There stood a six-year-old boy, orphaned in an unfair world, soaked in melancholy, awaiting his long-lost loved ones, beside the seashore. The grand ancestral home, that adopted him as their own, had wiped away his tears. Nevertheless, at heart, he counted himself an orphan. Yusuf Arakkal, the current Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram winner and one of the most prolific artists in India today, says, it is the agony that he hid behind a brave face from the time he lost both his parents, what makes his strokes black and brown rather than yellow or red.
Yusuf has been a very active youngster, with a bit of football and art as companions. His strokes held maturity even during his earlier days. The anguish-filled paintings soon gained attention, and he set about to pursue art. His decision did not bring positive reactions from his family, who wanted young Yusuf to be a doctor, engineer or at least a lawyer.
“I had ran away from home at the age of seventeen to Bangalore. All I wanted was to become an artist. Without any money at hand, I had to do all kinds of small-time jobs, except cleaning toilets. It was the most struggling days of my life and I revisit those days in my paintings,” he says.
The solitude series which portrays man in his weakest of moments contemplating, nursing his mental wounds, all battered and torn, is a representation of the artist’s own agony. Similarly, every painting of Yusuf has some story or other to narrate to the viewers. His reading habit is what led him to do a series on books, which has inspirations from Chinese sculptures to K C S Panicker. After visiting Vaikom Muhammed Basheer at his home, Yusuf had come up with the idea of a series on Basheer and his works. Though it materialised only after Basheer’s death, many still consider those as his best of works.
Except a distant relative of his, who was a portrait artist, Yusuf has no trace of art in his family. Yet, he conquered Bangalore art world within no time and even garnered awards from all over the world. Yusuf’s artworks delineate working class, literary works and even day-to-day apparels. The chiaroscuro effect or the Rembrandt influence that he calls it, is prevalent in almost all his works.
“I wouldn’t call it chiaroscuro, as Rembrandt’s paintings do not have such dramatic light-and-shade effects, instead he subtly used it in his favour,” says Yusuf.
The brown and black palette is often brightened with a manoeuvre of red strokes in between, he calls it a touch of light or a relief to his dark shades. “My artworks come from my experience, whether it is literary works, sculpture art or paintings, one cannot bring in feelings without actually experiencing it,” says Yusuf.
He has received plaudits from all over the world; however, he considers Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram his best, “I am considered a good artist wherever I go, but at home my wife doesn’t see me like that, I am just a husband for her, likewise, getting something as big as Ravi Varma Puraskaram from your own land is something you would cherish always,” says Yusuf.
Yusuf, who had studied art at Karnataka Chithrakala Parishat, says, “A formal education is not compulsory for an artist. An artist do not need any qualification to express his art. But the technical know-how of the craft is necessary, for that education does help”.
Destiny played in favour of Yusuf, as it was Jaya Varma, a relative of Raja Ravi Varma, and a graduate from Royal College of Art, London, who first taught the lessons of art to him. Yusuf studiously learned European Academic portrait painting for one-and-a-half years, under Jaya.
Yusuf is conducting an exhibition of his paintings which has pieces from his series, book, solitude and apparel at Durbar Hall, Kochi, to commemorate his winning the Ravi Varma award.