A series of experimental works done by contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad during the period 2004 - 2006
A majority of the works of photographer Abul Kalam Azad done between 1995 and 2010 were an amalgamation of the digital and analogue photographic techniques that challenged the prevailing notions of the ‘reality’ of an image and the ‘representations’ of reality. The photographic medium was still being much celebrated for its capacity to “capture” reality – and create multiple replicas of the same. The possibilities of instant mechanical reproduction made this the most popular tool to communicate and reach to the masses.
However, a photograph has never been a representation of truth – the very nature of truth not being absolute, and varying with the subjective interpretation of the observer – instead going through manipulations at several levels. First, the photographer decides what to include in the frame and what to leave out; second, the publisher decides on what to print and what to delete; and third, the viewer decides what to see, and what to infer from it – and, owing to its standalone quality, a photograph taken out of context can give a totally different meaning.
“There is something blasphemous in the conversion of a news photographer [Abul Kalam Azad] into an artist who uses photographs for his creative expression. The blasphemy lies in his bold attempt to subvert the common norms attributed to a photojournalist. The masters in Indian photography most often follow a set pattern”– says Indian art historian Johny ML. “Abul’s photographs negate objectification. And his specific selection of angles prevents them from being museum objects or exotic pieces.”
Added to this is another layer/act of intervention –“Abul draws on photographs. The act of scratching and drawing certain images, mainly images of violation like sword, torch, etc., on photographs brings forth a sort of witchcraft. Violation is vigorous, and the result could be a resurrection. Hence the two-dimensional works of Abul find their way directly into the discourse of contemporary social life. He negates the negation, and violates the violation. So the resultant works oscillate between the social dialectics; creation and destruction, spiritualism and fundamentalism, pacifism and fascism”.
Thus, using the very tool that chisels history to suit specific agendas, Abul makes a parody of it – revealing the possibilities of manipulations that are intrinsic to any document. It was during his higher studies in France, in 1996, he was first exposed to the digital technique, which was all he needed for his act of self expression.
As Indian culture critic R Nandakumar points out [in 2007], “Though his preferred medium remains basically the analogue, he has of late turned to digital mode because of the possibility it offers in countering the claims to unmediated ‘truth’ of the specular image as representation that characterise the chemically produced image. Related to this is also why, even from earlier on, he has been scratching the negative with doodles in an attempt to deface and mar the glossy cosmetic finish of the print surface which in corporate photography has been used to equate the ‘quality’ (technical) of produced image with a specific ‘value’ (aesthetic).”
It is real. But, it is not. This dichotomy pervades through his entire body of work done between 1995 and 2010. Using the earlier, basic version of the Photoshop software, (three years before CS1 was introduced), Abul diligently continued his works on photographs, now digitally performing the interventions that was earlier done manually. As the Photoshop features improved, so did the complexity of manipulation and intervention, and the resultant body of work is collection of a myriad of innovative works – original in thought, style and approach.
“A bull standing in the expansive space of a highway with his horns thrust forward in an expression of conflict with the observer; a dog standing with its wide open jowls pointed towards the moonlit ghostly sky; a wild pig grazing in a fantastical coal-field; a canvas that renders the abstracted motif of an elephant’s back into a dream; a cow sat in a pasture, chewing cud in the backdrop of an ancient faraway citadel, a defiant buffalo; a lion with a serene face looking on at the viewer – almost unbearably – from the monotony of its green colour;
...a canvas that reflects the obscurity and mystery of a lunar eclipse; ‘Nandini’ [a cow] grazing in the shadows of the scorching sun; a piece of canvas on which lay innumerable roses. The huge canvases instantiate the moonlit expanses of the unconscious. These landscapes filled with motifs of totemic animals converse with the unconscious of the human mind, as would some pre-historic tribal symbols.” – PP Sha Navas reflects on Abul’s photographs.
Digital Moon was done between 2000 and 2004. The background images of the Digital Moon appear to be real. Of course, they are real animals or statues or objects that did exist at that point of time. Yet, their representation encroaches into an imaginary/fantastical territory in the sense – as the name explains – that the moon is digital and its presence questions the nature of the photograph – which is literally, ‘drawing with light’. And the manipulation doesn’t stop with that. The sky, the light and shade, the angle, everything is adjusted to reflect the phase of the moon – black or white, full or waning, or a mere reflection of it.
