In his series titled ‘Black Mother’ Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad photographs the still continuing ancient mother goddess cult practice that has its roots in the classical Tamil text Silappathikaram.
Starting early historic Tamilakam, with the support of the kings and patrons, the epic, its philosophy and its morality has been propagated amidst the common people through various art forms. At a time when it was customary to make the King or some other patron as the hero, poet Ilango made legendary Kannaki, personification of mother goddess, as the key figure. In Sangam society, mother goddess cult and nature worship was prevalent and this approach resulted in gaining public appeal.
In popular culture too, music, dramas and movies are being made. A majority of these works are either illustrative or of dramatic journalistic style, and continue to propagate the two morals of the epic, namely chastity and virtue, the fabric with which the South Indian society is weaved. Some of these works may not directly speak of the epic or Kannaki, however, 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.
Meena Bharani festival is an annual celebration at the Kodungallur Bhagavathi Kavu (sacred grove), Kerala. Poet Ilango Adigal mentions his brother Senguttuvan Cheran's decision to build a temple (Virakkallu), to propitiate the goddess Pattini, at Vanchi (believed to be near present day Kodungallur, present Kerala). Goddess Pattini is considered as the deification of Kannaki – the heroine of Ilango's epic – and is an extension of the native practice of Mother Goddess worship.
"Black Mother is the continuation of Azad’s cultural search for the archetypal Mother image, the Goddesses of the 4th century, the Goddesses of the 20th-21st century, and the Mother Goddesses of pre-history are the field of his study.The point is to encounter the reality in the primordial nature of this pre-historic popular icon
"that is Mother, within the context of time within. The biological ancientness boils into the blackness of the photographs, exploring the utmost human possibility of the medium of Photography. The black here ceases to remain a color in order to become the darkness of the Garva Greeha, the womb." - 2003, Kabita Mukhopadhyay, Artist and Independent Writer
"These oracles in the various stages of trance, can be seen stomping around, sword in hand, in convulsive movements of frenzy. Weird-looking in their hysteric outbursts, the women oracles are part of the temple functionaries who devote themselves at the service of these unique customs and rituals observed in the temple that are related to ancient and possibly, pre-Brahminic mother goddess cults. Though the atmosphere is charged and overwrought with a kind of
"high-strung atavistic fervour, the images of these women in their redemptive bodily movements of self-mortification, have hardly any religious awe about them. Far from the casual gaze of an outsider looking at an esoteric spectacle in bemused curiosity, Azad’s register of visual engagement in these works, at the same time, eschews that of subjective identification at the level of a participant or devotee though the choice of his angle is perfectly in empathy with what is seen at that level of experience."
- 2007, R Nandakumar, Cultural Historian
"A constant urge to get under the skin of the “other”- here it is Bhagawathi, supreme Goddess and her worshippers in a trance. The starkness and drama of these black and white images are dimly lit with lamplights. The artist is part of the ritual capturing frenzied movements, stoic stillness in sequential stills of an unfolding narrative." - 2003, Suresh Jayaraman, Artist and Art historian
"They (photographic images from Azad's Black Mother series) reveal the basics of human nature and iconographic symbolism in a pure abstract graphic interpretation. In this series, Azad studies the body of religion and finds its pimples of non-spiritual elements: faith, fanatism and social trance, letting his audience experience them through the classified visuals." - 2003, Kabita Mukhopadhyay, Artist and Independent Writer
"This becomes clear when the oracle series is read alongside the other series called “Goddess” – both challenging the accepted notions of the cultural stereotypes of feminine subjectivity in relation to the female body. Though the frame itself emphasises frontality of point of view, the figures in the former are at times partially left out or cut at half length or are silhouetted but, however, are invariably
"seen with their ritual accoutrements like the anklet, the sword, the string of bells around their waist, etc. These part objects (as partial drives, in the Lacanian sense) evoke a specific referential field in the whole range of Azad’s work as the metonymic image."
- 2007, R. Nandakumar, Cultural Historian
"the aura, smell and sounds of this ritualistic experience. . He reinstates a Dravidian identity of the matriarchal society. The artist also transcends his own identity to feel faith beyond religion and to live through this immaterial human experience and look beyond the image." - 2003, Suresh Jayaraman, Artist and Art Historian
"For instance, the anklet, here though in the context of the specific ritual has feminine connotations through its mythical associations with Kannaki, the protagonist of the myth, is in the performative context gender-free as it is worn by both male and female oracles as well as performers of other dance forms. However, the sword that the female oracle wields and with which
Abul Kalam Azad's "Black Mother" traces the course of the lingering impact of ancient literature on contemporary art and socio-cultural-political front of the south. This ambitious project was started in the year 1999 – 2000, shot using medium format film negative. The first batch of prints was made through the Bromoil print process. The second part of the series titled Black Mother II was completed in the year 2015. The third and fourth parts are ongoing.
Abul Kalam Azad
Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi, Founder and Managing Trustee, EtP
R Nandakumar, Cultural Historian
Johny ML, Cultural Historian
Kabita Mukhopadhyay, Artist and Independent Writer
Suresh Jayaraman, Artist and Art historian
Vijith Vazhayil, Editorial Team member, EtP
Ravi Shankar, Poet and independent writer
Arjun Ramachandran, Editorial Team, EtP
Anoop Scaria, Gallerist, Kerala
CV Ramesh, Sculptor, Bangalore
Lt. Shafeek Amaravathy, Journalist, Kerala
Kala Ramesh, Poet, Bangalore
Emma Burke-gaffney, Fashion Designer
Arnav Rastogi, Photographer, New Delhi
Nandhini Valli Muthiah, Photographer, Chennai
Joseph Mathew Daniel, Photographer, Bangalore
Panneer Selvam, Photographer, Chennai
Surrey Institute, London