Let’s start with you telling us about your early days and the influences it had in store for you.
I was born in my father’s village, Sooranad. He hailed from a very wealthy family which had an unimaginable tract of land. His father Madhavan aasaan 1, developed a love for music, and decided that he had to have the tutelage of the best in the field. He went to Thanjavur, and learnt the art in all its purity. He returned and earned great prowess as a Bhagavathar 2. His concerts were famous in Travancore at the time. So the concept of immersing oneself in the art that drove you was not an alien one to me. I grew up with it. My lineage was that of the Mundakkal aasanmaar, who through the ages had been art lovers. The name of my tharavadu 3. can be seen mentioned in the Unnuneeli Sandesham4, a classic in our literature.
Politically too, it was a period of upheaval. The Sooranad case 5 saw the police playing havoc with peoples’ lives. The legacy of my tharavadu might have prevented the police from breaking in and searching us. By then it was fairly known that it was one of my mother’s uncles, Kambisseri Karunakaran 6, who had influenced the political thinking of Thoppil Bhasi, an accused in the case which involved the killing of four policemen. However, with state repression getting to be unbearable, I shifted to Punalur. My family too, had by then been reduced to penury. I could not attend college for a couple of years due to this, and I joined the Ravi Varma Institute of Fine Arts at Mavelikkara to learn painting. This would turn out to be among the better decisions I have taken in life. I completed the course and passed the Diploma exam. It was on the strength of this certificate that I applied for and got appointed in the post of an artist in the Medical College at Kozhikode.
What was it that made photography a fascination for you, in a time when cameras were very hard to come by and a career in the visual arts was not looked upon as a bread winner?
There was a Rolleiflex at home, which my father had bought when times were good. I started out my photography with it, imitating my father. So, you could maybe tell that there was a photographic streak running in the family. Things got to be serious after I came here (Kozhikode). There were two studios here, then. One was the National and the other one was Peethambar. Peethambar was the place where things were happening. Peethambaran, the owner, had a friend named Puthukkudi Balan, who had business associates in many countries, including Japan. One of his partners in Japan was a good photographer, and visited Kozhikode on Balan’s invitation. He had a Mamiya with him. He allowed me to photograph with it and was very appreciative of the prints which Peethambaran printed. It was a great ego booster for me, and gave me the impetus which I lacked till then.
How did you get to be influenced by the Communist philosophy and the Party? Your journey as a photographer seems to be entwined with the history of the Communist Party.
The times were such that a thinking individual would be invariably attracted to the Party and its activity. The State was using every instrument it possessed to suppress the people, and it was the bold leaders of the Communist Party who opposed and fought it, often at the cost of their lives. Kambisseri Karunakaran, who would later play the protagonist in the play Ningalenne Communistakki and edit Janayugam 7, was my mother’s close relative. His manner of influencing people’s thoughts was legendary. It was he who made the rebellious Thoppil Bhasi walk the arduous path of Communism. Was it a wonder then that I too was swayed by him?
When he started to edit Janayugam, he asked me to take photographs for the weekly. Those were early days, and the newly launched paper and weekly could not afford to keep a photographer in its payroll. So, it was with my photographs as cover that the Janayugam weekly rolled off the press. With the popularity of the weekly skyrocketing, I too got to be a popular name among its readers. The bridge over which I walked from Communism to photography and back was Kambisseri.
How did the split in the party 8 affect you?
It was terrible at the time. How could one not be affected? The leaders seemed to have accepted the imminent split faster than the ordinary worker. A lot of ordinary folk, for whom the Party was a rudder, faced nothingness suddenly. Which was the truth, and how was it possible to accept it? I know many who turned to drinking. Well, I have got over all that. Who hasn’t, in fact?
Interestingly, the origin of the conflict then had its reason outside. It did not have anything to do with India, its people or culture. It had to do everything with the leaders here taking sides in an international political match between the USSR and China.
Look where we are now.
You were associated with Kerala Peoples’ Arts Club too at a time, weren’t you?
