Punalur Rajan

Chronicles of a homeland

Punalur Rajan (1939-2020) was one of the first photographers in Kerala who popularised the social documentary genre. He studied cinematography from the famous All Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. Rajan is most recognised for his portraits of litterateurs, politicians and cine-personalities. Photographing notable personalities, especially literary icons, has been a trend that continues to be widespread in Kerala, supported by the many weekly and daily publications. Such images were largely attempted by journalistic photographers, rather than studio photographers, despite portraiture not being an area of specialisation for most of them. Rajan’s skill in portraiture is what sets him apart from the other photographers who have indulged in this genre over the years. Over the time, Rajan became well known for his historical photographs that documented the beginning of the communist party in Kerala and his portraits of Malayalam literary giants including Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer, SK Pottekkat, MT Vasudevan Nair, Kamala Das, Sukumar Azhikode among others. Several finest black and white photographs of Basheer were taken by Rajan and later these works were published as a book 'Basheer: Chayayum Ormayum'. In a similar fashion, Rajan chronicled the life of MT Vasudevan Nair and published a book titled 'M.T.yude kaalam'. Only a small part of Rajan's vast collection of works has been published so far, and the rest of his works still remain inaccessible to the public. Rajan’s photography can be described as being an offshoot of the same thought that produced Sunil Janah. The communist movements were an integral driving force in both of their careers and in their photographic practice. A reflection of Sunil Janah’s impact in the national level can be seen in the influence of Rajan in a regional level. 

Chronicles of a homeland

Being a humanist, Punalur Rajan understood  people and their personalities, and this became visible in his photographs. Rajan was a poet at heart and he saw photography as a continuation of poetry. He was also a lover of ideas, and was tirelessly documenting the moments that he felt were important. In popular understanding, photographic images are expected to exaggerate and beautify a person or an event. The magnificent, exotic, dramatic, and the otherworldly are preferred to the ordinary, straightforward, and minimal. Rajan’s photographs are bent towards the latter – it provides a realistic view. Of course, there is no reality in photographs and every photograph goes through a process of editing and interventions. However, the general rule of documentary photography is to capture it as raw and natural as possible. Rajan’s intervention in his photographs is in choosing the converging moment that brings out an essence that is raw yet touches the very core of his subjects.

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