Haneef Rahman, my father, died in the year 1998. He was my first teacher in photography. He was a lover of the arts and drama. Both his parents were from the Tamil speaking Rawther (or Ravuthar) 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-up-on-a-time association with horse-trading, riding, and training. The traveling Arabian and Turkish cavalry soldiers and horse-traders married the native Tamil speaking tribal women. Because of their mother relation, they became more like ‘son of the soil’, rooted in the local tradition, yet continuing the practices and lifestyles of their lineage. This amalgamation gave them a hybrid identity. Our family name is Pattanam, an acronym of Patthanathukarar which means ‘hailing from a port town’. It could have been from one of the earliest seaports of Tamilakam (the region corresponding to present South India) such as Kaveripoompatanam (Chola Port Pukar) or Kayalpattanam (Pandyan Port Korkai).
Trading took my forefathers to different parts of Tamilakam and eventually they settled in Mattancherry. During the 60s, my father established Azad Textiles, one of the first and largest wholesale textile showrooms at Kothamangalam. Later on, 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 provided him the possibility of pursuing his love for the arts. Our house became the gathering space for artists, actors, and activists. He also wrote plays and short stories. He was quite active in the local cultural and political scene and was part of the 70s library movement. He was progressive and nationalistic. He was fond of Moulana Abul Kalam Azad, after whom I was named. A lover of cinema, he was a regular visitor to the local cinema halls. He made me watch the films by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Ramu Kariyat, PJ Anthony, Sathyajith Ray and read MT Vasudevan Nair, Basheer, Thakazhi, CJ Thomas, etc. He was also interested in modern mediums such as photography. 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. My mother was his favorite subject. She was his willing accomplice. Like a ritual, every Sunday, he would gather all the children 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 the models. My job was to carry the camera, help him identify the location and mind the naughty children. He always makes his models pose dramatically. Because of his involvement in theatre, he was keen to take photographs of dramatic and staged moments. Occasionally, as a generous teacher would, he allowed me to take a picture or two.
My father’s shop was opposite to the then-popular Hero Photo Studio. Photographer Thomas was its proprietor. Those times, films weren’t available in the open market. So, my father used to buy them from him and get it processed there. 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 asked him to show the darkroom. We sneaked inside when Thomas was not around. That was my first memory of the red light lit processing room.
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 70s. By this time, I had already decided to pursue photography and 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 attitude. Photography was considered comparatively better than the arts, as there was a possibility for financial success. Those times, there were no proper schools for academically learning photography and so I was interning with a local photographer. I was shy to take photos of unknown people, so, all early photographs of mine were of people known to me. I used to observe the routines of my loved ones and would plan the right moment to photograph.
Every day, around 7.00 am, my father would return home after his morning walk. Without him having to ask, my mother would prepare the tea. The elders would be doing one chore or other, and the children would be playing with lots of nice. He would take a look at everyone and then start reading the newspapers and/or periodicals. That routine moment is what I wanted to capture. When I took this image of my father, he was becoming conscious of my presence and the act of photographing. But, I asked him to continue with whatever he was indulging in at the time. 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. Every photograph is not merely that moment, it is also what transpired before and what happened or would happen the next moment. It is not only what is included in the frame, but also what all 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.