It was a time in history when the people were subjugated by unimaginable oppression. There had to be a way out and it was strongly expressed in the literature of the day. Exceptionally talented writers, actors, composers and singers came together in an association seldom witnessed before. The liberation of the land and its people and the urge to transform the world into a humane and just one was driving everyone. It was Kambisseri who held the association together; KPAC was a need of the time, a spontaneous coming together. Malayattoor Ramakrishnan9 too was at the forefront of this amazing movement. Amazing, and how! A state and its people were transformed forever. Today, in the midst of all the divisiveness present, it is Kerala that still holds a sprig of reason and hope, however small that sprig might seem to be. KPAC had woven its magic deep into the ignited minds of the populace, and the values it generated have been handed down. It is only natural that I too was deeply attracted by it.
Speaking of KPAC, it is only natural that I should ask you about the circumstances that led the Party to take a decision that would change your life forever – having you join the famed All Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow to learn the art of cinema.
The October revolution was not just about overthrowing the regime of the Tsar and his cohorts alone. It had a much larger vision. Those were the times of the commune, and visionary Communist leaders believed that the proletariat over the world was one family, and that it was their bounden duty to take care of it. Lenin’s vision had a universality to it. He believed that irrespective of borders, the children of the proletariat had the right to pursue the learning of their desire and choice, and it was up to the USSR to take the lead and establish premier institutions in various disciplines for them to come, stay, and study. It was this urge that drove him to establish the All Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow soon after the revolution. It was the world’s first institute that taught the art of cinema through a scientifically prepared syllabus.
Coming back to the crux of your question, it must have been a few years after the split of the Communist party that the KPAC, which was controlled by the Communist Party of India, decided to produce cinema to further its vision amongst the people. It was decided to send me to Moscow to learn the art of cinema at the All Union. I was happy to go, as a couple of years prior to that, at the Party Congress at Kochi, C Rajeshwara Rao, requested me to take a few photos for Pravda 10. It had been prominently published and I had been sent a few copies by a couple of Russian journalists, who invited me to the USSR.
Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Bondarchuk, Sergei Parajanov, Gregory Kosintrsev, Andrei Tarkovsky are some of the luminaries associated with the All Union. How did their varying interpretations of the world and the medium influence you, especially in the political background that existed in the Soviet Union?
My time there at the All Union was a unique experience. Teachers who were so passionate about the medium taught and guided students from around the world. The variance in culture was as fascinating to observe and study as cinema was. The Institute was funded by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Every kopek was accounted for and the teachers strictly adhered to the schedule they were expected to. Directors and other technicians, however regarded and famous they were, were expected to teach there, and they did that. Eisenstein was frequently talked about, and properly so, as he was a true giant who contributed much to the medium. He was indeed the Institute’s pride, and his films were invariably seen by almost every foreigner coming to learn the art there.
Parajanov was not talked about openly for obvious reasons. However, many of the teachers and the students would grudgingly and privately agree that his work was both bold and brilliant. The fact that he had gone to jail for his commitment to the medium gained a lot of following for him. Tarkovsky was a guest lecturer at the Institute when I studied there. His films were getting noticed the world over, and he was rated as a contemporary master by the western media too.
The portion which housed the archival print library and screening room there was called Mosfilm. Mosfilm was the place where I got to know what cinema was. The prints of almost all the classics were available there and we could watch them endlessly. My forays into world cinema were what led me to break away from the Russian masters. Bicycle Thieves was a revelation. Every frame spoke volumes about the art, and I was enthralled about Vittorio De Sica and the film. The way he used realism astounded me. It was not a mere method in a cinema for him. I have heard a lot of our directors and critics mention a cinema as “a realist film”, as though realism pertained to the style alone of a movie. For artists like De Sica, it was a way of life, a revolt against a façade we were forced to watch. The façade was mercilessly pulled down, and the cracks beneath were exposed as never before.
De Sica opened my eyes to the power of the medium, and mercilessly weaned me away from my Russian teachers. The inherent humanism in his movies moved me a lot. It might have been these qualities that prompted him to cast a factory worker instead of a recognized actor in the lead role of Bicycle Thieves. What an actor that man turned out to be. The censorship that was alleged to have gripped the USSR was however absent in Mosfilm. We watched every classic. The prints were collected with care from all over the world. I remember Pather Panchali being watched by students there.
