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Unembellished, stark stills

THE 650 SQUARE feet of space provided by Kashi Art Café are a bit cramped to accommodate seven of Abul Kalam Azad's latest works, titled Black Mother, each of which measure 40"x40". In this series, he transcends his own religious beliefs to capture on camera the complex systems that distinguish the ancient Dravidian Devi cult of Kodungallur. In fact, the setting is just right. The gallery is imbued with the aura of women; on display is a paroxysm of devotion as they go about conducting rituals in a trance-like manner; it permeates the visitor's senses as he enters the precincts even before the inviting aroma of freshly brewed coffee and homemade cakes can blunt the fervour and zeal of Abul's chosen theme.

It is homecoming for Kalam Azad. From a roving photojournalist with Press Trust of India, a stringer with a national daily, a lens man who earned scholarships to colleges in France and England, he is finally where he longs to be. "I was leading an alienated, nomadic existence out there."

His current display is a tribute to his roots where his camera recognises and captures potently his identity in a Southern, matriarchal society. He steps into the non-glitzy world of an indigenous people as they essay to establish a link with the gods and actually becomes a part of them. "I carry the images within myself."

He's no onlooker at the Bharani festival; the camera focuses on and captures the raw power of women-on-a-high as they dance with abandon in a single-minded mission to invoke the gods. Juxtaposed against these black and white prints is a series that unravels a different philosophy, to be unearthed on the seamier streets of Soho. Lined with prostitutes and pick-ups, the artist-photographer takes care not to build a mawkish case for their lack of spirituality.

Both exhibits are a clinical representation of the two worlds that he straddles, without blending the two cultures or even their essence. He further attains this separateness by keeping the two subjects apart, physically.

The latter exhibition is up at the city's newest gallery, Lila, in neighbouring Mattancherry and is titled, very tongue in cheek, Goddesses. This is in collaboration with fellow artist, Emma Burke-Gaffney. Lila, in fact, is a home production of sorts. It is the brainchild of Anand Surya, a litterateur and Kalam Azad to provide a cultural space to the city. "It's not the usual paintings and sculptures that will find their way here. We will encourage artists to be experimental," says Anand.

Meanwhile, Kalam Azad rues the fact that "people don't even consider photography as an art form out here." Lila is part of a larger complex, called Mayalokam Art Collective, which will comprise of studios, a publishing house, a camera clinic and a design showroom.


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