Circumstances do help in the moulding of an artist and helps him/her reach heights. To stay forever in such dizzying heights, he/she has to have the talent too.
– Punalur Rajan
Punalur Rajan (1939-2020) was one of the first photographers in Kerala who popularised the social documentary genre. He studied cinematography at the famous All Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. Rajan is most recognized for his portraits of litterateurs, politicians, and cine-personalities. Photographing notable personalities, especially literary icons, has been a trend that continues to be widespread in Kerala, supported by the many weekly and daily publications. Such images were largely attempted by journalistic photographers, rather than studio photographers, despite portraiture not being an area of specialization for most of them. Rajan’s skill in portraiture is what sets him apart from the other photographers who have indulged in this genre over the years. Over time, Rajan became well known for his historical photographs that documented the beginning of the communist party in Kerala and his portraits of Malayalam literary giants including Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer, SK Pottekkat, MT Vasudevan Nair, Kamala Das, Sukumar Azhikode among others. Rajan took several of the finest black and white photographs of Basheer. Later, these works were published as the book ‘Basheer: Chayayum Ormayum.’ In a similar fashion, Rajan chronicled the life of MT Vasudevan Nair and published a book titled ‘M.T.yude kaalam’. Only a small part of Rajan’s vast collection of works has been published so far, and the rest of his works still remain inaccessible to the public. Rajan’s photography can be described as being an offshoot of the same thought that produced Sunil Janah. The communist movements were an integral driving force in both of their careers and in their photographic practice. A reflection of Sunil Janah’s impact on the national level can be seen in the influence of Rajan at a regional level.
Being a humanist, Punalur Rajan understood people and their personalities, and this became visible in his photographs. Rajan was a poet at heart and he saw photography as a continuation of poetry. He was also a lover of ideas and was tirelessly documenting the moments that he felt were important. In popular understanding, photographic images are expected to exaggerate and beautify a person or an event. The magnificent, exotic, dramatic, and the otherworldly are preferred to the ordinary, straightforward, and minimal. Rajan’s photographs are bent towards the latter – it provides a realistic view. Of course, there is no reality in photographs and every photograph goes through a process of editing and interventions. However, the general rule of documentary photography is to capture it as raw and natural as possible. Rajan’s intervention in his photographs is in choosing the converging moment that brings out an essence that is raw yet touches the very core of his subjects. Images of Encounter online exhibition featured some of his famous and rare photographs as a body of work titled Chronicles of a Homeland.
This photograph of popular Malayalam literary legend Vaikom Muhammad Basheer on the beach was shot by Punalur during the 80s. ” The composition is so perfect that it gives the feeling of an infinite expansiveness. It is the poetic ambiguity that triggers this emotion. It must have been his conscious choice to not include anyone else in the frame. The lonely figure on a beach is a wonderful rendering of the mystical loneliness of Basheer. In a single frame, Rajan tells the story of Kerala, its eons-old interconnectedness with other cultures and geography across land and sea. It talks of loneliness and lost loves. It tells the story of the first voyage made some 2,000 years ago. It reminds us of one of the lands and lives swallowed underwater. It is the story of the tree that became a boat and which would one day become a part of the very earth. It is the song of every man and woman, and all their fulfilled dreams and unfulfilled virtues. It is this and many more.” – Remembering Rajan, A memoir by Abul Kalam Azad.