Contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad’s mesmerizing, kaleidoscope-esque visuals created using a combination of traditional and modern photography.
Photography was introduced in India, soon after its invention in the 19th century, serving primarily as a colonial tool to advertise the subcontinent as a possible destination for investors and settlers. Photographers were commissioned and invited to document the vivid landscapes, exotic peoples, magnificent heritages, wealthy nobles and their families etc. In these photographs, the people were usually smaller in scale compared to that of the grandeur of the buildings - the agenda being the promotion of the Queen’s property. When the Indian sepoys rebelled against the East India Company in the 1857 Mutiny, the ensuing conflict was also documented and photographs of the atrocities were circulated in Britain.
These two styles greatly defined Indian Photography, and, even after about six generations, the most celebrated photographers from India are either photo-journalists or event/commercial photographers. It is these works, that are commissioned/published by news agencies/publications or works that were intended to be used as illustration supporting the magazines’ text, that are defining Indian photography and exhibited in galleries and art fairs, appreciated as works of art, and collected by museums and collectors. Only a few Indian photographers have dared to deviate from this accepted approach and style.
Fourth generation Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad’s experimental and conceptual photo-art expressions challenge the set norms and trends that the contemporary Indian discourse favored in terms of form and content. He uses photography as a medium of self-expression, and actively involves himself in the creation of the photograph, a considerable step further from being a mere witness to the events or tragedies as they unfold. With an unceasing urge to explore the uncharted domains of Indian photography, Abul strives to break all of its established boundaries, all the while retaining the core essence of this fabulous medium.
A bold, expressive, and innovative printmaker, he developed a unique style by deliberately scratching, doodling, and stitching on negatives and photographic prints. Infact, multiple exposures, mirror imaging, mixed media works etc. formed part of his pioneering photo-art experiments, much before they became one-click mobile applications or Photoshop feature.
However, it is hard to brand his works into a particular ‘style’, owing to the constant flux in his approach, choice of medium, point of expression etc. His works constantly zigzags between experimental and minimal in technique/approach. It may be that, as soon as he feels that a style is fully formed, the artist in him seeks to break away in search of newer heights. Yet, there is certain continuity in his choice of subjects and approach to the medium. At times, a metamorphosis of an earlier image or parts of it could be found in later bodies of experimental work.
By the time Abul ended his brief stint with photo-journalism in 1995, to become a full time photo-artist, he had already executed some of his popular works like ‘Divine Façade’, ‘Lotus and Knife’, ‘Trap’ etc.,- all of which had his indelible signs of revolt, the scratches and doodles on the smooth silver gelatin prints, like marks of self-flagellation. It was done during a time when the “pure” gelatin surfaces were a pre-requisite for a good photographic print. None of these compositions were done as part of any publication/illustration or any news/story.
Around this time, he also started blending both digital and analogue media. In 1995, a group show was organized at Gallery Nicephore, France to commemorate “100 years of Cinema” - where he had exhibited a set of untitled images, which were digitally reworked, scanned objects collected from cinema halls. The widely exhibited and most popular 'Untouchables' (2000) series by Abul Kalam Azad belongs to this genre of an amalgam of digital and analogue media.
After completing his higher studies in France and England, around 1999, Abul returned to South India. With the advent of the digital era, access to his favorite analogue materials became all the more difficult in his native port town of Mattancherry, Kerala. Even though he was well versed in digital photography, he continued amalgamating analogue and digital media. For almost a decade, he kept producing several works of this kind, diligently scanning through old family albums, discarded studio prints/negatives and his own analogue photographs.
Senti-Mental, a series of more than 100 images, done during the period 2005 – 2010, belongs to this genre. For Abul, Kaleidoscope is a signifier of his memorable childhood times. He fondly recollects the weekly market in his native port town where an old Muslim fakir used to sell colorful paper-covered kaleidoscopes. Almost every week, Abul’s father, Haneef Rahman, had to buy a new one, as he would have already opened the mysterious kaleidoscope to see what is inside, to know how it works and in the process would have destroyed the kaleidoscope. He says that this joy of looking through those mirrors remained with him and inspired him to create Senti-Mental series.
