positive change in their lives.  In these photographs, the farmers would mostly be looking straight at the camera, beaming with joy. They appear to be saying loud that the support they received changed their lives, forever. “Please smile”. The photographer might have said. Several times. “Look at me. Smile. A little more. That’s it. Great.” The photograph would be accompanied by the tagline, ‘We have touched lives. Help us to change more people’s lives’. Or, ‘We are good people. Buy our product so that we can continue to do our good job’ or something to that end.

Conversely to the “Smiling Farmer” are the set of images of the desperate, sad looking farmers – those who are at their life’s most disastrous moments – standing in front of their draught- hit, barren land, or failed crops, or sweating under the hot sun. Their desolate dark eyes will look melancholic and distant. In this case, the intention of the photographer is to show the world the plights of his/her subject. It aims to create an impact on the spectator. Owing to the abnormality of the photographed moment, the presence of the photographer in a way re-affirms their pain. In the case of disasters, the subjects in their state of shock usually do not acknowledge the photographer. They will be in an altogether different world, trying to cope with their loss. So, the empathetic photographer, who is in a way non-existent except through his photography, would go through the motion of recording the events as it unfolds, trying to capture the intensity of the disaster, as he/she had seen it happening (not so much as an active participant, similar to his subjects, but as a passive spectator).

Both these set of photographs are intended to elicit a response from the spectator. Hence their subjects are observed by the photographer, waiting for the precise moment to capture that particular image, which would narrate to the world the agenda ‘they’ have in mind. Whether these photographs create the intended response and resolve the issues of their subjects or the seasoned spectator who has seen enough of such photographs simply browse past, is not something that concerns the photographer. The next day is another day, and he/she would be on another assignment, in another unfortunate/tragic scene, “passionately” advocating yet another cause, while their subjects are suspended in the ethereal world of the photographed moment. In a way, they are permanently defined by the value sets of the ‘privileged’ photographer. These kinds of voyeuristic images still seem to characterize the postmodern visual sensibilities and aesthetics in photography.

The imperial gaze has long dominated the world of Indian photography. In the photographic practices of colonial India, the humans were reduced to a minuscule presence in front of the magnificence of the buildings.  This perspective trivializes its subjects, diminishing them to mere objects, in order to put across a message. The subjects are gazed upon, with a pre-conceived notion or agenda and ‘bracketed’ within quotes. The spectators also see this from a pedestal. Looking down or up, without actually entering into a relationship with those photographed.

In this photograph, the farmer is not the one who is gazed upon. He is actually returning the gaze. There is an act of seeing and being seen. He becomes more present with an unspoken communication that is transpiring between the photographer and himself. There is a connection, an intimate relation between them. This sort of interaction is a continuous transaction that could be seen in most of Abul’s photographs. His view is not top down. He looks at them like he would look at his beloved brother, or a close friend. They both stand on a level that is equal, on par with one another.

In fact, Abul’s early photographs, taken when he was in his teens, have the same perspective. It could be his humble beginning that enables Abul to continually establish this connection with his subjects. He hails from a family that is not so wealthy. A school dropout, without a formal education, he embarked on his photography journey with a fresh and open mind.  He was not exposed to the prevailing photography discourse and accepted aesthetics. He made photographs the way he saw them. Most often, during his early photographic sojourns, which were done as an independent pursuit, he used to hop on the trucks passing by and join other travelers. The people, who shared a part of their life with him, became the focus of his camera. They became his subjects. His brief, but successful stint with photo-journalism and higher studies in photography in France and England only deepened his outlook and approach to the medium.

For last two decades, Abul has been an independent photographer. So far, he has refrained from taking up commercial assignments. This gives him the freedom to work on projects that he wishes to, and he has been deliberate in choosing subjects that would get him closer to his roots, to his people. Through his long term work on the epic ‘Silappathikaram’, he has primed a large canvas, in which he has been crafting the ordinary life of common people. Pukar, albeit primarily a fishing town, like other coastal towns, has farmlands surrounding it. The fishermen and farmers are dependent on one another and exchange each other’s produces – which was through barter system during ancient times. Even though their working lifestyles are very different, they have many things in common. They both very much rely on seasonal changes and work in tandem with nature. Each has their own respective deities, rituals and celebrations. Systematically, Abul photographs the people of this port town every day, morning and evening. None of these images are random shots and are a result of prolonged observation and interaction.

Another important aspect to Abul’s photography is the equipment. Apart from his favoured analogue possessions, he only has a lo-fi digital camera. The limitations of this are multi-fold. But in his expert hands, it transforms itself to a perfect tool. Without long lenses, the space between him and his subjects are minimal. He has to break the ‘safe-distance’ and ‘private-space’ barriers. To Abul, this happens naturally.

His style of working is pretty clear. He would probably hang out much before he would even touch his camera. Adept at picking up new languages, he tries to communicate with them in a language known to them. He also quickly changes his appearance, dresses like the locals, and goes to places where they frequent, including bars. This familiarity is what he captures. His focus is always on the subaltern, not because he was somewhat of the higher rank, but purely because he is one with them. That is why they don’t look pathetic. Neither do they become exotic. He certainly was not on a “mission”. Neither was it an act of charity. He is simply photographing the people, the way they are, in their very natural state of existence. Be it a male or a female, or their nudes, they are fully aware that they are being photographed. For a moment, they become more present. They trust their photographer and reveal who they are.

In any art work, the eyes are significant – they bring character to the portrait. While making sculptures, an art form that is frontal as that of photography, the eyes are sculpted in the end. When every other aspects of that sculpture, its composition, shape and perspective has achieved its perfection, the master would start working on the eyes, on an auspicious day and time. Often the master sculptor is said to go into silence. Enter into a space where he and his art alone exist. And, in that moment, the sculpture comes alive. Thereafter, it becomes a God.

This is what entitles this photograph to a second glance – it is not yet another voyeuristic/touristic, street photograph. Neither does it elicit sympathy. Nor does it implore us to respond by making a donation or by starting a campaign or by clicking that ‘like’ button.

It demands us to look. To see. To leave that drink behind and return his gaze.

Men of Pukar © Abul Kalam Azad 2017. For More Images Log InText © Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi

Abul Kalam Azad, contemporary Indian photographer and Founder Chairman of Ekalokam Trust for Photography. Abul’s photographic works are predominantly autobiographical and explore the areas of politics, culture, contemporary micro-history, gender and eroticism. His works attempts a re-reading of contemporary Indian history – the history in which ordinary people are absent and mainly provided by beautiful images and icons. Abul’s works makes an active intervention in the common illustrative discourse of cultural history. Using the same tool, photography, that chisels history out of a block of ‘real’ human experiences, Abul makes a parody of it.

Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi, photo enthusiast and development activist, was born in a conservative Nadar family in Umarikadu, Tamil Nadu. She has completed her MBA from SSN SoMCA, Chennai. She has more than a decade of experience working with leading National and International Non Government Organisations in India, Africa and South America. She is the Founder Managing Trustee of Ekalokam Trust for Photography.