Exceptional talent from over the world ensured a steady exposure to the values prevalent in many cultures, and there was a great exchange of ideas amongst us. I was amazed to know that one of my friends there, Adelzo Kalso, a student from the Dominican Republic had read Chemmeen 11 in Spanish, and seen the movie in Moscow. He adored Thakazhi (Sivasankara Pillai), and was so taken aback to know that I knew Thakazhi personally and had photographed him a lot. He was ecstatic when I broke the news about Thakazhi visiting the USSR as a state guest, and demanded that I introduce him properly. We met Thakazhi at the Razia Hotel in Red Square, where guests of the State were accommodated. Adelso could not contain his excitement and hugged Thakazhi. I took a photo of the two in fond embrace, the one in which Thakazhi is seen donning a suit – a rare sight indeed. Later, our media here would celebrate this photograph, as it was a totally different Thakazhi that was portrayed in it. It was indeed a rarity to see him in a suit. The Thakazhi whom the people knew was a thoroughbred rustic who happened to write outstanding stories and novels.
Another photograph of Thakazhi, shirtless, and discussing his crop with a labourer in his native Kuttanadu, though in contrast to the Moscow shot, was an equally popular one.
We were made to feel at ease there. The Russian students were given a monthly allowance of 45 roubles, while we were paid 90. It was a princely amount as food and accommodation were given free by the state. The Russians were dissatisfied at this differential treatment though, and grumbled about it a lot.
I have to mention Bondarchuk. In spite of the Cold War, he managed to get his cinema recognized at the Oscars as well. He couldn’t be ignored or wished away. Bondarchuk’s involvement with the theatre in Russia held him in good stead in cinema too. He was involved in almost all aspects of filmmaking. He had even acted exceptionally well in the films of other directors. Bondarchuk was a favourite among us.
In spite of having gone and studied cinematography in Moscow, your forays into the world of cinema seem to be minimal. What were the reasons that could have prevented you from entering filmdom?
It was a conscious decision on my part. I had been to Madras, at the insistence of P Bhaskaran12, who was particular that I take the pictures of his actors which were to be used in the posters of the film. Shobhana Parameswaran Nair13 was the man who held together the motley crew of actors, directors and other technicians there. Scores of youngsters looking for a chance to excel in cinema used to land at his doorstep. He would try his best to see that they landed at least a small job that would sustain them till they got their chance. There were scores of young and middle-aged men who had thrown caution to the winds and boarded the Madras Mail or the Cochin Express and who were now working as drivers, cooks, and gardeners there. Only a few made it, and the others just withered their lives away. I was holding a job in Kozhikode, and was photographing as I desired there. I was satisfied with it. Bhaskaran was dejected when I informed him softly that I wouldn’t be coming to Madras anymore. Parameswaran Nair too tried to persuade me to change my mind. The fact that the man who used to cook for Parameswaran Nair was still awaiting his turn even after a decade helped me make up my mind. I returned home.
Going through your volume of work, and your association with the Communist Party, a name that immediately pops up is that of Sunil Janah. Like Kambisserry mentored you, Sunil too had a mentor who guided him gently to photography. Sunil himself has stated how he was a bright-eyed youth studying English and getting drawn into photography, when he met PC Joshi, the General Secretary of Communist Party of India, who gradually made Sunil realize that he had to be a photographer. He was sent by the party to document the Bengal Famine, where he did astounding work. His images showed the world that an India other than that of the Englishmen and the Maharajas did exist, even as it was being slowly throttled to death. Did you have a chance to view Sunil’s work early in your career, and if you did, did it prompt you to photograph Kerala in a different manner?
I had not even heard of Sunil Janah when I started to photograph. None of his photographs were published in Malayalam magazines then. The funniest part though is that I had had no opportunity to run into him… and now that he’s gone, it will remain a regret forever. Janah, though initially he photographed what the Party wanted him to, broke away soon enough to shoot on his own. Later, when I saw his work, I was very impressed that a photographer from India had done such outstanding work; documenting the lives and travails of the ordinary men and women who toiled to make this nation what it is.