As Alexander Keefe points out, “….In this, one of the most powerful pieces from the “Animals” series, we see an image of an image. The eclipsed sun is a digital intervention, as is the jade-colored twilight that saturates the scene. This is no more a straightforward representation of a snake shrine than the serpentine murti is a straightforward representation of a cobra. And this is precisely the point: everything we see here is a product of an intervention, an artifice that creates a charged space between representation and abstraction where the biological, social and material cross paths.”
All the original analogue images were taken by Abul from different parts of India, at different times. There is another aspect to his works – he reworks on his earlier images or shoots similar subjects over a different period – which, when viewed as a whole, point to a coherent philosophy and aesthetical framework. Animals, for example, are a recurring theme in Abul’s works. What started as an individual exploration into the religious dimensions of these totemic animals, that were a taboo to certain other cults, became a life-long passion for Abul Kalam Azad.
Animals – specifically, animals in everyday life – became a regular subject in his works. Interestingly, apart from a brief period during his early career, he has shown a general disinterest in wildlife photography that largely pries into and eroticizes the private life of these animals and birds. There is an intrinsic conflict when anything becomes a totem to one and a taboo to another. However, when seen objectively, these Animals share one thing in common – mystical elements attributed to the tamable and productive or the untamable and powerful.
Every ancient society, much before its consolidation into specific religions, groups, or territories had deep connections or conflicts with nature and animals. The behaviour and response to human presence and approaches encouraged or discouraged ancient men to become closer to certain animals. Some of them were attributed magical meaning and divinity, whilst certain others were considered unholy and rudimental. The sacred animals were considered as messengers and were feared or loved. And, the greater their contribution to humans survival and economic well-being, the more sacred they become.
It was these animals that became iconographical and symbolic representations of the mythical, mythological, and folklore stories, and became significant during sacrificial rituals. Subconsciously, Abul connects with these totemic animals (that are a taboo to another) and, observes them with a neutral mind, breaking free from the inhibitions imposed by his societal background and early upbringings – with the openness of an ancient mind, which was yet to categorize them as holy or unholy. The dog, the pig, the elephant, the cow – all of them common sights in India – each becomes a representation of the sociological and cultural mindset of this ancient land.
As R Nandakumar says, “…the animals with their ancient totemic associations characteristic of an indigenous tradition and bestowed later with an otherworldly mythical status through appropriation by the dominant religion of the land, have been transmogrified as it were, into an intermediary state between the sacred and profane. As for instance, the image of the prostrating elephant is not that of any elephant; but the partially seen image of the animal is ‘image as metonymy’ with its mythical associations to the elephant in the Dream of Maya associated with the birth of the Buddha which has many sculptural representations in ancient Indian art. If the use of metonymy here is expressive of a kind of perspectival ambivalence between representation and indexicality, sign as metonymy inflects meaning from the referential of the represented image, in this case, through intertextuality”.
In postmodern society, with the advent of machinations and other changes in lifestyle, many animals have been reduced to being food or pets and the fiery or rare wild animals have become live museum pieces in the zoos. Yet, human beings’ fascination with the magic of these species influences and affects many aspects of contemporary Indian life. Another part of the Digital Moon series basically contains discarded fragments of postcolonial landscapes. Here, often, two or three images are fused – parts of a boat fused with Mandovi river of Goa, the photograph of a temple with a Mughal architecture, the view of Taj Mahal from Shajahan’s prison etc. –- re-iterating a non-existent reality.
All the animals, objects, and places are engulfed in eerie darkness – magical, profound, and, in a way, desolate – each narrating a tale of historical glory and abandonment. They have underwent years of transformation, and eventually have come to a point of being valued or discarded. Possibly, that is why Abul Kalam Azad has not included human figures – indicating through absence the profound and profane role played by humans; these subjects became objects of worship or cause for war, purely as a result of human intervention.
Abul Kalam Azad | Archival Pigment Prints
Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi, Curator, EtP
Gautham Ramachandran, Associate Curator, EtP
Arjun Ramachandran, Associate Curator, EtP
Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi
Special Thanks to
R Nandakumar, Culture Critic
Johny M.L., Art Historian/Curator
Alexander Keefe, Art Critic
PP Sha Nawas, Art Critic
Joseph Chakola, Iskha Gallery
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