‘A Journey in Solitude’ at DakshinaChitra showcases 36 works by well-known artist Yusuf Arakkal

The gallery Varija — meaning lotus — is a distinctively designed space, newly opened this September in DakshinaChitra. Here, I get my first glimpse of Yusuf Arakkal’s exhibition just as a group of schoolboys enter from the rain and stare breathlessly at the canvases. Perhaps it is too early for them to understand why, but Arakkal’s art will make an unforgettable impression on them as it does with many.

‘A Journey in Solitude’ — a collaborative show with Galerie Sara Arakkal, Bangalore — brings together 36 artworks from Arakkal’s series of Nudes, Ganges, In Solitude, Drawing and Painting, select abstracts and mixed media. A gathering of senior artists and art aficionados graced the opening event on December 7, inaugurated by chairman, DakshinaChitra, Deborah Thiagarajan, followed by a book release. Yusuf Arakkal thanked all those who participated in the making of Eternal Quest, written by P. Surendran and P. Sudhakaran. Artist and programme officer at Madras Craft Foundation, Gita presented a memorable film tracing Arakkal’s journey over the years.

Emphatic realism

From the sophisticated and nuanced to the simple and impressionable, Yusuf Arakkal firmly grasps hearts by his depiction of emotional realities. A man in a patterned black and white shirt cowers, seated in an oppressive space; a nude figure lies incongruously across cube-like supports; the river Ganges flows in angry spurts of brown not blue, swirling in torrents. Enigmatic lines — a string with a knot, a wire — score several canvases bringing our focus to witness the isolation of the individual from his surroundings. Arakkal snaps us to life, blowing out our cocoons. He brings a measured compassion with his oeuvre turning our deepest-held apathy to empathy, demonstrating effortlessly, “I am that” and “Us is them”. I ask him how his search was different earlier than now. He answers, “Losing both parents by the age of seven, leaving home at the age of 16 for Bangalore, loneliness was thrust on me. Solitude is different — it is what I seek for myself.”

To become a painter, one must first want to paint, inexorably. This will qualifies Arakkal’s success in his art the most. Like the proverbial king who shed his robes to seek the troubles of his subjects, wandering in disguise, Yusuf, from the royal Arakkal family, left a comfortable home to mingle with ordinary people to find his kingdom. Always vigilant to experience shaping his intuitive abilities, he made careful choices. “I was the first art student in Karnataka to receive a scholarship to study in Santiniketan. But I refused it,” says Arakkal firmly, “I did not want to be packed and packaged into a product. I wanted to form my own identity.” All that Yusuf Arakkal left was returned in plenty, awards and honours since the 1970s, most recently, the Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram in 2013, Kerala’s highest honour to an artist.

“I was asked once about being an Indian artist and I said there is nothing like that,” says Arakkal emphatically. “You come from a place and it influences you automatically. It’s not that I deliberately try to do something Indian.” Far from exaggerating the human anguish, Arakkal distances himself and lets the viewer close in. We cannot discern the features of a man looking through shutters, but we see his face. In Apparel II, a pair of creased, unzipped pants on a hanger holds the presence of the wearer. In his strength of observation, there is no surrealistic quirk, impassioned plea or brutal operation to expose the truth — Arakkal reveals the extraordinariness of daily travails by lucidly interpreting the banal.

Art by referencing

Arakkal as an artist has never shied away from borrowing or alluding, thus engaging in a dialogue that continues the thread of history and event. “In My Book of References, I made visual references to art by great painters — Van Gogh, Picasso, Hockney. Here I do this with my own work.” In feathered strokes, lively and fresh colours, five paintings in a series titled ‘Drawing and Painting’ admonish gloominess. These pieces are happy in solitude. I am reminded of when a 16-year old Yusuf walked streets for a year-and-a-half, eking a livelihood, sketching on any piece of paper. A line drawing of a nude on a scrap of paper is juxtaposed on richly textured blues and reds — a piece of memory on the painted canvas. The annotation to the text has become part of the story.

An artist who endears people to his painting, even if the references are all not known, Arakkal’s imagery hearkens to a deep level of association with symbols of universal consciousness, revealing his true understanding of humanity.

The exhibition is on till January 25 at the Varija Art Gallery, DakshinaChitra from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Tuesdays.