Contemporary Heroines (2015) is the second part of Abul Kalam Azad’s ongoing series that draws its roots from the classical Tamil epic poetry Silappathikaram, which is believed to have been composed during the Sangam / Early historic period (3rd century BCE to 3rd century CE) by the Cera dynasty’s Prince-turned-Jain-poet Ilango Adigal. It is believed that Poet Ilango was staying in Trikkana Mathilakam (present Mathilakam Panchayath, Kerala) which was an important Jain Centre during the Sangam period while composing his epic. It must befrom here the poet derived the landscape and heroines, the legendary Kannaki and Matavi,and other characters of his poetry. ‘Contemporary Heroines,’ shot in the same region, tells the tales of the great women of our times, hidden among us and engaged in their ordinary lives, each leading a life rich in detail, struggles, woes, passion and happiness.

Kunjipennu (70) is single and lives alone in a small hut in Punnakka Bazaar, Mathilakam. A quiet lady, she is known for bringing together good alliances for marriage. Her favorite food is rice and fish curry. Her mother died five years back, and her sister, who lives nearby, visits her often.


  • Title: Contemporary Heroines | Abul Kalam Azad
  • Date Created: 2015
  • Location: Mathilakam, Kerala
  • Physical Dimensions: 35mm digital
  • Type: Photography
  • Rights: All rights reserved by author
  • Medium: Archival Pigment Print
  • Photographer / Artist: Abul Kalam Azad
  • Collection: EtP Photo Archive
  • About the Series: Classical Tamil epic Silappathikaram is believed to have been composed by Cera dynasty’s Prince-turned-Jain-poet Ilango Adigal during the Sangam period (3rd century BCE – 3rd century CE). The story of the epic is set in the backdrop of the three dynasties and covers the coastal and inland life of ancient Tamilakam,narrating a popular folklore story related to the native practice of Mother Goddess worship. Adigalar provides the reader pictorial descriptions of the land, landscape, people, flora and fauna, ruling dynasties, culture, religion, festivals, rituals, and lifestyle of that era. Since theearly historic Tamilakam, with the support of the kings and patrons, the epic and its philosophy has been propagated amidst the common people through various art forms. In contemporary popular culture too, music, dramas and movies are being made based on the epic. A majority of these works are either illustrative or employ adramatic journalistic style, and continue to propagate the two morals of the epic, namely chastity and virtue, the threads that make up the fabric of South Indian society. Some of these works may not directly speak of the epic or Kannaki; however,they are offshoots of the original grand narration. This approach of story narration and dramatic re-creation obscures the significant socio-economic political information cited in the epic. Photographer Abul Kalam Azad takes a re-look at the ancient epic in the contemporary context. By creating visuals from the same region, Abul is creating a non-illustrative, parallel visuals that presents contemporary culture, landscape and people. Black Mother is the first part of this series shot using medium format film camera, was done in the year 1999-2000. These monochrome images capture the multi-facets of the still continuing mother goddess cult practices and rituals, and the epic’s lingering influence on the social formation of the South. Shot 16 years after the initial Black Mother, 'Contemporary Heroines' is the second part of the series drawing its roots from epic Silappathikaram.
  • About the Photographer: Abul Kalam Azad was born in Kerala, and brought up in the historical dockland Mattancherry which features extensively in his works. Abul’s association with theatre, music, art and politics in the post-emergency period moulded a radical thinking, which coupled with a passion for photography that he shared with his father Haneef Rahman made him choose an “unconventional” career in photography. Abul initially became involved in the technicalities of photography and printmaking by working as an apprentice in a studio during his schooling. During the late 1980s, he set up ‘Studio Zen’ and began to work with prominent news agencies and periodicals in India and abroad. In the meantime, he continued his own personal explorations and documentations of experiences and memories of his native land. In 1990, he moved to New Delhi to work for the Press Trust of India. Amidst the national political turmoil, involvement with SAHMAT, and exposure to intellectual activity centred in Delhi, Abul’s view of photography shifted from being a tool for journalism to a medium of self-expression. In 1995, he travelled to France for higher studies in photography through a French government scholarship. He is also the recipient of the Charles Wallace Fellowship (1995) and senior fellowship from the Government of India (2013-2015). In 1996, he quit his photojournalism career to pursue an independent art practice. Abul’s first exhibition was in Kalapeedom, Kochi, and since then has displayed his works in India and abroad, including London, New York, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, Switzerland and Montpellier. Abul moved back to Mattancherry in 1998, continuing his practice and promotion of independent photo-art. His maverick approach to the medium, verging on the barbaric, now comprised methods such as stitching, scratching, doodling, sequencing, multiple exposures and digital painting. Many of his works deal with issues of identity, ethics, micro/macro history and eroticism. In Mattancherry, Abul continued his attempts to reach regional audiences that he had earlier attempted through ‘Studio Zen’, through ‘Mayalokam Collective’. Encounter, a fortnight long art festival was organised by the Collective in collaboration with other local artists and art organisations. Mayalokam Art Collective was officially dissolved in 2005, but Abul’s Mayalokam studio continued to operate in the same building in the busy Bazaar road of Mattancherry till 2010. He is the Founder-Chairman of Ekalokam Trust for Photography and Director of Public Photo-art Project 365. He is also serving as the Editor-in-Chief of Photo Mail, an online magazine for photo-art. Abul's pioneering work brings about a break to the norms of classical photography and creates images blending the technical perfection of the medium of photography with formal and thematic ideas from other visual arts, and images that surpasses reality, dream and the abstract.

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