Contemporary Heroines

Ekalokam Trust for Photography

Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad revisits the female characters described in the Tamil epic Silappathikaram with a contemporary lens through portraiture in his second series on "Black Mother".

Ancient Poetry and Contemporary Visuals
In 2015, 16 years after his ambitious project Black Mother, set in Kodungallur, contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad concluded Black Mother II at Mathilakam, the village where Prince-turned-Jain-poet Ilango Adigal is believed to have been residing while composing the Tamil epic Silappathikaram, and from where he must have derived the landscape and the heroines - the legendary Kannagi and Madhavi - and other characters of his epic. 
The time of the composition of the epic is still a subject of debate, believed to have composed between 3rd century BCE to 8th century CE , and offers comprehensive accounts of the life and landscape of that era. Mathilakam is 8 kms from Kodungallur, and this region is believed to be between the two famous ancient port emporiums Muziris and Tyndis. At that time, Mathilakam was called Trikkana Mathilakam (or Kunavayilkottam), and was an important center for Jain culture and learning, and also the capital of the Chera dynasty for a brief period.
Sangam period is the period in the history of ancient Southern India (known as Tamilakam) spanning from c. 3rd century BCE to c. 4th century CE. It is named after the famous Sangam academies of poets and scholars centered in the city of Madurai (situated in present Tamil Nadu). The Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas were the three dynasties of the Sangam period Tamilakam. Ilango Adigal, the author of the epic Silappathikaram took up two moral principles, chastity and virtue, and incorporated them into a theatrical style episode. At a time when it was customary to make the King or some other patron as the hero, poet Ilango had the courage to make ordinary folks the key figures in his drama.
The Sangam monarch was an autocrat whose powers could not be checked or curtailed by institutional devises. The King was an absolute sovereign. It was in this context that Ilango’s heroine, a merchant’s daughter (Kannagi) questions the Pandya King Nedunchelian and burns down the Madurai city for the unfair killing of her husband Kovalan. Though Kovalan is supposed to be the hero, the author in his unique style has elevated the two women characters, Kannaki and Madhavi to the highest status in the eyes of the society for ever. The prominence of female characters was unknown in epic cycles of Greek and other European sources of that time.
The status of women in Sangam society was not equal to that of men either in theory or in practice. Marriages were often done either idealistically with no rituals, or involved many rituals. Many married women, upon death of their husband either committed Sati or led a very hard life as widows. There were many forms and qualities of dress worn by the various classes, the laboring classes wore very little, almost bordering on nudity. The Sangam economy was simple and mostly self-sufficing. Agriculture, weaving, fishing and hunting were the major occupations. A large number of persons were engaged in industries and commerce, both inland and foreign. The Silappathikaram speaks of many tribes and also refers to traditional castes.  
Silappathikaram introduces the intermingling of poetry with prose, a form not seen in previous Tamil works. The Jain poet Ilango refuses to yield to religious fanaticism and reveals the tale of common people from diversified class, caste and religious backgrounds, engaged in the battle of life in all its aspects. Ilango’s poetic rendition also presents the plants, fruits, foliage, fishes, rivers, sea shores, the different seasons and its changing colours, aromas and sounds of Sangam period. In Sangam society, religion played a milder and more harmonious role. It features an unusual praise of the Sun, the Moon, the river Kaveri and the city of Poompuhar at its beginning, the contemporary tradition being to praise a deity.
This approach further enabled him to describe the nature of fine arts in vogue at the time in different parts of the three Tamil Kingdoms. Among the fine arts, painting was greatly developed and sculpture was a familiar plastic art to the ancient Tamils. Dance, drama and music were allied fine arts and they received princely encouragement. Ilango Adigal exploited the musical and dancing talents of Madhavi to describe the high forms of entertainment staged in royal courts; he used the villagers themselves to portray the folk songs and dances prevalent in their locale. 
The story of Silappathikaram is being re-told in popular culture. There have been multiple movies, dance dramas, art etc. As most of the verses of Silappathikaram can be set to music, there have been performances by some of the great exponents of Bharatanatyam. Silappathikaram, in myriad adaptations, also occupies a lot of screen time in television. The fabric of contemporary South Indian society is woven by this repeated propagation of the morality highlighted by the epic.