Mirrors and its reflections have been integrated as part of his many earlier works including the ‘Lotus and Knife’ series. In Senti-Mental, mirror reflections create an image/print in multiple dimensions, adding a surreal feel to the sober, distant traditional prints. Themajority of the original bromide prints used in this series were collected by Abul Kalam Azad from commercial studios, antique shops and old markets in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka, and the remaining were shot by him. It was a time when Indian commercial studios were shifting to digital medium, and haplessly throwing out invaluable analogue negatives and prints.
Through Senti-Mental series, these discarded bromide prints have received a new lease of life and have become a mirror image of that time, space and memory. What we see is the blending of black & white with colors, the marriage of tradition with modernity; a kaleidoscopic view of life, history and time. Taking a closer look, one could easily gather that Abul has used his discretion in choosing from the discarded bromide prints – with “gaze” being the common thread that ties all the images together. The subjects are either looking at the viewer or looking at their own reflections. Surely, one cannot evade meeting the “eye”, even that of the dog which is hiding under the chair, possibly unaware even to the photographer who had taken that portrait, probably eight or nine decades before.
Apart from the “gaze”, certain subtleties, like the hands and feet, catch our attention. They act as pointers that differentiate the found photographs from those that were shot by Abul Kalam Azad himself. If one looks at the attire, the shirt and trouser, for example, without observing the gaze and the tensed grip, then one would be led to believe that it belongs to a more recent “time” as shirt/trouser did not come to be the dress of the commoners until the 1960s. However, in all probability, the found studio photographs were from the pre-independence period. Compared to modern times, photography was much less democratic at the time. Only the elite and the rich were taking photographs - mostly of themselves. Irreverently associated with the colonial word ‘shoot’, the rigid pose, fearful grip, and stern gaze always accompanied photographs from this period.
During and just after independence, shirts and trousers came into popular use due to them being associated with elite-ness, sophistication, and education. To further propagate this idea, mushrooming photo studios had different “attires”, and one could dress up like a lawyer, or as an official, or as a graduate, or as a wealthy man/woman, and be photographed in the backdrop of a palace, or many other buildings or scenarios, with different types of props to exemplify the chosen attire.
In the South, a majority of the commoners were prohibited from wearing clothes covering their upper bodies. The rights to wear upper body garments were finally granted to the lower caste men and women as a result of intense protests over the years. Christian missionaries played a major role in this, and eventually, peasants, workers, the newly educated, and the converted Christians started wearing “modern” clothes with pride. As John Berger points out about suits and the western peasants, in South India, trousers and shirts -symbols of class hegemony - were imbibed by the locals.
If one observes the photographs that were taken by Abul Kalam Azad and incorporated in the Senti-Mental series, the comfortable and relaxed poses and the fearless gaze gives away their time, and signifies the levels of popularity and affinity that this medium has gained over the decades. Time and again, history has proved that ideas that may not be valued at certain periods may “lose” their intrinsic value, only to be valued again, sometime in the future. By juxtaposing the past with the present, Abul is deconstructing an existing “his”-story. The magic touch of digital technology augments the chiseled moments from the South Indian analogue memory lane, making it an everlasting work of art.
The Postmodern era has seen photography taking a central role in the discourse of art and art theory. It has become a part and parcel of common man’s repertoire, likened to the popularity of music. There are many newcomers to the field of photography and quite a few fifth and sixth generation Indian photographers are beginning to takean interest in experimental and conceptual photography. In the near future, Indian photography will start charting its course into these newer terrains, the path dug painstakingly by photographers like Abul Kalam Azad who had the imagination, grit, and forethought.
Abul Kalam Azad | 60"x60" Modern Prints
Curation and text by:
Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi, Founder and Managing Trustee, EtP
Special Thanks to:
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