He spent his childhood in the gleaming corridors of a palace, a royal scion dreaming of life as an artist. But he knew that he belonged to the jostle of the street. So before he turned 17, Yusuf Arakkal, member of Kerala’s royal Arakkal family, crept out of his house in Malabar and boarded a train to Bangalore with fifteen rupees, a copy of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and a tome on Greco-Roman sculptures.
Now at 62, he is one of the many Indian artists making waves in art galleries abroad. And the winding alleys of urban life still make their way to his canvases. “Good art is always rooted in reality,” he says, gazing at a panel lying in his studio in Bangalore. Titled Crucified, the oil on canvas juxtaposes the figure of a child on the street with that of Christ on the cross. It is part of the larger collection, Age of Innocence, his latest big show to be shown at London’s The Galleria, The Royal Opera Arcade from November 19. The child figures on the canvases are from the real world—youngsters photographed by Arakkal on the streets of Bangalore.
In his long career, Arakkal’s work has been shown at several prestigious international shows from Wallace Gallery in New York to Nehru Centre in London and Gallerie Taormina Del Arte-Le Havre in France. In 2005, he won the prestigious Lorenzo De Medici Gold Medal. “The rising international interest in Indian art is definitely good news for artists,” he says.
Arakkal’s art has always been coloured by his environment. While his early abstracts reflected the tinsel glamour of city life, in the ’80s, he received wide acclaim for the Pavements series, depicting the wretched living conditions of the urban poor—it also won him the National Award in 1983.
The journey to acclaim was not an easy one. As a teenager struggling in Bangalore, he worked as a construction labourer, a cart-puller and as an assistant to an automobile mechanic. At the end of a year in Bangalore, he was employed as a production line operator in a press-button factory. “The street was the best university I ever attended. That equipped me for the future struggle in art,” he recalls. The breakthrough came when a friend introduced Arakkal to renowned artist Jaya Varma, who was visiting Bangalore. Says Arakkal, “He liked my work and began to teach me the nuances of oil painting and the technique of the European masters.” At the end of Varma’s training, which stretched for over one-and-a-half years, Arakkal enrolled for a diploma in Chitrakala Parishath. “The course was meant to help me get a perspective. I worked night shifts in the factory and studied in the art school during the day,” he reminisces.
The days of struggle were soon to end. Arakkal gained repute not merely as a painter, but also as an artist who stylistically traversed the entire gamut of modern and contemporary art—from photography to wooden sculptures and public installations. “It was a conscious decision to work in different mediums. My interest and restlessness lead me to do many things,” he says.
Despite the engagement with the outside world, the inner life of humans is what fascinates him. Many of his paintings feature a figure, standing or sitting on the edge. The Street series, which showed in California, captured individuals lonely even in a crowd.
One of his most celebrated works is Gujernica and its sequel, War, Guernica Re-Occurs, his reaction to the horror of the 2002 Gujarat riots. “The first was more of an overreaction so I decided to reinterpret the concept,” he reasons. Inspired by Picasso’s seminal work, War, Guernica Reoccurs had a figure carrying the corpse of a child, as some looked away, and others silently raised their hands to pray. “The images from the riots and the human suffering in the face of a senseless massacre left an impact on my mind, and I wanted to share it,” he says.
Ironically, when son Shibu wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, Arakkal wasn’t too pleased. “I did not want him to face the problems I had but thankfully things have worked well for him,” he says. Father and son now share tips on photography. “He taught me how to use Photoshop to enlarge and edit pictures,” he says proudly.
Where would one have found Arakkal if he was not a part of the art frat? “On the football field,” is the immediate reply. He adds, “The sport was a passion only next to art. I was captain of the junior team in school and my nickname was Thangaraj.”