Abul's Black Mother series relooks the ancient epic in contemporary context. His interest is in tracing the course of the lingering impact of the Sangam period and its ethos on the cultural front of the south. By capturing the women from the same region from where poet Ilango is believed to have written the epic, the photographer creates a narrative in terms of subliminal visual sequences that can do away with the unhistorical illustrative method or photographic reportage. The photographs draw on the traditions of local oral history and collective lore of the people, with a bearing on the theme of the multivalence of antecedents as pointers to the past and linking them with the contemporary social formation of the region.

Contrary to the frenzied movements portrayed in the earlier body of work, here, the women pose poignantly, sitting or standing, in front of the loosely held background screen, its natural folds and light flow making each image a unique and singular work of art. The deliberate inclusion and omission of certain plants, landscape, and objects signify the contemporary lifestyle of this ancient land, its people and culture. The women in the portraits are the ones we see every day. However, in the photographs, they appear more beautiful, majestic, profound or sometimes even sad and melancholic, weaving the story of an untold epic. The ancestors of these local women, who are from diverse communities and beliefs, may very well have been the reference and inspiration for poet Ilango.
Kathija (aged 70) is a housewife married to Kunji Seyyadu. The couple has five children. Born and brought up in Mathilakam, Kathija has studied until 3rd standard. She has never left Mathilakam and has no knowledge of Kannagi.
Usha (49) is a daily wage laborer married to Rajan and lives in Koolimuttam, Mathilakam. She belongs to the Vettuva community. The couple has a son and a daughter, aged 26 and 27 respectively. Usha is an active communist party member. She is of the opinion that the present education system is difficult for the children and that they have to carry too many books.
Rajini (37) is a housewife. She remembers hearing about Kannagi at the Kodungallur Bharani festival. The practice of 'theri pattu' (songs composed of expletives) addressing Kannagi raised questions in her. Later, she came to know more from her husband who is a Theyyam (folklore theatre) practitioner.
Mini (51) is a housewife married to Radhakrishnan who has worked as an engineer in Gulf and is now retired. She mentions that during her childhood different people made and ate different types of food prepared in unique ways. Mini regularly gives her granddaughter Sera (8 months) the traditional Sidha herbal combination of vayambu (medicinal root), honey and gold ground together for longevity and vigor.
Geetha Bhatt (56), a housewife, shifted to Mathilakam from Karnataka. She belongs to the Kannadiga Brahmin caste and her husband Bhatt is a respected local scholar who also serves as a priest in a local temple. She remembers the story of Kannagi as having been taught to her in school, but does not remember the full version.
Fathima belongs to the Muslim community and lives in Mathilakam. Her husband died recently and she presently lives alone. She has a small piece of land and a few cows.
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.

Fauzia, (53) is a housewife, married to Mohammed Ali. She has two children and four grand-children. She got married when she was doing her pre-university course. Mohammed Ali has a bakery in Thrissur.

Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan (61) has two sons. She is an active communist party member and was serving as the panchayath president of Mathilakam at the time the photograph was taken. Her father was a traditional Ayurveda practitioner who specialized in toxicology. Her late husband inspired her to join politics which keeps her content and engaged.
Elizebeth (88) is a retired teacher. She belongs to the oldest Syrian Christian family in Mathilakam. Her husband Thoundaserry Kunjamvaroo was with the British Army, and later was involved in gold business. She was born in Chalakudi village, Kerala. She remembers her voyage to Mathilakam via the Canoli Canal after marriage.
Ramla Latheef (45), housewife, with her elder daughter Tamana Latheef (19), a journalist. Ramla is married to activist and businessman Abdul Latheef. They have three children. They became a nuclear family recently, and she misses the fun and challenges of the compound family atmosphere.
Bindu Rajiv (39), house wife, is married to a photographer who works in Dubai. She moved back to Mathilakam from Dubai, where she lived for a few years, to take care of their house. Their house was renovated, and presently, she lives here with her two children. Her husband comes to India once in two years.
Jameela (65) is a house wife. Her mother is from Palakkad and father from Mathilakam. She was married to Lt. Mohammed Kunji, who hails from Pulimootam, Mathilakam. The couple has five children, one of whom died at the tender age of 3. She remembers her childhood friends from Palakkad, however, doesn’t even know whether they are alive. She also doesn’t know how to re-connect with them.
Vishalakshi Amma, house wife, is a Kannadiga Brahmin living with her husband in Mathilakam. Their family migrated here a few generations ago and her brother also lives nearby. Mathilakam, being the capital of Chera dynasty, has attracted many migrants.

