Photo Book

“Black Mother” – Heroine of Silappathikaram

The epic poem, Silappathikaram, which narrates the tragic story of Kannagi, the epitome of the Feminine, is regarded as one of the finest achievements in Tamil literature. The poem is noted for its cultural underpinnings, providing a broad and detailed view of the society of that age. Abul Kalam Azad gazes into the contemporary residues of the epic myth, documenting ritualistic performances, epical landscapes and portraits, revealing contemporary cultural issues and uprooting the present notions of identity and gender.

About the series

Abul Kalam Azad’s “Black Mother” series is an attempt at creating a contemporary photographic parallel reading of the Silappathikaram, which began over eighteen years ago through a gaze into the ritualistic performances of Kodungallur Bharani, a festival said to be linked to the tragic story of Kannagi. The series has continued to evolve through portraits and epical landscapes, each of which serve as, beyond its primary motive, sociocultural cues that raise questions about the contemporary sense of gender, identity and geographical divisions. The artist continues to delve deeper into the epic, adding layers and dimensions to the photographic body that is being founded on his reading of the Silappathikaram.

After sixteen years, Abul has continued this Black Mother series with portraits of the contemporary women of Mathilakam. The women pose poignantly, sitting or standing, in front of the loosely held background screen, its natural folds and light flow making each image a unique and singular work of art. The deliberate inclusion and omission of certain plants, landscape, and objects signify the contemporary lifestyle of this ancient land, its people and culture. The women in the portraits are the ones we see every day. However, in the photographs each woman becomes a heroine of her own unspoken tale. They appear more beautiful, majestic, profound or sometimes even sad and melancholic – the visually striking violence of Black Mother I and serenity of the Black Mother II speaks of the personal transformation and insight the artist has experienced over the period.

It is Abul’s search for his own cultural roots that urged him to work for a protracted period on this epic. Born in a progressive Tamil Muslim family, Abul’s work often question the impact of geographical divisions and religious disparities. The tri-sangam period Tamilakam as mentioned in Silappatikaram was characterized by the coexistence of people from different faiths and religions. By delving deeper into this epic and focusing on people from different religious, class and caste backgrounds, the photographer boldly raises the issue of ‘identity’ that greatly affects contemporary Indian society.

Visual arts works based on scriptures have, for long, been illustrative. Michelangelo’s work in Sistine Chapel and the Indian miniature painters are examples of this tradition. The visuals from “Black Mother”, by contrast, are representative of the contemporary society and its people, just as the characters in Silappatikaram are bound to have been derived from the immediate surroundings of that age. The characters and landscapes described in the epic are only metaphorically depicted in these intense monochrome images. This project is ongoing and the proposed multi-color photobook will have 250 pages, fully illustrated and printed in hard and soft bound.