Summer winds get caught by the crowns of tall palm trees that line the flat landscape of Palakkadu (Palghat), one of the northern districts of Kerala. On the north eastern edge of this place Malayalam mixes with Tamil, the ancient language of philosophy, literature and music. These palm trees run backwards during the day turn into illusionary palaces at night where beautiful vampires allure men, take them on the top of these trees, enjoy their virility, then like spiders eat them up leaving only nails and hairs for the kith and kin to collect. The land is as real as a myth or vice versa. Sultans had come here looking for establishing kingdoms and leaving Muslim barons behind who started living amicably, intermingling with the local populace. Vedic and musical Brahmin streets never despised the Ravutars (Muslim Barons) who came by Arabian horses, like northern winds. Like the Brahmins, they too spoke in a Tamil mixed with Malayalam or vice versa. In Palakkad, everyone was a magical being. Some created music, some created literature, some others made wonderful cartoons and yet another lot created images.
Abul Azad, one of the most important photography artists in our times thought that he was one of the descendants of the Ravutars who came on horseback to Kerala via Palakkadu, in those good old days. He still believes so. Moving from Mattanchery, Kochi to Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu in 2010 was a sort of going back to the roots. Azad speaks Tamil fluently and even many years before he started living in Thiruvannamalai, especially while living in Delhi as a PTI photographer, Azad still spoke Tamil, as if he was trying to remember the language of his ancestors. In fact, as a photography artist, then, Azad was a man of no languages. As he did not have any language of his own, he could speak the language that was presently given to him or rather in a language he found himself to be in. Hence, he spoke in Hindi when he was among the local populace in the northern parts of India. He spoke in English and laughed in Malayalam and mocked in Tamil when he was among his peer group. When he went to Paris to do a residency program in 1996-97 period he was rumored to have spoken in French. I still wonder in which language had he spoken to the djinns and malaks when he was caught within the Hazrat Bal shrine in Srinagar in 1993, photographing the actions of Indian army and the resistance of the Kashmir rebels.
Two decades back when Abul Azad showed his independent works to many including me, they all thought that his works were a bit ambitious therefore unconvincing. He was not showing the ‘Raghu Rai School’ of photography. Nor was he making his images in the mode of Kishore Parikh. His photographs were different and disturbing at once. Ram Rahman, in his typical style of black humor and understatement was documenting the underbelly of the North Indian politics and also he was keen on capturing the chance homo-erotic manifestations in the conservative North India’s public domain. With some kind of passion (unlike that of Pablo Bartholomew), both Ram Rahman and Abul Azad were documenting the last patches of an elegant secularism that stemmed from the heartlands of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Abul Azad was doing something more; he was making a private body of images that defied the image quality as well as surface quality of the generic documentary photographs. There were too many deliberate interpolations and deliberate erasures. The image was almost non-existent in his works; in its place there appeared graffiti like scratches and scars, consciously inflicted on them as if the artist was doing some sort of self flagellation.
The starkness of the underlying images was either provoking questions or utter disappointment among the viewers and friends. Azad was nonchalant and was not explaining them away. He was just showing the images those were scarred and scratched. One day he showed a series of post card size prints and photographic prints of Indian gods and goddesses, pasted upside down on the walls of his two room set flat in Mayur Vihar Phase III. A shudder passed through the spines of all those who saw them. The reason was simple; our political climate had already changed. The socio-political discourse had already been in a new path after the Post-Mandal years of late 1980s and the historical and unfortunate year 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demolished on the 6th December. Azad was still trying to be a normal press photographer. But something had changed in him. A staunch secularist, he faced the double bind of his name; Azad was at once a Hindu name that connoted revolutionaries like Chandrasekhar Azad and a Muslim name in the southern part of India. His friend Ram Rahman, by virtue of his birth had problematized his religious existence via his parents’ deliberate choice of his name. Here was Abul Kalam Azad, definitely the name coming from the famous Muslim leader of Indian Independence, carrying a name, which is obviously Islamic yet ringing a bit of Hindu in it. Azad was a secularist; neither a Muslim nor a Hindu. If Din Ilahi was there, Azad would have been one in the pack. Otherwise, he remains more like a Sufi, who leans more towards the asceticism and liberalism of Hindu religion than being a Muslim.
Azad’s works of 1990s, however were disturbing for he was documenting the ugly side of Indian politics and religions though an unprecedented image repertoire. None would have exhibited those works in the controversial decade of 1990s. There were incidents in Delhi in which works were brought down from shows and at times even the show itself was pulled down. M.F.Husain was being haunted and hunted down. Galleries and curators were playing it safe. The only organization that stood the pressure was SAHMAT in Delhi and they were making periodical efforts to showcase counter images and counter voices. Yet, Azad’s works were not shown in Delhi even in these venues. It was a time to say good bye to a safe job and a safe life. Azad left Delhi towards the new millennium and settled down in Mattanchery, Kochi, where he was instrumental in developing a style of photography, which I once called the ‘Mattanchery School of Photography’. The years went on and Azad was photographing the locale, the immediate and the self in different image complexes. He photographed the political graffiti of Kerala, without any pretensions of being theoretical or political. He captured the images of local tea shops and toddy shops and much before the new gen films in Kerala started narrating stories from the point of view of ‘insignificant people’, Azad was already narrating the life of Kerala through the perception of the ‘insignificant people’. Poignantly and pointedly, Azad was documenting himself by creating visual diaries. Even a toy or a pebble became a narrative point of Azad.
