Kaleidoscope of Shadows

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By Kamalram Sajeev

A nomadic follower of the aesthetically rich modernist traditions and literature oriented cultural observances of Kerala, Razaq Kottakkal chronicled an age, journeying post-hate, from black and white to color. The print media industry in Kerala which is often praised for its seemingly hyperbolic estimates on circulation saturation owes very much for this anarchistic photographer for the decorative sway it had obtained before losing the showiness to a mightier domain of visual media. Though the industry was technologically running on a par with its counterparts across India, the faculty of photography was constricted to habitual routines. In Kerala, the post emergency era that was fertile for new thinking in all cultural premises such as literature, cinema and theatre was devoid of new experiments in photography. It is here where Razaq induced an ideologically seeded paradigm shift.

To begin with he captured historical shadows of great modernist writers of Malayalam like Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, Kamala Das and M.T.Vasudevan Nair. The multi – accentuality inherent in these photographs was treated as a cultural revolution, thanks to his routes of innovating themes. For example, Kamala Das, the Indian -English poet and one-time poetry editor of the erstwhile Illustrated Weekly of India was the most photographed literary subject of that time. Emanating a magic of aura and ambience with light Razaq deconstructed the existing visual stereotype of the writer for ever. Ever since this re-formation, Kamala is remembered through his photographs, which are multiple in frames, printed aplenty. Most of his photographs were printed in news print with facial smoothness better than sandpapers! Even in his color images, there appeared no registration failures of color separation. Such was his mastery over contrast, conceived manually. A virtuoso in light and shadows Razaq never used artificial lights. He waited for light to come, or go.

Never had he worked from an atelier. Designs he made with his non –digital cameras were very much mundane, from the depths and floors of very common-on- garden realities. Razaq portrayed first pictures of anti-nuclear campaigning from the Indian half of the earth lying in the western coasts. It was later archived as the famous ‘Neendakara Photos’, printed overmuch in the wrestling past of the neo- left little magazines and pamphlets. Now they are lost in transition, but are passionately stored in the lockers of the hanging on sentiments of the firebrand Subaltern activism existent in the under layers of contemporary Kerala.

In India, Razaq Kottakkal is the first photographer who represented and confronted identity politics as a subtext. His torrent of frames on Malappuram, a Muslim majority district from the Malabar belt of Kerala, frequently and deceitfully referred as a terrorist hub by the predominant mainstream media, is the best available cultural riposte for the political stratagem that acts as the biggest threat in Kerala’s secular sphere. Through his incidental shots Razaq has illustrated the strength of an alienated cultural stratum that enriches the traditions and heritage of the cultural multiplicity. ‘Malappuram Photos’ may be the only volume of cultural memorabilia that registers the reality of Muslim life before the Persian dependence of the Kerala society.

Razaq considered photography as an arrangement for activism. He was never interested in the fame or stardom of the living legends. Neither was he taking photographs for making money. In a pursuit for the emancipation of the side lined communities, whether they are the landless adivasis of Wayanad or the always excluded people of Manipur, he camped with them with and without camera. That is how Irom Chanu Sharmila top scored as his subject just below Neendakara and Malappuram photos, in his long index of agitating outdoors. In fact Razaq was slowly withdrawing from active photography by the invasion of digital technology. Never had he accused this technology as unsociable or uncommunicative, he used many till his death, but believed his assignment is over. He was very confident of the democratainment the digital revolution could bring in. A situation where everybody is a photographer could enhance possibilities of public sphere among the multi layered unknown citizenry in democracies like India, he wrote in an essay published last year.

Razaq was 53 when he died. He never used Photoshop.

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