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Portrait of a humanist

As many as 250 artworks by the late renowned artist Yusuf Arakkal are part of the first major retrospective after his demise.
Last Updated : 22 October 2022, 19:53 IST
Last Updated : 22 October 2022, 19:53 IST
Last Updated : 22 October 2022, 19:53 IST
Last Updated : 22 October 2022, 19:53 IST
Last Updated : 22 October 2022, 19:53 IST
Last Updated : 22 October 2022, 19:53 IST

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‘Bacon Man, Boy And Priest’ (oil and acrylic on canvas)(The work won the Gold medal at the Florence International Biennale, 2005)
‘Bacon Man, Boy And Priest’ (oil and acrylic on canvas)(The work won the Gold medal at the Florence International Biennale, 2005)
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'Kite' 
'Kite' 
‘Still On The Streets’ oil on canvas.(This won the Lalit Kala Akademi award in 1983)
‘Still On The Streets’ oil on canvas.(This won the Lalit Kala Akademi award in 1983)
‘War, Guernica reoccurs’ (Triptich, Serigraph, acrylic and oil on canvas)(This won the silver medal at the Florence International Biennale, 2003)
‘War, Guernica reoccurs’ (Triptich, Serigraph, acrylic and oil on canvas)(This won the silver medal at the Florence International Biennale, 2003)
'Toulouse Lautrea' from 'My Book Of References'
'Toulouse Lautrea' from 'My Book Of References'
'Picasso's Letalreau Refixed'
'Picasso's Letalreau Refixed'
‘Couple Sleeping’ (oil on canvas)
‘Couple Sleeping’ (oil on canvas)
Mother Teresa (mixed media on canvas)
Mother Teresa (mixed media on canvas)
'Kahte Kolwitz, me and graffiti'
'Kahte Kolwitz, me and graffiti'

Solitude, but with hope

By all accounts, Yusuf Arakkal was a man of many parts. In a long career spanning over four decades, he worked diligently across mediums and garnered both critical and popular acclaim. Essentially a painter and sculptor, he was also an accomplished printmaker as well as a part-time poet and occasional flautist.

Yusuf’s canvases and sculptural pieces were known for the inherent humanism they imbued and celebrated. Experimenting with diverse genres and materials, he presented and re-presented themes close to his heart and produced several series of memorable works.

In paintings, he had developed a distinctly individual style. Texturing his canvases with rough, grainy and earthy hues, he sought to unmask the tragic tones and tremors of crumbling walls, dark alleys, flickering lights, and misty smokescreens. His compassionate portrayal of ordinary people as silent and low-spirited figures caught up in the stresses and strains of city life attracted much attention. The mood of melancholy and feeling of loneliness that drowned the canvas subtly hinted at the anxieties of a socio-political milieu in which the poor, the diseased and the dispossessed were increasingly driven to the margins. There was also a hint of irony, satire and even hope in several of his images which otherwise seemed to recreate the sullen moods of a hostile social environment.

Yusuf’s works were exhibited across the country and outside. Many awards came his way during his lifetime including the National Lalit Kala Akademi Award (1983); Asian Art Biennale Award, Dhaka, Bangladesh (1986); Karnataka Rajyotsava Award (1999); Varnashilpi Venkatappa Award (2005), and Raja Ravi Varma Punaskaram (2012). He was perhaps the only Indian artist to receive both the Silver medal (for his painting titled ‘War, Guernica Reoccurs’/2003) and the Gold medal (for his painting 'Bacon's Man with the Child and Priest'/2005) at the prestigious Lorenzo de Medici Florence Biennale.

Generous mentor

Yusuf was deeply and passionately committed to his art. In his personal interactions, he exuded incredible charm and warmth. A great conversationalist with a good sense of humour, he was always willing to share his knowledge, experience and expertise with budding artists. A picture of generosity, he would support deserving artists financially and otherwise.

Never shy of the media glare, Yusuf seldom refused an interview or request for quotes. He would enthusiastically narrate anecdotes and episodes of his rags-to-riches story which included being orphaned at the age of seven; running away from his hometown in Kerala when he was still in his teens; struggling to find his bearings in his adopted city (Bengaluru), and despite all hurdles, emerging as one of the most successful artists of the country. “He was an engaging storyteller and was keen to narrate his autobiography to anyone who had a patient ear,” reminisced art historian Suresh Jayaram. “Arakkal was his own PR machine and he connected with galleries, critics and the media with effortless ease. There was a constant effort to iconise the self through publications during his exhibitions.”