In ‘Ishka’ Gallery, Kochi, Azad exhibited a series of large scale photographs sometime in 2007. Joseph Chakola, a photographer, print maker, musician and artist based in Kochi was behind the initiative and Chakola was ready to take the risk of exhibiting Azad’s works. Those works showed a series of images of cows and their locations, as if they were direct print of tinted negatives. Azad was very perceptive though many did not know the implications of those images then. Years later we saw how cow became a defining factor in the development of new nationalism in the changed political discourse of our country. Azad could see it coming and portrayal of cows in their various manifestations was a silent cry and a strong critique about the emerging political scenario. Even if these works were shown in Delhi or any other part of the cow belt of that time, none would have taken objection because these images were not really showing any agitated state of mind of the artist. The iconizing of the cows was subtle and infused with irony and black humor.
Turning his attention to the mother goddess worship in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Azad started taking ‘feminist rituals’ within the subaltern Hindu contexts as his point of departure. A series titled ‘Black Mothers’ came out of this engagement. Interestingly, as Azad does not make any claim about his theoretical or political leaning based on his images or interests, these works are not taken by the literary inclined feminist theoreticians for further studies but I am sure that is going to happen in the coming years. At the same time, Azad also started doing chromo-lomography, an old low end technique of photography which produced something similar to the instagram photograph. In fact Azad started posting lomographic images much before instagram came as a photographic app in the social media. Subverting the idea of making images using high end technology, Azad uses basic photographic equipments to make his stunning images.
Koovagam is a place of worship in Tamil Nadu where in the month of April every year, transgenders from all over India (especially from South India) gather and become the brides of their God, Iravan. In this fifteen to twenty day ritual, these transgenders become brides of God and then become the widows of the same god. Then they are free to choose their partners and within a religious context they hold the pride parade without attracting much of the urban middle class theoretical paraphernalia. Azad who is interested in the lives of the subaltern people as well as those of the people with different sexual orientations, has been documenting the lives of the transgenders in Koovagam for the last few years. The images that we see in this series ‘War Wedding Widows, Sex, Desire, Love and Erotica’ (2016), these transgenders are captured with a lot of sensitivity without compromising their identity for male or female chauvinistic gaze. Azad uses two methods to click their images. He uses a traditional box camera and a white backdrop so that he could get these people to pose for him, which they happily oblige. In the second method, he clicks their pictures in their natural locales; including their public bath. As Azad has been a regular visitor to the festival, most of the transgenders are not offended by his presence. Without much praises to accompany, Azad does this ‘making of image’ as a very devoted ritual every year.
A silent revolution has been going on for the last two years in Thiruvannamalai. Azad, supported by his daughter Dr. Mahima Rahman and his partner Tulsi Swarna Laxmi, has been documenting the day to day history of Thiruvannamalai in an ambitious photographic project that runs for 365 days in a year. With no funding agencies to support, Azad has been taking the help of the friends and local people, and a lot of enthusiastic young photography artists and doing this for the last two years. He set up an organization named ‘Ekalokam Trust for Photography’ (EtP) and the documenting of Thiruvannamalai and its fourteen kilometer Girivalam has already been done by different set of artists, in residency programs. In 2015, Azad initiated a project called ‘Mathilakam Rekhakal’ in order to document the ancient port cities in Tindys, Calicut and Muziris. He periodically posts the progress of EtP works in the social media and Tulsi does all the administrative works including the co-ordination of international photography projects. EtP has already done a Indo-Polish collaborative work as well as a Photography junket with a visiting Russian photographer.
Azad rides around Thiruvannamalai on his TVS 50 motor cycle. The whole town of Thiruvannamalai knows him and for many he is ‘anna’ and for many others he is ‘photo swamy’. Azad gives free photography lessons for all who are interested. His students include high profile city people to street urchins. What ETP needs today is support; financial and material support. The huge archive that has been growing in the small premises of ETP should be supported by both the national and international funding agencies. Azad does not belong to any group or faction. As a photography artist, what he makes is not an image worth looking at, but the possible positioning of the subject forcefully in the given context. His trained eyes and hands do not need deliberations to see what is relevant and what is irrelevant. The huge archive of his own works also needs support. Abul Azad is a Ravutar turned Sufi Swamy with a camera around his neck. He speaks in Tamil exactly the way his ancestors used to speak to people. But I believe, Azad does not speak in any language. He speaks the language of images. He is a laughing photographer who could perhaps speak all the known and unknown languages in the world.