Punaloor Rajan, 76, has not clicked a picture for 15 years. It is a strange but deliberate choice for a man who chronicled Kerala’s history from the time it became a state in 1956. His photographs, a drama in black and white, capture moments in the lives of Kerala’s literary, political and cultural figures at the height of the new state’s Communist movement.
Rajan, though no longer active, is still remembered by his subjects. At an April 2015 function in Thiruvananthapuram, the renowned but usually reserved Malayalam writer MT Vasudevan Nair, said: “Rajan might have been sent by god with a camera to spy on me.”
Rajan majored in art at the Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts in Mavelikara, Kerala. He later went to Moscow in the then USSR to study at one of the oldest film schools in the world, the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, which boasts of Russian filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Eisenstein (who directed Battleship Potemkin) as its alumni. He returned from Moscow with a 16mm Bolex-Paillard camera and trained his gaze on the people who were laying down Kerala’s foundations.
His subjects included the late Indrajit Gupta (who was Union home minister under Prime Ministers HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral), writer SK Pottekkatt (his works have been translated into English, German, Russian, Czech and Italian among others), poet and author Kamala Das, and Communist leaders such as EMS Namboodiripad (Kerala’s first chief minister), MN Govindan Nair and C Achutha Menon—all of whom contributed to the state’s Left ideology. His portraits reflect the level of comfort he had with his subjects: Kamala Das in a printed sari under a tree staring straight into the camera, almost challenging the male gaze, or a young Indrajit Gupta exhorting his supporters at a rally, one hand pointing up to the sky.
But his most popular subject was his mentor—freedom fighter and writer, the late Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. Punaloor Rajan was to Basheer what photographer Nemai Ghosh was to Satyajit Ray. He followed Basheer for more than 30 years and, by doing so, was able to get access to leaders and writers, and record the changes in Kerala during that period. No more, though. It has been a while since Punaloor Rajan put away his camera which, he says, has no place in this digital world. Still life in Kerala: Portraits by Punaloor Rajan (All pictures are from the archives of Punaloor Rajan, curated by photographer-painter C Pradeep Chandrakumar and journalist Mangad Ratnakaran)
(This story appears in the July-Aug 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)