Yusuf Arakkal, winner of this year’s Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram, talks to ANASUYA MENON about his Christ series, his new novel and his eventful life

Yusuf Arakkal is so used to giving interviews; he can almost predict the questions. “I have never worked for awards. But there are few joys sweeter than recognition from your own home, your own people,” he says. “I am really happy.” The reference is to the Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram 2012, the State’s highest honour given to artists that was awarded to him recently. “Now you are going to ask me, ‘isn’t it a bit too late?’, right?” he asks, breaking into a genial smile. “I don’t think this is late recognition. There are so many artists senior to me who haven’t got the honour,” he says.

The Bangalore-based artist, whose career spans four decades, credits his first mentor Jaya Varma, the grand nephew of Raja Ravi Varma, from whom he learnt the basics of oil painting. “He was a master in his own right; an expert of the European Academic style. He taught me the finer nuances of oil painting and that has been my base,” he says.

Art and sensibility

Artist, sculptor, writer, poet, critic, journalist, Arakkal believes in the purity of creation. “Any creation is good. I have always loved words as much as I love my art. When my family opposed my artistic aspirations as a young boy, I was dying to be one.” Having just completed another series on Christ, Arakkal is currently engaged in a war with stagnation. Revisiting the Christ series is part of the process. “I dread stagnation. I had sworn to myself that I would never stagnate. It is easy to get stuck in your own argument. When I work on the same theme, if there is a hint of repetition, I stop working.” Work that began three years ago has led to 15 large paintings.

A delegation from Vatican saw these paintings and has requested them to be exhibited there. Arakkal’s oeuvre contains more than 2,000 works on Christ alone. “It is not a religious thing. Christ and Krishna are two characters I respect,” he says.

The novel he is working on, too, will not be a stagnant narrative, he says. The part-autobiographical, part-fictionalised book is centred on the life of Orfaan (a corruption of the word orphan). He has keyed in about 20,000 words and in-depth research is in progress. “Some chapters are dedicated to art. For instance, ‘Orfaan’s dialogue with Michelangelo’ and with Picasso, bring out my ideological connection with the greats.” Two books have been written on Arakkal and an American publisher has evinced interest in documenting his work in a book.

Childhood

The artist speaks of his childhood—being born into the Arakkal royal family, growing up in Chavakkad, losing his parents at a young age and leaving his hometown in search of a future as an artist; the days he lived on the streets in Bangalore, until a relative offered shelter and a job opening at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). These would later become his personal canvas, on which he drew and redrew. “I’ll never tire of telling this, because it made me the artist I am today. The street was the finest university in that sense,” he says.

Struggle fuels creativity, but art demands a certain discipline. “It requires money. You need a space to work and store your work. You need the paraphernalia.”

Ever since he started a life in Bangalore, working as a machinist in HAL and pursuing a course at the Chitra Kala Parishad in 1969, he perfected the art of compartmentalising his life. “I would do my job at night and attend college during day. But all the while, I was practising my art.” The Parishad shortened the six-year course to four for Arakkal, seeing that his talent was a notch above the rest. And by 1975, two years after he completed his course, Arakkal held his first solo exhibition at the Alliance Francaise, Bangalore. All 14 of his paintings were sold.

The journey forward was quick and praise poured in from all quarters. Critics and contemporaries watched with interest as Arakkal used paint, pen, chisel and graphic prints with the flair of a master. His shows grabbed attention internationally as well, with the Florence International Biennale honouring him twice with the Lorenso de Medici silver and gold medals. He however, carefully dodges a question on the recently-concluded Kochi Biennale. “No comments, please,” he says.

Arakkal has constantly worked on his style, moving away from abstraction when he felt that his works should require no explanations. “I want people to understand my work. Also, an artist should have a sense of social commitment. Unless your work engages with the common good, of what use is it?” His famous triptych on the Godhra carnage was a reaction to communalism.

He says he has never sought out inspiration. “I like to see art more like a job.” Music, however, is always playing while he works. “I don’t play music when I write though. It distracts.”

Arakkal’s wife Sara, who runs a gallery in Bangalore, says he has all the traits of an artist—forgetting himself in his work, not eating on time, being in a world of his own. “But that is what makes him Yusuf.”