Geetha (40) is married to activist Prasad. Already relatives before marriage, the couple knew each other from childhood. She works in a local printing press as a type setter and design assistant.

Madhavi (70), house wife. She was born in Eriyadu beach, Kodungallur. She belongs to a local fishermen community. Her husband Balan died 20 years ago. She gave birth to six children and has 8 grand children. She lives in Pulimootam beach, Mathilakam.

Her family deities are Chathan and Murugan. Ritualistic folklore performances are offered during auspicious days.

Bindhu Joseph (43) is a communist party member who served as Panchayath Block President. She was born in a conservative family whose main occupation was agriculture. Her father became a school teacher. She has completed her graduation degree and started social work after marriage inspired by her husband, Joseph. The couple has two children.
Subhadra (80), housewife, with her granddaughter Anupriya. Her father Kalikutti Kochikrishnan was a folk medicine practitioner. Her husband’s name is Kunnikuttan who passed away at a very young age. The couple has five children. She fondly recollects her childhood that was filled with country games and lots of activities. These days, children are pre-occupied with their gadgets.

Mumtaz, housewife, was born in a Muslim family. Her husband is a psychiatrist and counselor practicing in Mathilakam.

Yasodha (76), housewife, is married to Appukuttan and has four children. She had worked in Karnataka and knows Kannada and Tamil, besides her mother tongue Malayalam.

Her father was working in Sri Lanka. Her family members are followers of Sri Narayana Guru.

Laina (39), housewife, is married to local poet and cultural activist Anil Cherukkupalli. His full time occupation is that of an automobile painter. Her ancestral house is over a hundred years old, with three ponds that were used for bathing, washing and drinking respectively. Those days children from neighbouring houses used to come and swim here for two to three hours. She mentioned that her children are not at all interested in interacting with the neighbours and playing with them, as they have their own preferences now.
Sulochana (70), housewife, married to Velayudan, a fisherman living in Koolimuttam Beach, Mathilakam. Her ancestral home had a Sarpa Kavu (meaning Abode of Snakes), a traditional natural sacred space believed to be inhabited by snakes. The Kavu has idols of Naga Raja, Mani Nagam and Guru Nagam. During festivals, folk singers gather, sing songs and conduct special poojas.
Bindhu Mohanan (40), housewife, is from Kara, Kodungallur. Hers was a love marriage and the couple, Bindhu and Mohanan, has two sons and a daughter. Mohanan was a laborer and used to work next to his home. They fell in love and convinced their parents to let them get married.

Asma (32), housewife, is married to Nisar, who works as a construction worker in Saudi Arabia. They have a son and a daughter. She is the ninth child of ten siblings.

She has completed her matriculation and got married when she was 21.

Kanakam (51) works as a daily laborer. She was born in a local artisan family who used to weave screwpine mats. This used to be a small entrepreneurship that brought income to household women. Her partner is a fisherman.
Black Mother II - Contemporary Heroines is the second part of the ambitious project which was started in the year 1999 – 2000, the first part of which is titled Black Mother I - Heroines of Silappathikaram shot using medium format film negative.  The third and fourth parts are ongoing.
Ekalokam Trust for Photography
Credits: Story

Photography by:
Abul Kalam Azad

Curated by:
Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi, Founder and Managing Trustee, EtP

Edited by:
Vijith Vazhayil, Editorial team member, EtP
Arjun Ramachandran, Editorial team member, EtP

Thanks to:
VS Sunil Kumar, Minister of Agriculture, Kerala
Local public of Mathilakam, Kerala
Silappathikaram Festival 2015 organisers
Dr. Kavitha Balakrishnan, Poet and Art historian, Kerala
Leo James, Photographer, Dubai and Kerala
Dr. Mahima Rahman, Ayurveda Physician, Bangalore
Arnav Rastogi, Photographer, Delhi
Biju Ibrahim, Photographer, Kerala
Ami Gupta, Photographer, Tamil Nadu
Masala company, Tiruvannamalai
Ranbir Singh, Digital Solutions, Delhi
Muthukrishnan, Muthu Stickers, Puducherry
Gautham Printers, Chennai
Paraparambil tourist home, Kodungallur

Special Mention:
All the women photographed, for their presence and time

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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