Monday, July 5, 2010

Clicking Spirit: A Small Note on Abul Kalam Azad

Abul Kalam Azad is a well known photography artist. Fifteen years back, he left his cushy job as a senior photographer with the Press Trust of India, only to become a photography artist. And he did become one. He had a few shows in India and abroad. Also had a solo with the Chakola’s Gallery in Kochi.

Even before Azad became famous as an artist, he was famous amongst his friends for his arty deeds. He was very famous amongst the journalists as a press photographer as he was the one who brought the pictures from the interiors of the vandalized Hazrat Bal in Kashmir.

Azad has several firsts to his credit. From a minority community, he articulated the issues of related to minority communities as well as those of ‘minoritism’ as an ideological position. But he never fell into the traps of minority culture. Perhaps, that is one reason why he is not much celebrated by our cutting edge art community.

By mid-90s, after resigning from the Press Trust of India, Azad went to Paris, supported by a scholarship. Azad went to Paris Monsieur Azad came back from France. He was a changed man. He even said, he read Barthes’ Mythology in original French and said there was a full length chapter on Kathakali masks in it.

That’s how Azad deals with people. He cannot be outwitted because in an argument with him, he negates you completely with logic and then agrees with you totally by the end of the argument. He is a true Kochi-ite in that sense. They can use logic to floor you and then they take you to a surreal world of fantasies and no logic.

Often Azad takes reality by force and settles it into the world of stories and story telling. When he was in Delhi, he used to move around with real people who fought for secularism. But Azad’s life was surreal even then. He sang Kawalis with the Kawals and chatted up with politicians. He could have fallen for the growing minority politics of the northern belt. But his surrealistic thinking saved him.

Azad is a portraitist/portraiture in its true sense. He likes to take/treat photographs in black and white or sepia tones. He is a collector of images, with an archivist’s precision. When he pastes the images of gods upside down on the wall or when he exhibits the eerie presence of cows in the middle of roads and historical sites, he filters the images through the color of time. He is political in visual way. Somehow, our art critics still fail to see him.

Azad impersonates other people and that is a perennial need of an artist to be in other’s garbs. One day I saw him an exhibition opening. I thought he was a professor from university, complete with a half jacket and a pipe on lips. But it was Azad. Once I met him in a bar in Kochi. It was difficult to discern him from the five other people with him as all of them looked like Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, with dreamy eyes and long pointed beards.

Abul Kalam Azad’s portraits of Kerala and Kerala people would stand the test of times. The photographs that you see along with this article are the best examples of it. While going through them, I thought they are the registrations of a dead culture, captured in film long back. However, the film posters and a calendar in the frame proved that they are from the recent times. But in Azad’s hands, images get the quality of timelessness.

They call it Kallu Shap. In English it is Toddy Shop, a place frequented by drunkards, casual drinkers, anarchists, pleasure hunters and tourists. Toddy, the manna tapped from coconut trees, tapioca dishes and fish- nothing can excel this combination.

Azad’s photographs tell us that a Toddy shop is not just a toddy shop. It is a culture. But to see that culture you need an ‘eye’; an eye for beauty, detail and history. Look at those bottles, collected from sources but with a strong sense of brand and uniformity. Look at those photographs of people pasted on a wooden structure. Are they the defaulters? Or are they the ones who left the place for ever? Is it a museum of memories?

People may differ about Azad and his character. But everyone agrees on one thing; he is a photography artist of all times. He is like a wander amongst the living and the dead alike. He holds his camera and he knows when to click, where to click and how to click. He is an anarchist with a discipline of his own. He may be unconventional in certain sense. But what is our problem? His art is good and his pictures make someone like me to write something like this and perhaps, a book on his works. Why not?


DAREBARE said...

Only you can do this writing Johny...bring back the memories...the history retold...yes we all were part and parcel of his object of subjectivity.
Anil Dayanand

somudesai said...

it was so nice to read this introduction of an artist. i was feeling that i am touching Abul

somudesai said...

it was so nice to read this introduction of an artist. i was feeling that i am touching Abul

JohnyML said...

Hey Anil and Somu,

Nice to hear from you....I am happy that you liked this posting..



Jinson said...

kick of click

waswo x. waswo said...

"They can use logic to floor you and then they take you to a surreal world of fantasies and no logic." express something here I've felt many a time in Kochi but could not articulate. Thanks for the article on Abul.

JohnyML said...


thanks man...


abulkalamazad said...

Abul's art is truly a treasure yet to be disscovered and explored... a man so dedicated should not be ignored. All the best of wishes. Adi Rahman

shanavas al muhammed said...

Actually R Nandakumar has done a good piece on Abul's work. As Adi says, there are many things to explore in Abul's work. Very philosophilcal, many implications. I wrote something in malayalam and interviewed him. His spoken words are as much interesting as his work. I wrote on him in Deshabhimani, Mathrubhumi and Student. I am still working on his art and life.
Thanks Johny for your write up.

pp shanavas