Confession: i write on art but the last time I held a brush was… this morning but that was a toothbrush. Over the years, I have learnt to stand beside art lovers and stare intently at displayed works. I have read and seen enough to be able to ‘go beyond the surface’ and ‘go beneath the layers’ but haven’t painted in years.
So when I was asked to assist an artist, I thought it was an impossible idea. No artist will let me work on his creation—after all, a stroke could decide whether the work goes under the hammer at Christie’s or is left to rot in the artist’s dump. I would probably be allowed to pass on the palette or wipe out colours from the canvas.
So when I dialed artist G.R. Iranna’s number, I was surprised when he said I could work on his canvas. “But I know nothing about art…you’ll have to teach me,” I said. He was being incredibly nice about letting me work with him. Did he know what he was getting into? Should I reveal how I cheated in arts class—my mother did all my homework. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure that out and I will let you help me. Artists need assistants,” he said. Now this man must have a halo for sure.
On the appointed day, as I entered Iranna’s spacious studio in South Delhi’s Saket, I said a silent prayer—for myself and for Iranna. We spent some time looking at Iranna’s creations that would be part of his forthcoming exhibition in London. And then, he led me to my workplace—an incomplete canvas suspended on the wall. “You’ll work on this,” he said. The canvas had 12 figures in uniforms. Only the one in the centre had facial features; the others would have masks. Iranna had already painted some masks. “The painting depicts blind following, where the youth are misled in the name of religion.” I nodded in agreement and muttered a borrowed remark, “It’s thinking art.”
Soon Iranna poured white and black acrylic on the palette. As he mixed the shades with water and painted a mask over one of the faces, I squinted hard to make sure I didn’t miss anything. He was done. Now it was my turn to paint another mask. “Just fill the gap. That should not be difficult,” Iranna said. Easy? Tell ME that. I dipped my brush in the palette and then just as the brush touched the canvas, it froze. “What direction should the stroke take,” I asked without stopping to wonder if I hadn’t displayed my ignorance enough. “Any. It doesn’t matter,” came the immediate reply. Filling the centre was easy but as I tried to work along the charcoal outline, I told myself: “Basics, just the basics. Just stick to the outline.”
Five minutes later, I stood back and looked at my unimpressive mask. Iranna chipped in with the finishing touches. He painted over it, added a little water and a drop of white and Indian yellow, and the mask magically transformed into a stunning piece of art. Ok, maybe not stunning but definitely striking.
Iranna suggested that we now work on an installation. Titled Wounded Tools, this is a donkey layered with fur in tiger stripes. “It portrays power play. Donkeys are used by everyone and the tigers can’t really be used,” he said. I almost said “thinking art” but remembered I had said that before. This time I nodded appreciatively. While most of the white fur was already covered with yellow paint, my task was to help Iranna with the unfinished tail. “We have to use a lot of water or else the fur will harden,” Iranna said. Iranna made the fine lines for me and then handed me the brush. This time I felt better. I painted like I had in school. “This is easier,” I said.
As I painted the last bit of the tail, I asked Iranna if artists’ assistants have to have art degrees. “No. But are you thinking of taking it fulltime,” he asked. “No,” I screeched. I was much more comfortable with the pen than with the brush. Just before I took leave, I admired the donkey in tiger stripes. Will I get to see him again—at an exhibition, perhaps? “Yes, and very soon,” Iranna assured me. “I’ll certainly be there,” I replied. This time, I might just be doing all the talking about the ‘layers’ and ‘strokes’. ©