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Inspired by strokes of genius

In "My book of references", comprising 30 paintings by Yusuf Arakkal, the artist uses motifs from great masters, relating them with his own. The show will be on at the Lalit Kala Akademi from March 25.

"MY BOOK of references" is the well-travelled show of new works by Yusuf Arakkal that has just arrived in Chennai. It was previewed recently at the Vinyasa Art gallery and will be shown the coming Monday at the Lalit Kala Akademi. The 30 or so oil paintings and computer prints that were on display are attempts to engage with the changing times in contemporary art practice. All the works visually quote great masters paintings with which Arakkal feels he has some kind of affinity to. Typically the artist brings together a reference from a famous painting and relates the motif to one from his own oeuvre. In one work, Toulouse Lautrec, documenter of 19th Century Parisian night life, is shown amused at a still life painted by Yusuf Arakkal. The advantage in the combination is that the viewer gets to see both a great artist image and a Yusuf Arakkal original at the same time. The following are some of the artist's thoughts on his latest paintings and his views on other issues of the moment in contemporary Indian art as they emerged in a recent interview.

On the beginnings of "My book of references":

The whole thing started with my interest in Kathe Kolwitz, German printmaker. From my art college days, I have been influenced by her attitude towards her work and towards society. I was affected especially by her portrayal of the downtrodden and the workers. I also had a similar attitude in my life, working as I did with factory workers. In 1992, I went to Berlin and worked in the museum, which housed her prints. I came back to India and made some canvases that were inspired by my engagement with her works. It was during this period that the idea for a series of paintings using motifs from great masters came to me. There are great many precedents to this — Picasso is one. He had taken from Ingres, Velázquez, and El Greco very directly. From that time onwards whenever I travelled abroad I began seeing the original works of great masters differently, from a research point of view. Basically this series of works has added to my knowledge of old masters, it's like going back to school.

On the rationale behind choosing particular artists works for quotation:

One of the things about my choices is that I have not taken their signature works. If we think about Van Gogh we think about his sunflowers but I have chosen his boots because it suits my compositions and my thinking. I have also used one of the most famous and revolutionary works by Joseph Beuys — he hung a felt suit on the wall as a piece of art. So I juxtaposed that image with one of my own from my previous series called "torn apparels". Or take the work, which combines Francis Bacon's study of Lucian Freud and my study of Munuswamy. I was trying to be closer to these artists by associating my own work with theirs. Munuswamy incidentally was a guy who used to be in charge of the construction of my house. He was always sitting and ordering all his workers. You would never see him standing. So I was able to make many paintings of him at that time. When I started "My book of references" I thought why not use one of Munuswamy pictures in one of them?

On art in general:

What is happening today is that artists paint through words rather than with paint and brush. We have terms like "site specificity" "postmodernism intensified" and what not. It is very easy to use such clichés but art does not require such categories. To me, there are really only two categories of art — good art and bad art and perhaps something in between. I believe that everything a person creatively produces is a work of art. A good-looking car or an iron box can be a work of art. Beuys was saying precisely these things but he never made an issue out of it. He preferred to leave history to take care of it.

On the question of "Indian-ness" in Indian art:

Anish Kapoor has said somewhere that his "Indian-ness" is very precious to him but he was not making Indian art. I felt this to be a very correct way of putting it. I am an Indian and, at any given time, I am proud of it and will never trade it for any other identity. But I am not an Indian artist. I am not making Indian art. I am making art and art is universal. Art can be Indian or American but it is art. The creative faculties of human beings see no boundaries. It will be wrong to confine creativity to the boundary of a state or a nation. Of course, if you are an Indian the cultural traits and your background will reflect in your work. This has to come automatically. You don't have to keep shouting and screaming that you are an Indian artist.

On the recent controversy surrounding his views on "Tantric art":

As an art form it is wrong to call Tantric imagery Indian because it is a bigger form of art. The whole idea of Tantricism is universal and about human relations, and is not related to any particular country. The modern exponents of Tantric art such as Biren De, G.R.Santosh, Haridasan, Pannikar, Vishwanathan and to some extent Raza all succeeded in their attempts, but many others just followed the trend. The consequence was that in the West, Indian art began to be associated exclusively with Tantric motifs. Every artist started catering to the westerners who came here seeking nirvana and moksha. At that time nobody would touch figuration in the south. I mean the kind of figuration I was painting, namely the common man and scenes from the everyday.

SHANKAR NATARAJAN

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