D.Balsingh has the pleasure of owning two beautiful portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Pt.Jawaharlal Nehru

It is impossible to convince D.Balsingh. He allows visitors to only take a look and walk past two old canvas paintings that tower over all other items in his drawing room. Some people put in a gentle request, some beg and some even sound stern. But nothing moves him. He can’t be cajoled into parting with his prized possessions. Two priceless works of art – the life size portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru.

“How can I sell them? These are portraits of our great leaders. Look at the pain the artist has taken to make them look so real. People who come to buy do not understand the value of the art,” says Balsingh, who ran a photo studio for 60 years near The American College.

He has owned the two paintings -- worth lakhs of rupees today -- since 1950. They adorned the walls of his Bharath studio in Goripalayam earlier. After he hung up his boots in 2004, he brought the paintings home. In the last decade, Balsingh has received nearly 100 prospective buyers for the twin paintings which he got as a gift from his paternal uncle, in whose photo studio (Raj Studio on West Masi Street) he began his career at the age of 18.

“My uncle got the paintings done by artist Murugaiah Joseph, who took two months to complete them. I got the frames made in teak wood which cost me Rs.2,000 then,” he says. “Today each frame will cost more than Rs.25,000,” he gives a conservative estimate, not even willing to hazard a guess on the price of the paintings.

Last month Balsingh visited the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust in Delhi just to check whether they had any similar frame of the two leaders. “There was none, all were small and mostly black/white photographs,” he notes

A fortnight ago, the son of artist Joseph visited him wanting to buy his father’s paintings. “I had to turn him down. My treasures are not for sale. I have developed an emotional bonding with the two frames,” he says.

There are moments when Balsingh simply sits in front of the portraits and gazes at them. “The figures seem to come alive,” he says and recalls the floods of 1993 in Madurai which destroyed many of his photographic and other works which were packed in the bureaus on the ground floor of his home and studio. “Luckily these two paintings were hung high on the wall of my studio and were saved.”

There is little doubt about his love for the paintings. “They simply arrest your attention,” he smiles, “minute detail, facial expressions, the natural posture and the setting all look so real.”

The portraits are certainly imposing, rich and colourful in texture. They have stood on their own for 63 years. In the 48 X 36 inches oil on canvas, Pt.Nehru sits elegant on a red velvet cushioned chair in his traditional attire – the white khadi kurta and pyjama complete with Nehru jacket and cap. The pensive look on his face stands out with the brilliant shades of colours. Mahatma Gandhi’s portrait in his usual sitting posture captures various other elements around him. The colour of his skin looks as natural as the smile on his face. The portrait is full of life.

Balsingh too is full of life. He spends a day every month to clean the cameras. “Each of them is in a working condition,” he swells with pride as he displays his collection from his first purchase, the twin lens bought in 1948 for Rs.200.

Balsingh never took a liking to digital camera. “In digital mode, the machine does everything for you. What’s the fun of holding a camera then?”, he asks.

Balsingh is also gifted with a rare talent of grasping notes of any song. Even at 83 now, he plays several instruments like the flute, the accordion, harmonica, harmonium, guitar and the key board. But his favourite is the bulbul tarang, the Indian banjo. “I have an original piece from Japan bought 55 years ago. “The ones available in the market today do not produce the same sweet sound,” he says, taking it out and instantly playing a song on it.