His surreal tableaux made of scraps stirred sentimental recognition and a sense of ownership in the viewer. Remembering Farhan Mujib who died recently.

One of the bonuses of not being an art historian is that you can love pictures without preliminaries, without supplying context or riffling through the canon. Farhan Mujib's paintings were shamelessly gorgeous. When I first saw them I thought the framed interiors that they pictured were enamelled. I couldn't tell from a distance that these haveli-like interiors had been cut and pasted in and it was a shock to discover that the glazed loveliness came from the shiny pages of glossy magazines, the raw material of Mujib' s art. Close up, I decided that enamelled wasn't the right word; though the collages did sometimes look enamelled, even inlaid, taken together the pictures gave off a sense of quilted magnificence.

Sensual engagement

We are familiar with the artist-as-iconoclast, the artist-as-rebel, the artist-as-maestro; in Mujib's art we met the artist as connoisseur. But while the self-styled connoisseur's claim on our attention is his discrimination as a consumer (as a ‘foodie' perhaps, or as a collector), Mujib's sensual engagement with the world was such that it didn't stop with passive discernment: he loved good food so he made himself a great cook; he loved flowers and plants so he became an accomplished gardener and flower arranger and there was, in fact, something inevitable about the fact that his eye for beauty made him, in middle life, an artist, a producer of loveliness.

Mujib began making his collages out of the pages of Span, which, 30 years ago, was the only Indian magazine printed in colour on quality paper, because the United States Information Service had propaganda to make and money to burn. The magic he worked was this: he made surreal beauty from scraps. Glossy pages were cut into carpets, marble-top tables, empty chairs, amphoras, surahis, candelabras, drapes, swags, winged horses, silhouetted pigeons, kites and then these shapes masquerading as objects were symmetrically assembled into tableaux of strict loveliness.

Tableaux they were in every sense of that word: silent, motionless representations of some uninhabited colonial scene...the sets of “Shatranj ke Khilari”, perhaps, before the cameras rolled and Saeed Jaffrey walked in. Mujib's pictures stirred in us a sentimental recognition, a dim nostalgia, a flattering sense that these could be Scenes from Ancestral Life. Not because the interiors of our grandparental homes looked like Mujib's pictures; they didn't; but there was enough that was familiar in those collages for us to begin to feel proprietoral: that chowki, the pedestal basin that looked like a bird bath, that lime-plastered floor, the magically layered suggestion of peeling plaster, those gobbling pigeons, that talking Mitthu — Mujib put them together in his cut-and-paste dreams and gave us visions of the ancestral homes we should have had.

Mujib's pictures were desi still lives. This was, in part, a function of his technique: he made paintings that forsook the mobility of draughtsmanship for the jigsaw-like assembly of collage. But the stillness mainly came from his decision to literally remove familiar objects from their normal context.

Whimsical scenes

A photograph or a realistic painting domesticates objects; light and perspective give things their proper place. Mujib made whimsical scenes of his own through an assembly of these objects. Each step, each pillar, each door frame and drape drew attention to itself. Each painting became a catalogue of vaguely known, oddly desi things. The first time I saw his work I realised with the sharp pleasure that recognition brings, that these weren't rooms from the house that Jack built. These were interiors that a neighbour had made...quite possibly for me.

It's hard to believe that the author of these scenes is gone, that this late sunburst of genius is done. For those who knew him he will live in the warmth of remembered conversation, in our memories of his epic hospitality, in the taste of khada masala gosht and in the unfussy grace of every place he called home. But well after those memories are dust, he will endure as only original artists do: people who didn't know him will continue to walk into those still interiors that ask to be lived in, and they will always find him home.

Keywords: Farhan Mujibcollage