Despite exposing a joyful and carefree persona, Yusuf believed that he was a private person. “I am essentially a lonely person. But I have never shown this to others. I am always being considered a happy-go-lucky guy. Very few people know that it is a front…Deep inside me, it is a closed space… It is from that inner space most of my works or ideas sprout.”

Yusuf was not one to accept criticism easily. He was also not always enthusiastic about the new trends and practices which gained increased acceptance in art circles in the 1990s and thereafter. “Recently in India, a spate of installations has cropped up at various museums and galleries,” he wrote rather contemptuously. “Unfortunately, many of these were reduced to an act of gimmick at best and resulted only in arousing the attention of the media and public, rather than the creative endeavour that ought to be, in seeking this medium’s artistic possibilities.”

I was privileged to have been associated with him in several artistic projects. Yusuf enthusiastically participated in a couple of shows curated by me.

It was unfortunate that the prolific and jovial artist who contributed much to the country’s art scene was deprived of good health in the final years of his life. (Yusuf passed away on 4 October 2016). The retrospective exhibition was long overdue. Yusuf would have been delighted if the event were to be organised when he was alive.

The author is a Bengaluru-based senior art writer and curator of several art exhibitions. He has been on the jury of the Toto-Tasveer Awards for Photography (2013 and 2014) and was invited to the International Curators’ Residency in South Korea in 2017.

Giridhar Khasnis

Extraordinary art about the ordinary

Most of the works in the retrospective belong to a small group of collectors in the city. It points to the love and adoration Yusuf Arakkal received from art connoisseurs in Bengaluru, the city he made his home at the age of 16 in 1960. It was here that he found his true calling, and formed his creative identity.

His creative quest began years ago in Kerala when as a child he drew charcoal figures on the kitchen wall. Although he had a luxurious and princely life as a child at his home in Chavakkad, a coastal town in the Thrissur district of Kerala, he was miserable after the death of his parents and fled to Bengaluru in search of his brother. Unfortunately, he failed to trace his brother and life took an unexpected turn. He worked as a tea shop boy, a daily wage labourer at a construction site and even as an errand boy, till a distant uncle, traced him, took him home, and got him a technician’s job in HAL. Yusuf believed that these experiences made him stronger; he often said that they were invaluable in shaping his life, and enriched it in countless ways.

This period was a turning point for him, and he worked the night shift and painted with passion during the day. Later on, he joined Chitrakala Parishath College of Art and got his diploma in painting in 1973 and went on to specialise in graphic printmaking from Lalit Kala Akademi’s community studio, Garhi, in Delhi, in 1980.

It was perhaps these experiences of living life on the streets and in close proximity to those who were less fortunate that gave him a rare empathy, which was reflected in his works. The feeling of solitude, of struggle and angst that were often portrayed on his canvas, emerged from an intensely personal standpoint.

In search of identity

Arakkal initiated his artistic phase with abstraction, which was hugely popular at the time, but he opted for figuration, consciously moving away from the tide. He was committed to creating a visual discourse that the common man could relate to. ‘Pipes’, a series that emerged soon, depicted the plight of those who resided in the huge pipes lying on the roadside — it was poignant and evocative of a bleak reality. He wanted to paint what, “feeds my imagination, touches my soul and leads to meaningful creative thoughts.” ‘The Torn Kite of Anthony’ in 1984 was another deeply expressive work that reaffirmed his empathy for the underprivileged and stemmed from his experiential past that had observed poverty and isolation closely. Right through his career, his extraordinary paintings were about ordinary people, and it was sheer brilliance in how he transformed their everyday plight to resonate with the viewer.

He once said, “I paint towards black, or darkness. I try to get rid of the colours, but they linger around. It is just a scientific fact that colours create moods, and I use them for the same reason. To forget ardent despair Van Gogh sought colours and light in his works. I paint dark pictures to cover my pain.”

