Yusuf Arakkal

Rebel at heart

Print edition : October 28, 2016

Yusuf Arakkal at an exhibition of his paintings in New Delhi on May 24, 2007. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

At the inauguration of a national artists' camp at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bengaluru in 2012. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

An oil on canvas by Yusuf Arakkal. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Yusuf Arakkal's oil on canvas. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

An oil painting by Yusuf Arakkal. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

"Applied DNA", a 21-foot stainless steel sculpture on M.G. Road in Bengaluru, commissioned by Yusuf Arakkal. Photo: K. MURALI_KUMAR

Yusuf Arakkal’s (1945-2016) art was characterised by a desire to seek an understanding of the human condition.

IN Islamic scripture Yusuf is regarded as the most handsome of men, one who has women swooning over him. The Yusuf of the Indian art world was not so blessed, though his resemblance to the Malayalam actor Mammootty was not easily ignored. And he once exclaimed: “The artist has to be something of a performer.” His large protruding eyes were melancholic at best. His intense visage remained untouched by his boundless energy, which sent him scurrying from one series of works to another—from “The Kite” to “The Ganga” to “The Street” on to “Faces of Creativity”. His works were often dark but not inappropriately despondent. What the viewers admired were figures at odds with life. Like an old man with just his walking stick for a companion. Or a man pedalling to ride out the sorrows of the autumn of life. What they failed to appreciate were the notes that were often autobiographical in nature without the artist screaming from rooftops about their inspiration.

The feeling of loneliness, the sorrow, even a touch of melancholy—all stemmed from the early years of his life. Through one stroke and then through another, through one work and then another, layers of his life were peeled off for the common man.

Yusuf, born in 1945 at Chavakkad in Kerala, lost his parents when he was quite young; his mother, who belonged to the Arakkal royal family, passed away when he was barely six and his father, a few months later. At the age of 16, Yusuf left his home for Bangalore. It was this period, when he worked odd jobs, including night shifts at a factory, that influenced his art and populated his canvas in the years to come. He was not destined to be a basement worker for long, though. He was noticed by his uncle, who took him home. Young Yusuf spent many years with him, working in shifts at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. His art bloomed on the side; he first studied at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath and then honed his skills under Jay Varma from the illustrious Raja Ravi Varma family. The early years spent in Bangalore shaped his art; in the last few decades he returned the favour by shaping the city’s art scene. His only notable break from the city came when he shifted to Garhi studios in New Delhi where his skills as a printmaker came to the fore.

Much later in life, he said: “There is an anguished being, disturbed, and in distress, somewhere deep inside me; a human being who yearns for a meaningful existence. It is the human presence that arouses my attention and stirs my creative inner space. I have been committed through my work, seeking a definition of human situations.”

It was this anguished being who yearned to get comments on his works, yet was happy to be in the background himself. Art, not the artist, was meant for public consumption. It was this feeling that he passed on to the next generation of artists, many of whom he helped financially too. Interestingly, at one time he bemoaned the lack of space for arts in the national media, but when the media turned its focus on his life, all Yusuf conceded was that his art was his life; his royal roots were but a faint memory. The royal home he left as a teenager was all but forgotten until he reached middle age, and he went back to his ancestral home only to feature it as part of a series on royal abodes.

His was not destined to be a simple brush-to-canvas journey. His etchings, ink-and-paper works, sculptures and installations all attracted attention. As did his watercolours, a medium he did not exactly relish initially. Indeed, he even composed poetry and came up with a book based on his travels across Kerala. All this combined to prove his multilayered approach to art; a man who made his own rules. He was a rebel in the true sense of the term, it showed in everything he did. In fact, among his best known series is “Faces of Creativity”, wherein he decided to come up with portraits of 135 contemporary artists. It was again an unusual move culminating in a brave work, though one that started on a mere whim. Some 13 years ago he had come up with an ink-and-paper portrait of a friend in Europe. The results were impressive and emboldened him to try his hand at similar portraits of some of the best-known names of the generation, including M.F. Husain.

The works came out in the form of a book recently. It was probably the first work of its kind, but Yusuf, as always, remained in the background, letting his art do the talking.

Interestingly, he had done something equally challenging at the international level a little earlier. Back in 2002, he came up with a collection inspired by the works of the best European masters. For the collection, he took the works of icons like Picasso and Chagall and then deconstructed them. It needed a rebel to deconstruct the best. And Yusuf, for all his talents, was essentially a rebel at heart; a man who had once objected to an ornate frame used to hang his work about a poor beggar, arguing that the frame took away from the pathos of the work.

Similarly self-deprecating were Yusuf’s comments when it came to his Lorenzo il Magnifico Prize winning work at the Florence International Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2003. He had exhibited “War, Guernica Reoccurs” at the biennale. The work had got the best possible viewing space at the mammoth show. Yet, when a dinner concert was held on the last day, Yusuf was away, coming back only in the nick of time to find his name being announced for the second prize. Soon after, he told the media: “My work was one of the largest canvases in the show. But with all those works around I never had any hope of winning the award. There was a dinner concert on the last day and just as I was walking into the pavilion, I heard my name being announced as the second prize winner.” Yusuf considered it a medal for his country from the land of Michaelangelo. Yet, back home he did not give many interviews, and he rarely talked about how he bested the best in the business. Quietly, his work spoke.

And the art world understood that it had a genius in its midst, one who worked according to his rules, maybe even his idiosyncrasies, but never ever by a pre-decided formula. When he spoke, he could speak for hours about the greats of the genre, a rare artist who looked beyond the self.

His In Search of My Roots, a book of paintings about his travels across Kerala, and “Faces of Creativity”, where he documented fellow artists for posterity, did get great attention. Interestingly, he did not always have to stay in a city for a long period to come up with glimpses of life there, for instance, his “The Street” exhibition.

The show was about street-life in London, yet there was a universality to the works that they could well have been about Paris or Rome. Not that Yusuf often took the easier route throughout his 40 solo shows across India and several others, solo and group shows, abroad.

Among the greatest artists of independent India, he will always be known as a man who brought figurative art home. There was hardly a hue he did not experience in his long journey as an artist.

He won the Lalit Kala Academi award in 1979 and 1981 and the Shiromani Kala Puraskar from the Government of India in 1983.

As a poet once said: “Kabhi kisi ko mukammal jahan nahin milta” (Nobody ever gets the complete world), Yusuf passed away with one little ambition unfulfilled, though not unexpressed. He had done a series of paintings on Jesus Christ that he wanted to be exhibited at the Vatican some day. The day never came.

His life, like his canvas, was seldom a riot of colour. More muted, almost always sober, yet unfailingly profound. His earthy hues spoke of his character, his tonality said it all about his life.