Haneef Rahman, my father and my first teacher in photography, died in 1998. Although he was essentially a businessman, with an aptitude for trade in his Rawther (or Ravuthar) lineage, he was a great lover of the arts and drama. His quintessentially cosmopolitan tastes and sensibilities have had a deep impact on me as a child and it stayed in my very being.
My father’s parents, both from paternal and maternal sides, hailed from the Tamil speaking Rawther community who followed the Islamic Hanafi school of Fiqh. Rawthers did not originate from a single tribe but belonged to different clans and got their name due to their once-upon-a-time association with horse-trading, riding, and training. As the legacy goes, the traveling Arabian and Turkish cavalry soldiers and horse-traders married the native Tamil speaking tribal women and settled in the erstwhile Tamil kingdom. The generations born out of these weddings, because of their maternal roots, turned out to be ‘sons of the soil’, grounded in the local tradition, and yet continuing the practices and lifestyles of their paternal lineage. This amalgamation gave the Rawther community a unique, hybrid identity.
Our family name is Pattanam, an acronym for the Tamil word Patthanathukarar (which means ‘hailing from a port town’). We could have been from one of the earliest seaports of Tamilakam (the region corresponding to the present South India) such as Kaveripoompatanam (Chola Port Pukar) or Kayalpattanam (Pandyan Port Korkai). Trading took my forefathers to different parts of Tamilakam and they eventually settled in Mattancherry. We were not the only Rawthers in this island township of Kochi; there were several families, when I was a child.
During the 1960s, my father established Azad Textiles, one of the first and largest wholesale textile showrooms in Kothamangalam, a small town near Ernakulam. Later, he divided it among his brothers and in-laws and set up a small-scale retail shop called Metro Fabrics in Mattancherry. The flourishing business gave him enough room to pursue his love for the arts. With his welcoming and inclusive temperament, our house slowly turned to be a regular gathering space for artists, actors and activists. My father used to write plays and short stories, as well. Quite active in the local cultural and political scene, he was part of the library movement in the 1970s. A progressive and nationalistic figure, he was very fond of the Congress leader Moulana Abul Kalam Azad, after whom I was named. A lover of cinema, he was a regular visitor to the local cinemas and had a penchant for artistically made movies. He made me watch films by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, RamuKariyat, PJ Anthony and Sathyajit Ray. I was encouraged to read some of the best writers in Malayalam, including MT Vasudevan Nair, Basheer, Thakazhi and CJ Thomas.
Modern mediums such as photography also captivated his creative mind. When I was about 10 years old, his brother-in-law presented a camera to him. This was a German-made medium format Agfa Click 3, an inexpensive viewfinder camera that was produced between 1959 and the 70s.
We were living in a joint family, and it gave him ample figures to observe through his lens. However, my mother had always been his favorite subject. On her side, she was a willing accomplice in his artistic adventures. Like a ritual, every Sunday, my father would gather all the children in the family and take us to different locations around Mattancherry, Kochangadi and Jew town. He was the master photographer, and I was his obedient assistant. My brothers and sisters were his models. My job was to carry the camera, help him identify the location and mind the naughty children. He always made his models pose dramatically. His involvement and exposure in theatre inspired him to take photographs of dramatic and staged moments. Occasionally, as a generous teacher would, he allowed me to take a picture or two. And I enjoyed that well.