With utmost respect for Sunil Janah and his work, let me divert your attention to another manner in which Sunil Janah’s work has been analyzed recently. The point has been raised with a critical undertone that Janah was able to establish himself as a photographer at least partly because he had connections with the Communist Party leadership.
You too, at the outset of your photographic journey and throughout it, had the backing of a national political party. How would you compare your journey with that of Janah’s in this context?
I have not had an active social life for the past two decades and I am sorry to say that I am not aware of any of these developments. I do not own a PC or a laptop, and so do not see or read anything online.
Whatever Janah and his work might be accused of, it remains a fact that his name will be up there with the legends when the history of Indian photography is written. Yes, maybe his association with political giants had helped him to meet eminent photographers from the West who had come here to document the freedom struggle. But they might have seen through his work if it had not possessed the requisite quality to hold their attention. Undoubtedly.
Mine was a different issue altogether. I pursued art because my family could not afford to educate me. Maybe the break I got initially was due to me being related to Kambisseri Karunakaran, who was a bigwig in the Party then. But my work took a real upward swing after I gained entry into the cultural circle in Kozhikode. It was all eminence there, and one could not help shooting all those great writers and artists, who in their myriad moods were indeed a delight to photograph. If an association with a particular group or situation is deemed to be a yardstick for progression, I am afraid that everyone could be accused of that. A lot of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White could come to India to shoot because they had associations with people who would pay them to go overseas and work. Here the situation was so different, and maybe still is. We had to make do with what we had. We would be using the same camera body for say two decades, whereas they would be shifting with ease to a newer and lighter model even in those days. Yes, circumstances do help in the moulding of an artist and helps him reach heights. To stay forever in such dizzying heights, he has to have the talent too.
E M S Namboodiripad, A K Gopalan, K C George, M N Govindan Nair, C K Achutha Menon, P K Vasudevan Nair, P C Joshi, C Rajeshwara Rao, N E Balaram and a horde of other titans; you were acquainted with a whole lot of them. Do you have memories of any such leaders speaking to you about art, about its relevance in a society undergoing transformation, or in one where a revolution has happened? I am asking you about this specifically as I happen to remember O V Vijayan writing that when Vijayan asked AKG (A K Gopalan) if he could leave Kerala, AKG unhesitatingly turned around to say “Go man, or else you will rot here.”
I can’t remember a single moment of anyone of them discussing anything remotely associated with it. I also have to tell you that I was really never close with EMS and AKG as my affiliation was with the CPI. Yet, I could photograph EMS a bit. EMS, from what I have observed, was a reserved person who espoused his views on politics and art in his speeches and writing. At the time I was being drawn into the movement, most of these leaders were underground with hefty prices on their heads. They held a demigod status for us, demigods who were willing to die for their land and its people. Later, this utmost respect prevented me from casually seeking them out and starting a conversation.
One incident however comes to mind. I had designed the prototype of a book I had in mind with carefully selected black and white photographs of the party leaders over the decades. I had even given it a lovely name – Karuppilum Veluppilumoode Chuvappilekku (Into Red, Through Black and White).
I showed it to C K Chandrappan and requested him to peruse it. I told him that I hadn’t come across another instance of such a chronicle of the Party elsewhere. He flipped through it, and with a wry smile told me to take it back. His excuse for giving it back was that a lot of people would be trudging through his office and it would not be possible to give it the requisite attention it deserved. I took it back and went home. That was that.
I am not able to remember any other instance where a political leader discussed art with me.
A decade back, in 2007 to be precise, the footage of Prof. M N Vijayan’s 14 last moments before his death due to a cardiac arrest, during a press conference, shocked the state. Many described those images as a “documentation of death”, and it was generally perceived that such footage or images had not been shot here till then. It was only when a few knowledgeable people mentioned that your photograph of Dr.K N Ezhuthachan 14 in his death throes during a meeting at the Calicut University in 1981 was an earlier documentation that the matter was laid to rest. On seeing the image you shot, the iconic photograph taken by William F Warnecke of the assassination attempt of Mayor William J Gaynor for the World Telegram in 1910, immediately comes to mind. It has been described by many as one of the most remarkable and horrifying news photographs ever taken. What was passing through your mind when you saw Dr. Ezhuthachan dying and decide to shoot it?
