Photo Mail presents
A panoramic view of
The art of photography’s
Interrelation with other
Art mediums such as literature
Other visual media
In this autobiographical
memoir Abul Kalam Azad
discusses his versatile journey
as a photo-artist, drawing
parallels to the socio-political
context, personal history
and art. The acclaimed
pieces were originally
published in the popular
over a year (2019 – 2020)
Haneef Rahman Pattanam © Abul Kalam Azad 1980s
Sepia tinted memory
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.
Zainaba Rahman (From the Series Untouchables) © Abul Kalam Azad 2005
My father’s shop was opposite to the then popular Hero Photo Studio, owned by photographer Thomas. Back then, films weren’t available in the open market, and hence, my father used to buy them from Thomas and get it processed at the studio. He would always get the contact prints and meticulously select the ones that he wanted to blow-up. My father befriended Thomas’s assistant Sulaiman and once asked him to show the darkroom. We sneaked inside when Thomas was not around. (Here, you may add some more specific details of that memory). That was my first memory of the processing room lit by red lights.
I do not remember exactly when I took this photo of my father. It was made using the Yashika-635 double format film TLR. Yashica introduced this model in 1958 and my father bought this as a second or third hand during the late 1970s. By this time, I was 15 or 16 years old and had already decided to pursue photography. During that time by this age, most of the girls and boys would have got married. Specially so in our community.
Needless to mention, I was practicing diligently. Although my interest was to learn fine-art, there was resistance from my immediate family members, who were already chiding my father for encouraging my wanderlust. Photography was considered comparatively better than fine art, as the former had the potential for financial success. Still, during those times, there were no schools where one could learn photography academically. So, I started interning with a local photographer. I was shy to take photos of unknown people, and as a result, all early photographs of mine were of people known to me. I used to observe the routines of my loved ones and then plan the right moment to capture.
Every day, around 7 am, my father would return home after his morning walk. Without him having to ask, my mother would prepare tea. The elders would be doing one chore or the other, and the children would be playing around. He would take a look at everyone and then start reading the newspapers and periodicals. That moment of his routine was what I wanted to capture. When I took this image of my father, he was getting conscious of my presence and the act of photographing. I gently asked him to continue with whatever he was indulging in.
Like my father, I too was looking for a moment that was ordinary, yet dramatic. Every object in the frame was included for a purpose and contributed to the unfolding story. Seeing the connections between different art forms such as theatre, dance, cinema, and literature helped me to take up a story-telling approach to photography. A photograph is not merely that particular moment frozen in the frame, but it is also about what transpired before and what would happen next. It is not only what is included in the frame, but also what is excluded. That’s how I learned the art of composing subtle yet powerful sequences in a single frame. Unknowing to me, the foundational thoughts and philosophies of my photography were set in place.
Abul Kalam Azad is an established contemporary Indian photographer, noted for his maverick experimental and conceptual works. He is the 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 attempt a re-reading of contemporary Indian history – the history in which ordinary people are absent and mainly provided by beautiful images and icons. To see more works of Abul Kalam Azad check his website.
Published on January 26, 2021
Most of the Indian photographers learned from their foreign masters and hence, their styles continued to dominate Indian photography. They were either voyeuristic visual trophies that professed, “I had been there, seen that, met him”, or a tool that propagated “top-down let’s-look-at-the-suffering” sort of charity or propaganda of the photographer/client.
Mattancherry: My Cosmopolitan Hometown
Mattancherry has been a microcosm of authentic cosmopolitanism, many ethnicities and faiths coexisting together, with its beautiful contrasts and combinations. I grew up there, in one of its small boroughs called Kochangadi. This Muslim dominated waterfront settlement had – and still has – a few Jewish, Ezhava and Christian families. Apart from a synagogue and a few churches, there are several small and big mosques that belong to different ethnic groups or factions of Muslims.
Sepia Tinted Memory
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.