Abul Kalam Azad

Arts Practice

Grant Period: over ten months

Abul Kalam Azad is a noted contemporary photographer. Brought up in Mattancherry in Kerala, he has worked with prominent news agencies and periodicals in India and abroad. During his tenure with the Press Trust of India in Delhi, he got deeply involved with the work of SAHMAT, after which he shifted from journalism to explore photography as a medium of self expression. In 2010, he founded the Ekalokam Trust for Photography in Tiruvannamalai, dedicated to promoting contemporary photography in India. This grant supports Abul to create a body of photographic works that will provide a contemporary visual interpretation of Ilango’s Silappadikaram.

Sangam literature is a corpus of written works created between the 3rd century BCE and 3rd century CE. It comprises of 2341 poems composed by 473 poets, both men and women, from different classes of society. Read alongside historical documents, this literature provides valuable insights into the political, social, cultural and economic context of the Sangam period. The epic poem Silappadikaram (story of the anklet) is believed to have been written during the Sangam era by the prince-turned-Jain poet of the Chera dynasty, Ilango Adigal. The epic is set in Poompuhar (also known as Puhar) presently a town in the Nagapattinam district in southern Tamilnadu. It has detailed descriptions of coastal and inland life of ancient Tamilakam (which includes present day Tamilnadu, Kerala, parts of Karnataka, Pondicherry, Andhra Pradesh and northern Sri Lanka). Over the centuries, this epic and its philosophy has been propagated amidst the common people through various art forms.

As a photographer, Abul has always been interested in the pictographic way in which Ilango describes the landscape, people, rituals, lifestyle, flora and fauna, dynasties and culture of the region, the long journeys taken by the traders, the local economy, family and love life, seasons and their changing colours, aromas and sounds and so on. In addition to this, are his own questions about identity and territory in the current political scenario. Enabled by this grant, Abul will revisit Poompuhar to shoot people, their lifestyles and the topography. Far from being an illustrative documentary project, Abul seeks to create a body of photographic visuals that would become a contemporary visual interpretation of the ancient epic. This work will also be his meditation on the still lingering unified culture of the Tamilakam that is now divided by language and political borders.

This project, titled ‘Men of Poompuhar’, is an attempt to relook and re-discover Poompuhar and its men in the contemporary context. There is a reason why Abul wishes to focus on ‘men’ in this project. Ilango’s hero, Kovalan, is from Poompuhar. At a time when it was customary to make the king or a patron the hero of a text, Ilango made ordinary men and their lifestyles central to his epic. By shooting in Poompuhar, Abul hopes that this project will establish a geographical connection with the epic and a metaphysical connection with the hero, Kovalan. In terms of his own practice, this project is inherently connected with his earlier works called Black Mother and Contemporary Heroines, that are centred on the cult of the mother goddess and women in Kerala.

In this project, Abul will use both large and medium format analogue cameras as well as lo-fi digital technology. The prints will be an amalgamation of traditional and modern techniques. He says in his proposal, ‘in modern times, the medium of photography has gained popular appeal, comparable to music and poetry. The photographs have the inherent quality of becoming epigraphs in the coming years.’ Through this project he believes that the boundaries of the making and the meaning of photography can be pushed.

A key role in the project will be played by the models in Poompuhar. Unlike a random photo-shoot as a spectator or a witness, Abul will actively involve the people of the place in the creative process. The models will be drawn from different religious, caste and class groups. He will discuss with them about their lives, the characters of Silappadikaram and will set up a make-shift open studio in a public space or in the homes / localities of the models. The models will also be encouraged to select their own costumes and make-up. The project will culminate with an exhibition of the photographs in an unconventional space in Poompuhar. The exhibition will also be set up with the help of the local people, thereby ensuring that there is an increased level of participation and ownership within the community.

The Grantee's deliverables to IFA with the Final Report will be digital copies of the photographs and still and video documentation of the process and the exhibition. The budget is commensurate with the proposal.