I vaguely remember the cult photo you talked about. Coming to Dr. Ezhuthachan’s death, I still shudder when I am reminded of it. The saying that “Death is a clown without sense” is what one is reminded of. A moment before, he is seen speaking to those near him, and a second later he gasps, his eye balls roll up, and that’s that! A scholar, so learned and erudite, gone in a moment. I am still not sure at times if I made that click consciously or my regimen ensured that I got it. I lived through it once again when I saw the footage of Prof. M N Vijayan’s death on TV.
There is another photograph I wish to talk specifically about. One of Indira Gandhi, in which she stands tall and at ease amidst a crowd of seated men. There is a smile on her lips and she looks elsewhere over the heads of the seated group, seemingly ignoring them. I have always thought that it was a wonderful portrayal of Indira Gandhi’s dominance of her group which was almost entirely comprised of men. I have often felt that this photograph could be included among her iconic images.
Well, it was in a function in the early eighties here that I shot her that way. It was unplanned. The national media was here with all its glitz. There was a brief intermission and Indira Gandhi had gone elsewhere. The audience was patiently waiting for her to return. I had moved down from the dais and was waiting below, when she suddenly came from the back. Most of the men seated were unaware that she had returned and so remained sitting. There was an animated conversation going on between two persons on the dais at the time. She stopped mid-stride for a minute, and standing at ease, smiled at the antics of the two. The crowd’s attention too was fixed on the two and no one noticed her standing there nonchalantly. The altercation at that precise moment helped me in getting that photograph. None of those men would have remained seated if they had seen her returning. Every single one of them would have stood up and acknowledged her presence, and I would not have got this shot. The moment I saw this, I realized the potential of the frame and shot it.
What you say is right. I remember DK Barooah declaring “Indira is India” whenever I happen to see this picture. She indeed became very powerful from the mid-seventies. This picture, in spite of this, was not received in the manner it should have been. The fact remains that it is a once-in-a-lifetime shot, and that I managed to get it.
One of your portraits of Madhavikutty 15 is distinctly different from all her other portraits. Was it her level of comfort with you that might have caused her to “un-pose” and express herself in such a manner? Mexy Xavier, a former Photo-editor of Indian Express, in an article about you in the Forbes India Magazine in 2015, had remarked about the close rapport you had with your subjects. The portrait in discussion was shot by you in her home in 1969 and was made the cover picture of Janayugam. Madhavikutty is in a printed sari and standing in the sun, staring straight into the camera, almost challenging the male gaze.
Madhavikutty was a lady who had no pretensions. Unlike many writers, she refused to wear a writer’s mask while talking to people. She was absolutely herself. The camera never made her flustered, and she was her usual. I don’t remember the details of the shoot. See, it was almost half a century ago. Later, when the image was printed, it was evident that it was a unique shot. It had the essence of Madhavikutty. The female within the photograph was declaring that the male photographer without was her absolute equal. The editorial staff of Janayugam was unanimous in selecting it as their cover for the weekly.
The association of writers, actors, dramatists and artists that existed in Malabar has been described as a unique one by many personages. A lot of your well known photographs were taken while you were in the company of eminent persons from that loosely knit group.
You have termed it rightly. It was loosely knit. It never had the character of an art or literary movement, though there are a few who would like to perceive it as thus. No, it just wasn’t that. The one with whom I developed a genuine bonding was (Vaikom Muhammad) Basheer. He was a great writer and an even better human being. The association, in fact, seemed to revolve around him a lot. The way he held durbar below the mangosteen tree was extraordinary. I remember taking a few shots of it once with an ultra-wide angle lens. They were very difficult to come by those days. He was genuinely puzzled when he saw the print and wondered how I could capture everyone present in the frame. Over time, many of them left the city for greener pastures and the friendships seem to have gone into hibernation. I am not mentioning names, but there have been instances of a couple of them who made it really big not displaying the warmth they used to, at later meetings. That’s all there was to it. Maybe the editors simply needed some fables to spruce up their articles.
