Noted artist Yusuf Arakkal passed away on Tuesday, 4 October. He was 70.
The Kerala-born, Bengaluru-based artist was an alum of the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad and also received training from Jaya Varma (the grand nephew of Raja Ravi Varma).
His last exhibition ('Faces of Creativity') comprised a series of 135 portraits of personalities from the world of contemporary art that Arakkal worked on for over three years. The portraits are rendered as pen and ink drawings on reversed canvas, which as Jayanti Madhukar pointed out in a piece for The Hindu, is an "unforgiving and challenging surface". Arakkal wanted the entire series — which includes portraits of Amrita Sher Gil, MF Husain, Abanindranath Tagore, Thota Vaikuntam and Ramkinar Baij — to be sold as one work, to a single buyer.
Arakkal reportedly got the idea for what would be his last series over 10 years ago, while on a visit to London. He apparently sketched a portrait of an artist friend using pen and ink, and wondered — what if he was to create similar portraits for all the greats of contemporary art?
The idea didn't take off immediately, although it picked up momentum over the past few years, especially once Arakkal figured out how to work on the reverse canvas. "As I worked at the reverse side of canvas, using pen and ink was a difficult choice as the ink can easily stain the surface. With careful handling, that problem was overcome," he said.
In an analysis of Arakkal's work, the artist, curator and art historian Suresh Jayaram noted in a column for Bengaluru Mirror, that that he drew inspiration from Rembrandt, using "deep, dark backgrounds for many of his paintings, and seemed to almost turn a spotlight on his figures".
Arakkal belonged to the royal family of Arakkal; however, he lost his parents at the age of six, and admitted that it was this pain that later translated onto his canvasses as well. Although he loved both football and art as a child, by the time he hit his teens, he knew which he wanted to pursue:
“I ran away from home at the age of 17, to (come 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. Those were the most struggle-filled days of my life and I revisit those days in my paintings,” Arakkal said in an interview with The New Indian Express.
Kerala conferred its highest honour for an artist, the Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram, on Arakkal in 2013; he had said that it was the award that meant most to him, among all the plaudits he's ever received.
That same year, Sujatha Shankar Kumar noted in a profile in The Hindu: To become a painter, one must first want to paint, inexorably. This will qualifies Arakkal’s success in his art the most. Like the proverbial king who shed his robes to seek the troubles of his subjects, wandering in disguise, Yusuf, from the royal Arakkal family, left a comfortable home to mingle with ordinary people to find his kingdom.
That same piece also pointed out that Arakkal was the first art student in Karnataka to receive a Santiniketan scholarship — an opportunity he refused.
“I did not want to be packed and packaged into a product. I wanted to form my own identity,” Arakkal said, explaining his decision to Kumar. He added, “I was asked once about being an Indian artist and I said there is nothing like that. You come from a place and it influences you automatically. It’s not that I deliberately try to do something Indian.”