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Deconstructing Yusuf Arakkal

Artist Yusuf Arakkal, fresh from the success of his latest show, refuses to rest on his laurels, as ANAND BALAJI discovers.

THE RECENT works of 57-year-old Yusuf Arakkal were another milestone in his career where he took the works of the likes of Picasso, Vermeer, Modgliani, Chagall, and Gauguin, and set about deconstructing them, adding his own imagery to their famous works. Excerpts from an interview.

Q: Hailing from the royal Arakkal family of Kerala, what led you to Bangalore while you were still in your teens?

A: My mother hailed from the royal family of Arakkal, the only Muslim royal family to have ruled in Kerala and which is said to have descended from the Hindu royal family of Chirakkal. I grew up in my paternal home till I left Kerala at 16. My father belonged to the Keyees, the famous Muslim business clan of Kozhikode and Thalassery. Today Kannur University has a chair doing research on the maritime business exploits of the Keyees in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Till I left Kerala I was brought up in the lap of luxury. The untimely death of my father when I was six-and-a-half left my mother devastated, and she too passed away six months later. So by seven, I was an orphan amidst plenty. I sought solace in drawing and by the time I reached high school I had won several prizes and accolades, even at the State level.

But I was not encouraged to pursue art by my family, which left me with no other option but to leave home. That's how I managed to reach Bangalore without my family's knowledge with only seven rupees in my pocket and the determination to stand firm against all odds.

Q: How did you sustain yourself during that period?

A: I literally lived on the streets doing every conceivable odd-job over the next 18 months. I worked at construction sites, teashops. I experienced terrible hunger and deprivation. But I kept drawing on whatever scraps of paper or surface I got and kept my talent alive. Ultimately, a relative located me and took me to his house. I didn't want to live of someone else's largesse and insisted on getting a job. This person was an engineer in HAL and hence got me a job there as a mechanic's helper.

Q: Describe your days as a student in Chitrakala Parishath.

A: My days at CKP were undoubtedly some of the best of my life. Though I worked on a night shift in the factory, I eagerly waited for daybreak when I could attend classes. Having trained under Jaya Varma of the Ravi Varma family who was an excellent academic painter, I was already well equipped to take on a proper course in art. So I had an edge over most of the students.

Q: Like all artists, do you have an idol whose work inspires you? How has your association with Jaya Varma influenced you?

A: One may have many idols in life. But, more often than not, they change as one grows and acquires higher experiences. I have had my share of idols, but I believe that my individuality has to be supreme. Jaya Varma's influence was primarily academic. But he taught me the principles of approach to my life as a creative person and the importance of discipline in life.

Q: Your works reflect a dark, foreboding, and gloomy imagery. Is it merely your style or is there a hidden meaning you intend to convey? Also many of your paintings appear to be spilling out of the canvas area.

A: The imagery, though based on realities around me, comes from within my consciousness. There is a hidden corner somewhere within me that dictates my thoughts and approaches to my subjects and canvases. It is not pleasant but I have no control over that. I try to define an extra dimension to my canvases by bringing my subjects out of the frame, or out of confinement. It is not a new trend that I've created; our miniature painters of yore had done so in their time. But I am probably one of the few to adapt and integrate this style into the modern context.

Q: Describe your interest in sculpture and the materials you work with.

A: I use all kinds of materials like wood, clay, stone, bronze, and steel, among others. In fact, I was equally known for my sculptures in the art school as for my paintings.

Q: How different is the art scenario today as compared to when you began?

A: I had a job on hand which I was very good at. I had every chance of scaling great heights in it. But when I told people around me that it was my ambition to become an artist they would look at me condescendingly. But today I see many people go to the extent of forcing their children to take up art. It's a welcome change. The Indian art scene is very bright today.

Q: How many hours do you spend, on an average, painting?

A: I am an early riser and get into my studio by seven in the morning and start my work. I do not paint every day, but a lot of preparation is required before I begin a piece of art. On an average, I work for 10 hours. This includes my writing, which I generally do in the evenings.

Q: Describe the responses you've received for the exhibitions you've held both within and outside India?

A: I have not had any show of mine that has not gone down well either in India or abroad. My hard work is reflected in the appreciation, sale, and media.

Q: What in your perception is the level of art literacy in our country?

A: Art literacy in our country is very poor. The main reason is that our school curricula do not favour art as a subject. But there seems to be a change and more people are becoming aware of art nowadays.

Q: Among the numerous awards you've received which would you say holds pride of place?

A: I am not a believer in awards and accolades. But they are necessary in that, they remind an artist that each one attained brings along with it yet another milestone that has been passed. It's an impetus to work to one's optimum level. My most coveted award will be a work of mine that turns out to be a masterpiece, some day I hope to create it!

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