Awards and honours

The ‘Ganga’ series was another turning point for him — it took almost 18 years to materialise, but once he had the concept in place, he completed most of the paintings in New York in a week’s time. It fetched him critical acclaim, as it sought to venture beyond the apparent reality, to portray the layers associated with the holy river. Another notable series, the ‘Kite’ exhibited in 1993 was a brief return to abstraction, an exploration with geometrical shapes and colours, interspersed with text.

During the course of his extensive travels, Arakkal came across works by several prominent artists who influenced him greatly and he decided to pay a tribute to them. In the year 2001, ‘My Book Of References’ took the form that presented his interpretations of Van Gogh, Munch, Gauguin, Chagall, Picasso and Beuys as ‘extracts from a diary of his favourite references’.

‘Gujarnica’, a large 11.5x7.5 feet triptych, made in the year 2003, drew inspiration from Picasso’s Guernica and was painted in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage. Arakkal felt it transcended all geographical and political boundaries and was a plea for universal peace. The work went on to win the silver medal at the International Biennale of Contemporary Art at Florence, the same year.

The story behind the art car

As a sculptor, Arakkal constantly experimented with various mediums. There are several works of his that are in public spaces, including a mural that you can see at the Bengaluru International airport.

The art car, or the artmobile, part of the exhibit here at NGMA, has an interesting story behind it. The 1956 Fiat Millicento (which he had swapped with his paintings from an art collector) had served him well for two decades but he was reluctant to send it to the junkyard. So, he decided to convert it into an ‘artomobile’ or a copper sculpture, which was somewhere in between found art and art car. He was familiar with and intrigued by the ‘art car’ concept and knew that artists around the world had created paintings, sculptures and installations with their cars. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were among those who had designed art cars. Arakkal was also fascinated by M F Husain’s brightly painted Fiat in the early 1970s, which he had seen and had sat in, on the streets of Mumbai. He then conceptualised and designed the sculptural installation where the car was adapted using copper sheets. Hieroglyphs and other symbols were articulated on the sculpture, while motifs from Arakkal’s Wheels, Homage to Egypt and the Pilgrim series are reflected in the sculptural detailing.

This retrospective showcases his paintings, sculptures, graphics and drawings spanning nearly five decades and covers works from different periods of his creative journey. It has been my privilege to have known him and to have written about his art on multiple occasions. Stories of his thoughtfulness and generosity towards others in the art community abound.

The author is a Bengaluru-based art consultant, curator and writer. She blogs at Art Scene India and can be reached at artsceneinfo@gmail.com

Nalini S Malaviya

Living with an artist

In a chat with Rashmi Vasudeva, Sara Arakkal, curator and wife of Yusuf Arakkal tells us how it was to live with an artist, even one as amiable as Yusuf. Excerpts

Was there any particular aspect of Yusuf's work that you wanted to focus on in the retrospective?

I have been wanting to hold such a show from the time of his first death anniversary, to keep his legacy alive. He was a multimedia artist and so instead of focusing on any particular theme, I wanted to cover all major phases of his creative output.

How did it feel to deal with a larger-than-life persona like Yusuf? What is your relationship with his memories now?

He was my husband and mentor as well as a renowned artist. I preferred to look at him as an artist instead of getting unnerved by his persona. When we started our married life, my knowledge of art was minimal. But he took me along on his journey and helped me understand art and get to know artists. He was always keen to promote young talent and was unfailingly kind with his wisdom and knowledge. And that is what will stay with me.

As someone who has seen him up close, can you share with us a bit about his inner world? Did your family life ever get affected by his 'artistic temperament'?

His inner world was as turbulent as his outer world was colourful. He always carried with him a solitude that had become a part of his life from his teenage years, after the loss of his parents. Eventually, I learnt to not disturb that world of his. The colours he uses as well as his themes all reflect this deep sense of solitude or loneliness, call it what you will. But, at the same time, he loved humanity and did not harbour negative feelings. I always knew I was living with an artist and I moulded myself that way. That said, there were many moments of difficulty — handling an artist was not easy, especially during our days of struggle.

‘Celebration of Solitude and Humanity-Yusuf Arakkal Retrospective’ presented by the NGMA Bengaluru curatorial team and Sara Arakkal is on till November 30, 2022, at NGMA, Bengaluru.

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Published 22 October 2022, 19:35 IST

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