It is not for nothing that every Rajinikanth movie is released with uproarious publicity brouhaha, from milk abhishekam of oversize portraits to trailers exploding with the hero’s superman feats. Marketing is everything. For film folk, it is the magic line between life and death. But the principle behind it applies to writers, artists and musicians as well.
M F Husain became India’s most famous artist by being in the news always. He was of course one of our best. But so was Souza, so was Tyeb Mehta, so were Hebbar and Ara and Manjit Bawa. But none of them plunged headlong into controversy as Husain did with, for example, his portrait of Indira Gandhi, during the Emergency days, as a tiger-riding Durga. Then the Hindutva brigade did him a favour by vandalising some of his works and forcing him into exile, thereby making him even more celebrated.
Yusuf Arakkal was of the opposite kind—quiet, gentle and undemanding despite holding strong views. He was aware of the importance of pushing your way forward. His preferred term was performer. Like Picasso, he said, artists have to be performers. He wasn’t one because it was not in him. Belonging to what may be called the post-Husain generation (or, should it be the post-Bombay Group phenomenon?), Arakkal ploughed his own furrow. He produced no genre of his own. His work focused on the evocative faces of ordinary people, on themes such as loneliness and gloom. He was unabashed in his admiration for his heroes—the masters of European art (“the greats,” as he called them) and the genius novelist of his native Kerala, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer; a typical Arakkal series is devoted to Basheer characters.
The dramatic mass of Tyeb Mehta’s colourations, the majestic contrasts of Husain’s blacks and whites, the violent liveliness of Souza’s distortions, even the elegiac eloquence of Amrita Shergil —no, Yusuf Arakkal would have none of these. He would choose colours and contours that brought out the desolation of city life, the darkness of marginality, the anguish of human struggles. Arakkal had experienced poverty and loneliness and dejection when he roamed the streets of Bangalore looking for a living. Only after he got a welding job in HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) could he think of doing an art course in the Chitrakala Parishad and gaining experience as a print-maker in a Delhi studio.
Arakkal’s choice of Bangalore must have been by happenstance. It was a pensioners’ paradise, while the artists’ paradise was Bombay. Transformation began in 1970 when Gurudas Shenoy took the initiative in organising “Karnataka Painters”. Arakkal was in the original team along with S G Vasudev, Balan Nambiar, Milind Naik and others. K K Hebbar as chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi gave a boost to their efforts. Today Bangalore is a thriving centre of modern art, so thriving that galleries have come up in impressive numbers, obviously making good profit out of art shows, art sales and related art business.
Although one of the pioneers of the art movement in Bangalore and always in the front row, Arakkal seldom played the activist’s role. Vasudev, for example, floated Artpark, a voluntary movement that enabled interested people to collect in a public park one Sunday a month and exchange ideas with established masters. He also started Ananya Drishya to expose school children to art. Balan Nambiar ran an informal art school in his flat for years, giving children tuition in drawing and colour mixing.
Arakkal did give time and attention to young aspirants. But he was happiest when he could bury himself in painting portraits, in depicting scenes that expressed his inner conflicts, his hopes, his pain; the artist succeeds when his pain translates into the cognoscenti’s pleasure. Like Balan Nambiar, he ventured into media other than paint, stainless steel for example; his early days as a mechanic in HAL must have come in handy. But he did not diversify as Vasudev did with art direction in movies at one end and tapestry art at another.
In the end, though, he surprised everyone by jumping the queue of life and departing ahead of his colleagues when he had just crossed the 70th marker. But this is one case where Death will not win. Yusuf Arakkal will mock it from galleries across the country and beyond. And he will be there to greet every arriving passenger at Bangalore International Airport with his mural, The Flight, a masterpiece in glittering steel, shaped and angled to take off any moment. Death, where’s thy sting?