1999 - 2000

'Black Mother'

Ekalokam Trust for Photography

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. 

Ancient Poetry and Contemporary Photography
A thousand years before Common Era, language Tamil was commonly spoken in ancient Tamilakam (present Tamil Nadu, Kerala, parts of Karnataka, Puducherry, Andhra Pradesh, Lakshadweep and Northern Sri Lanka) and the region had begun developing its own unique identity. Generally considered as the Iron age (1000BCE – 300BCE), this period saw much growth in the socio-political cultural arena. Starting this period onward many a poets and composers created hymns and poetry in praise of the ruling kings. 
Approximately, three hundred years before Christ (3rd century BCE), a cultural collective (Sangam) was formed in ancient Tamilakam, to record and commit to writing these hagiographical works that had so far been maintained in the form of oral tradition and to create new literatures. This was also the time when maritime trade and cultural exchange was at its peak owing to the knowledge of monsoon winds, the influences of which could be seen in the art, architecture and literature. 
This period starting three hundred years before and ending three hundred years after Christ (3rd century BCE to 3rd century CE) is considered by historians as Sangam Period (Early historic/classical) and the Literature composed/compiled during this period is called Sangam Literature.
The epic poem Silappathikaram (story of the anklet), believed to have been written during the Sangam period by the Chera dynasty’s Prince-turned-Jain-poet Ilango Adigal, narrates a popular folklore story related to the native practice of Mother Goddess worship. The story of the epic is set in the backdrop of the three ruling dynasties, Ceras, Colas, Pandiyas and Adigalar provides the reader a vivid depiction of the land, landscape, people, flora and fauna, ruling dynasties, culture, religion, festivals, rituals and lifestyle of that era. 

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

"Azad presents a set of disturbing clues from his visual-anthropological research in a specific time that urgently needs to have a close look at the ‘ant hill’ that is the ‘people of a nation’, and he succeeds in identifying the graphic lines of human struggle, incessantly growing on the skin of life and time as the testimony of survival." - 2003, Kabita Mukhopadhyay, Artist and Independent Writer

"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

"His images reveal the inherent drama of frozen movement. The most striking aspect of his photography is the concept of “Darshanam”, intended to dramatize the viewer to experience the enigma coupled with the voyeur’s fear of the sacred – mother archetype. His eye for detail captures

"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

"she inflicts self-torture, has culture-specific and trans-cultural phallic associations, to follow the argument of David Shulman in his study of the local Tamil versions of the Mahishasura Mardini myth.  Considering the fact that the occasion is also marked by the loud and uninhibited singing of frankly erotic songs replete with pornographic details, especially by women, the psycho-somatics of trance as the interface between devotion and deviance, mark a form of gender transcendence and switching of identities through the
"bodily experience of the ritual. The withered and world-weary look on these abject faces that is unrelieved by even the ritual trappings that attest to their sanctified status, makes of them less of any divinity than what is discreetly suggested of their socially marginalized existence." - 2007, R. Nandakumar, Cultural Historian
"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." - 2016, Johny ML, Cultural Historian

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.

Ekalokam Trust for Photography
Credits: Story

Abul Kalam Azad

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

Text credits:
R Nandakumar, Cultural Historian
Johny ML, Cultural Historian
Kabita Mukhopadhyay, Artist and Independent Writer
Suresh Jayaraman, Artist and Art historian

Edited by:
Vijith Vazhayil, Editorial Team member, EtP
Ravi Shankar, Poet and independent writer
Arjun Ramachandran, Editorial Team, EtP

Thanks to:
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

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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