Putting my “camera between the skin of a person and his shirt is the most difficult thing for me,” says Henri Cartier-Bresson, a renowned French humanist photographer. Cartier-Bresson was speaking of his predicament as a photographer while taking a portrait. Cartier-Bresson’s anxiety was apparently about reaching the subject/object as close as possible – an intellectually fascinating but a real time challenge of a photographer who holds the ‘apparatus of absorption.’ For over three decades, Razak Kottakkal, the legendary photographer of Kerala, wielded an ‘apparatus of absorption,’ and left behind an extraordinary tradition of black and white magical reflexes. Razak portrayed great minds with ease, deploying ‘light and shadow’ in his alchemy of visual craft. As a person deeply involved in portrait making, his one and only concern was, as Cartier-Bresson feared, if he could reach the subject/object as creatively as possible.
“As time passes by and you look at portraits,” says Cartier-Bresson, “the people come back to you like a silent echo. A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It is a trace.” Razak literally represents this tradition of black and white magical reflexes with portrayals bordering on images ‘in transit.’
One does not know how many times that this legendary hero of ‘light and shadow’ had photographed the legendary Sultan of Malayalam literature, Vaikom Muhammed Basheer. Basheer had once even ridiculed Razak for his ‘molecular’ research’ of his ageing skin; yet, they had maintained a warm relationship of a peculiar kind till his last.
The documentary of Basheer, ‘The Light of Lights’ directed by VC Haris, is a rich repertoire of his portrait photography. Razak’s portraits of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Madhavikkutty, O.V. Vijayan, Sukumar Azhikode, Nithya Chaithanya Yati, John Abraham and several others are still refreshingly marvellous. For Adoor, Razak was a mythical genius ‘light and shadow.’ He did still photography for Adoor’s two films, besides his role in the making of documentaries on Mohiniyattam and Kalamandalam Gopi. Adoor was also expecting his services for the film, ‘Naalu Pennungal’ but he came to know, later, that Razak was physically indisposed. Adoor himself revealed in an interview, after his untimely demise, that whenever Razak talked over phone, the entire conversation would have been on the ‘light and shadow,’ images of characters and their backdrops, subtleties of flashes etc. He never spoke about his own life and creativity as if the man behind the ‘apparatus of absorption’ should not be the object of debates.
Born in Waynad in 1959, Razak had his early education in his home village in the midst of salubrious environs, apparently against all odds. But he took a train to Mumbai in a strange circumstance. Razak had his first apprenticeship as a dark room assistant in a studio in Mumbai from where he developed his passion for turning the lens, an art which Anthony Burgess conceptualised as “the use of a medium, so arranged…as to re-present the work to an audience in such a way that it teaches them something new about it.”
Upon his return, Razak decided to choose Kottakkal as his alchemy of lens-craft. ‘Clint’ studio thus emerged as the cornerstone of his experiments with ‘light and shadow.’ Three and half decades ago, photography had not witnessed any significant moments in terms of technological swing in Kerala. This was also the period of his deeper interest in nature and people’s movements. Moved with social activists and intellectuals, Razak was trying to widen and sharpen his social lens to ‘absorb’ the deeper issues of the times. From the radiation hazards issue (Indian rare Earths) in Chavara to people’s struggle in Manipur, Razak had portrayed the woes and agonies of people with a profound commitment. Meanwhile, the public sphere of Kerala had recognised the genius in Razak and tried to capitalise his magical lens. Unyielding he was on genuine grounds, and committed he was to the principles he held fast, Razak never compromised his life for any material gains. Yet travelled with his friends and associates in search of an unknown dream.
For Razak, photography was a quest for something in which he and his apparatus merged into one inseparable soirée. This is a typical ‘hunt’ for explorations, situations never encountered before, for the incredible, and for inquisitiveness. That was the quintessence of the legendary Razak. When he started using his camera with a ‘moving’ spirit, it had a different locale of absorption. For example, Joshy Joseph’s “One Day from a Hangman’s Life” was an astonishing experiment, a documentary that brought to light the excitement surrounding the execution. It was shot in June 2004 when the President of India stayed the execution provisionally. The film revolves around a day in the life of the hangman, Nata Mullick. Razak was in full control of the camera throughout the day and successfully completed it with its desired outcome. Many of his close associates (like Joshy Joseph) recall that Razak was an amazing photographer with a poetic sense and philosophical orientation. Poet Ayyappa Panikkar once referred to his passion for photography as an ‘epic commitment’ (calling it ‘Legend of Razak’) in the process of the production of his own documentary by Asha and Rajagopal.
For many Razak was a mere photographer. But he was an imaginative writer with deeper insights, and passion for nature, love and life-worlds. During the first Gulf war in 1991, Razak travelled with his friends in war-torn areas in Iraq and tried to absorb the devastating effects of bombing. But he was unable to fulfil his mission in the midst of unfavourable circumstances in the war zone. Upon his return, Razak regretted that he was a passive spectator of the miseries.
Razak seldom considered his life as a mission unfulfilled. While travelling across the country like a Sufi saint, he moved with a determination that he had still a lot to explore in life. Though his photographs kept on appearing in several publications, Razak never sought to exhibit them for any publicity or material gains. Soft spoken he was, Razak had an ambition to write his memoire – perhaps seeking to depict his trajectory of ‘absorption’ with all the characters that emerged in the course of his travel. Without waiting for the unfolding self-portrayal, Razak left this world on 9 April 2014, leaving behind what Susan Sontag called “a twilight art” tradition in photography. She wrote that “in teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our motions of what it worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” Razak Kottakkal remains an epitome of this new grammar of lens-craft.
The author is Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org