Bound by tradition

Bound by tradition

Bound by tradition
Abdulrahim Appabhai Almelkar was one of those unsung heroes of Indian art,” says Suhas Bahulkar, senior artist and chairman of the Advisory Committee of National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. “He personified the notion of ‘Indianness in Indian art’ in an era of radical modernist experimentation and abstract art in the country.”

Almelkar passed away in December 1982, aged 62. Bahulkar knew him personally during the last years of his life. In fact, when the artist suffered a severe heart attack in Pune, it was he who was given the onerous task of informing the artist’s family in Mumbai of his death. Bahulkar, who curated an elaborate show in Mumbai last year titled ‘A A Almelkar: Inspiration and Impact’, recently spoke to Sunday Herald and shared his impressions of the artist’s life and legacy. 

Here are some excerpts from a free-wheeling conversation:

On Almelkar’s persona
He saw many ups and downs in his career as an artist, but that did not prevent Almelkar from living his life to the full. A man of many talents, he sang and danced with gay abandon; spoke many languages including Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, ‘Bombaiya’ English and several tribal dialects. He travelled across many villages and rural areas, and mingled happily with local people, especially tribals and adivasis.  His love and understanding of their primitive world remained warm, deep and sympathetic; that made them come alive in his art.

There was also an eccentric and quirky side to his personality. During his successful years, he had a superiority complex and was loathe to criticism. He would argue and fight vehemently with artists like M F Husain, Ara and others, but they would all end up in reconciliation and handshakes. 

On one occasion, he took all his gold and silver medals which he had won for his art and had them melted by the goldsmith. “I burnt my medals, with them my pride and ego as well,” he told his wife while handing over the melted remains.

On his relationship with the Bombay art scene
In his earlier years as an artist in Bombay, Almelkar followed an academic and impressionist style quite effectively. He was good at landscape, nature paintings as well as portraiture. He was clearly at the receiving end of criticism by the Progressive Artists’ Group (which dismissed his work in derogatory terms as old fashioned). But he stuck to his roots and defended traditional styles and forms like Indian miniatures and folk art. While following native traditions and art practices, he improvised substantially to create an ‘Almelkar style’. 

People think that along with PAG artists, renowned critics too rejected Almelkar’s art. That was not true at all. For instance, Walter Langhammer, artist and influential art director, who was a prime supporter of PAG, openly acknowledged in 1954: “Almelkar is one of the most charming and delightful talents amongst a small group of young painters who have, within the last 10 years, evolved a characteristically Indian and yet modern style of painting.”

On his obsession with tribal life
On both personal and creative levels, Almelkar was at his liveliest best being with tribal and indigenous communities.  He wandered in the remote places of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka and UP; and got greatly inspired by the primitive world of adivasis, their culture and variety of significant forms and colours. Instead of portraying their poverty and misery, he chose to highlight the beautiful and vibrant side of their lives, their unpretentious enjoyments and cheerful moments. He loved and absorbed the way they perceived nature, birds and animals. So obsessed was he with their culture that he even dreamt of settling at the ashram at Pavani and breathing his last in the company of adivasis. Alas, that dream could not be realised.

On the importance of drawing
Almelkar was an avid, accurate and brilliant sketcher all his life. His sketchbooks were his constant companions. He filled them with evocative drawings and illustrations, many of which became the source for larger works and paintings. When he studied in Bombay between 1935 and 1940 at Nootan Kala Mandir, his teacher G S Dandavatimath continually stressed the importance of drawing and sketching. He even supposedly told the young artist to take his daily meal only after doing at least 25 sketches a day! Almelkar followed the advice sincerely and kept the practice of sketching till his very last

On coping up with tragedies
In the early 1950s, Almelkar was a well-established artist. His paintings were in demand; they were even reproduced in greeting cards and calendars. In 1953, he had a sell-out show in Jehangir Art Gallery. In 1954, he was awarded the prestigious gold medal by the Bombay Art Society (BAS) for his painting ‘Full Moon’. However, tragedy struck in the same year when the building where he lived with his family got burned down in a fire accident. His studio and house were ravaged; all his paintings and precious medals were reduced to ashes. But encouraged by his friends and supported by patrons, he painted 40 new paintings within 10 months and exhibited in the Jehangir Art Gallery in a show which was appropriately titled ‘From Ashes to Life’.

On his final years
Almelkar was a Muslim who was interested in Indian mythology as well as miniatures. He was steadfast in his commitment to local traditions, artisans, and culture. Unfortunately, he only believed in an ideal world of adivasis and did not explore other possibilities, creative zones and styles. That made some of his work seem superficial and repetitive. Over time, the demand for his paintings declined; and his financial condition became worrisome. Slowly, the free-willed artist became distraught, and suffered two heart attacks. Despite ill health, he organised an exhibition with the help of his students at Jehangir Art Gallery in November 1982; but not a single painting got sold. Heartbroken, he had a fatal attack on December 12, 1982 when he had gone to Pune to attend a function.

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