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Still waters run deep

K.H. Ara died two decades ago but his mastery over still life is still unsurpassed, says J.S. RAO

If still life is a moment frozen in eternity, then surely, the late K.H. Ara is its master. As a boy, Krishna Howlaji Ara ran away from his home in Bolarum, Secunderabad to seek his fortune in the wide world. He found fame, if not fortune, in Bombay where he died in his seventies almost exactly 20 years ago.

The still-life painting was Ara's forte. And to think that among all the aberrations of the modern abstract, where paucity of matter hides beneath a plenitude of style, it is the still life, much like the essay in literature, that is a dying form.

Landing in the big city that is now Mumbai, Ara soon found employment with an English family as a houseboy. Among all the dusting and polishing, Ara nevertheless found time to indulge in his passion for drawing and sketching. A regular visitor to the house of his employer was Walter Langhammer, then Editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India. So impressed was the Englishman with the talent of the unlettered Telugu boy, that he promptly had him enrolled at the J.J. School of Art.

Entering man's estate, Ara found himself in a free and independent India. He and his contemporaries clearly saw the problem facing them: How was an artist to develop a new idiom in keeping with the aspiration of a new nation? And away from the technicalities of western art, the exclusiveness of the Bengal school of Jamini Roy and Abanindranath Tagore and the all too decorative precision of a Ravi Verma?

The magnificent six

In reply, the magnificent six was born. Six young artists — Maqbool Fida Husain, Syed Haider Raza, K.H. Ara, Francis Newton Souza, Sadanand Bakre and Pandurang Gade — came together under the banner of the progressive group. They put up their shingle, Artists' Centre, on the first floor of a ramshackle building called Ador House, facing the Prince of Wales Museum in an area known as Kala Ghoda. Artists' Centre and Ador House, which qualifies for a heritage building, still exist on Rampart Row, facing the Museum and next to the popular Khyber Restaurant, Rhythm House and Chetna Restaurant in Mumbai.

From this place, the six worked. Though united in a common goal, each was a fierce individualist. Husain tackled a variety of figurative work with his now-famous strokes; Raza delved into the meaning of the Indian dot (Bindu) and the square: Ara launched into his still life of flowers and voluptuous nudes; Gade had his sculpted faces and Bakre explored both painting and sculpture.

They were soon joined by others like Akbar Padamsee, who had already worked in Paris, K.K. Hebbar and N.S. Bendre.

Friend, philosopher, and guide

With the passage of time and their own maturing geniuses, the group, like most others, broke up in the fashion of the Pre-Raphaelites of England.

It was Ara alone who stayed back at the Centre, with Husain going his own illustrious way, Raza to the south of France, Souza to the U.S. and Bakre and Gade to England.

Ara was a friend, philosopher and guide to Mumbai's artists for over 30 years, even as he ran the Centre's gallery single-handed. You could see him, chirpy as a bird, a little stooped by age and coat-tails flapping, rushing from his gallery to the Jehangir Art Gallery and Bombay Art society across the road. He would often tell me, "Arre Rao, Zara Taj Mein us bachche ka kaam dekho. Achcha hai, bechara" (Look at the work of that youngster at the Taj Gallery. Good work, poor boy). And of course, concluding with his inevitable suffix of "Kya?"

Unlike the Flemish browns of western still life, Ara revelled in blues and blacks, exuberant colours and ebullient form. Patterns emblazoned to fill the eye, as the Chinese master Liu Chi would have said. His nudes were no less famous. In lighter moments, he even claimed to have painted many of Bombay's high society women in the nude.

For all that, Ara rarely visited his birthplace of Hyderabad, save on a couple of occasions, recalls Jagdish Mittal, collector, art historian and teacher. But Mumbai or Hyderabad, say still life and Ara comes to mind.

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