P Kesavadev, M Govindan, T Padmanabhan and O V Vijayan – four names, four giants of the language. Yet, a study of your volume of work reveals the very interesting fact that you have not been able to photograph them in a satisfactory manner. Kesavadev appears in a couple of frames. The other three are almost absent. Could there be a reason for it that we are not aware of?
Yes, Kesavadev happened to be with Thakazhi on a couple of occasions when I too was there, and I could photograph him. Govindan had settled down in Madras, and his home there was a haven for writers and artists going there. I did not wish to leave the security of my job and go to Madras and test my luck in the cine-world. We also did not run into each other during his visits here. That’s all. Govindan once requested me to send him a few prints of Basheer for his Sameeksha 16, which I did.
Padmanabhan was never too close for comfort at anytime. I too was a bit hesitant to approach him as M T Vasudevan Nair was a writer whom I had photographed quite often. Do I need to tell you about Padmanabhan’s relationship with MT? Later, much later, I would manage to shoot him also, along with M V Devan, at the Kalagramam at Mahe. O V Vijayan had left Kerala and settled in Delhi very early. It so happened that I could not meet and photograph him. It was not my habit to seek appointments, go and shoot. I took my photos as they happened to come by. Still, as you said, these attempts were not enough. I agree that I could not portray them on film to my satisfaction.
If we leave the luminaries out, it could be seen that you had a try at documenting the daily lives of the people too, especially the labourers in the Kallayi River. A few frames of birds, in colour, too display a deviation from your usual work. Why were these not carried forward?
You have to consider the fact that I was a regular job holder. Any travel I might have to do would have to be in accordance with the regimen that it held. I couldn’t decide on a morning that I would be going and shooting at a particular place. I had to limit my documentation of lives to nearby places. The Kallayi River and its banks were places where human activity in all its myriad forms existed, and for a brief period of time, my photography was inclusive of that too.
The photos of the birds by the seashore here were taken much later. They were not taken with any serious intent. Yet, quite a few people have commended a couple of images from that series of photographs too. Let me say truthfully that I have not delved deeply into a study of our natural history.
How did your work come to be featured in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale?
My knowledge about the KMB was and still is very limited. It seems that they were on the lookout for a volume of work by a photographer that would chronicle the happenings in Kerala over a period of time. Mangad Ratnakaran, a journalist, dropped my name and requested them to see my works. Ratnakaran is among the few in Kerala who is very familiar with my work in a manner that is intimate, rather than the cursory way in which images are usually glanced at in the papers. Jitish Kallat and Bose Krishnamachari expressed their satisfaction and that was that. The show was on. It was from the newspapers and the television that I got to know that the KMB was a very large exhibition. A couple of my acquaintances who had been there to see it urged me to go but I did not, because, as I told you earlier, I seldom venture out now.
I came to know a bit about the controversies surrounding it. I do not have the urge to photograph nor immerse myself in activity related to it now. So, I have not given deeper thought to the matter.
I remember having read an article written about my photographs at the KMB then in a newspaper. I have forgotten the name of the paper. It was in Malayalam. “A slice of our history, placed upon a golden platter, for all the world to see.”
Of course, it felt nice to be written about in a manner like that.
The changes in photography over the years have been amazing and great. However, the recent transformation that the medium has undergone after going digital has been rather fast compared to the speed of transformation in the years earlier to it. What’s your perception about it?
These are but the natural changes that almost everything which incorporates technology has undergone. Music recording and listening devices, automobiles… everything. That is all that has happened here too.
With the digital advent, I permanently gave up photography. It could be perceived as a limitation on my part, a limitation that could be linked to economics rather than ability. I decided that I didn’t have the need to buy a digital SLR paying a five or six figure amount. That’s all. It has nothing to do with a limitation in the digital format. What essentially matters is not the format, but the way you choose to look at your subject and the manner in which you portray it. This doesn’t change.
People tend to tag reasons and excuses according to their whim. That doesn’t help any one or the art.
Failing eyesight, the diminished urge to hold the camera and shoot, subjects who and events which do not interest you anymore. Anyone of these could make you give up.