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An unstill life

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"Expression for me does not reside in passions glowing on a human face. . . Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter's command to express his feelings"


June 30 was the painter Krishnaji Howlaji Ara's death anniversary and it brought home the fact that one of the oldest members of the Bombay Progressives, while having a niche in the world of modern Indian art, is not in the same league as the leading lights of the group such as Husain, Souza and Raza. In many ways, Ara remains an unsung hero.

Ara, like many of the world's great painters, never saw the inside of art school. Yet the strong brushwork and skilled drawing of this self-taught artist caught the eye of two of the most powerful art critics of his time - the German emigres Rudy von Leyden and Walter Langhammer, who were leaders in fashioning a taste for modern art in post-Independence, post-war Bombay.

Born to a car driver in 1913 in the small town of Bolarum near Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, Ara moved to Bombay at the age of seven with his grandfather and started life cleaning cars. Not much is known about Ara's early life except through the writing of his patron and collector Rudy Von Leyden, who for many years was The Times of India's art critic. It was Von Leyden who encouraged Ara by buying some of his early works. And it was he who sponsored Ara's first solo in Mumbai, which turned out to be a sellout. After the show he told Ara, "Now you are on your own. "

Ara quickly became well-known and charmed a number of high-society women, many of who even agreed to model for him. "That is why his nudes are faceless, " smiles Dadiba Pundole of Mumbai's Pundole Art Gallery who as a young boy called Ara uncle.
"He used to come to every show of ours carrying a rose, which he gave my father. He was a small slim man, bald with a fringe of hair, and always wearing a buttoned-down suit. He never missed any art exhibition opening in the city. Often he would go back and try to emulate the artist's work, and this is what makes it difficult sometimes to identify some of his own works. "

Ara's evolving style and visual vocabulary got him a place in the Progressive Artists Group (PAG). The big six of the Bombay Progressives as they were known were MF Husain, FN Souza, SH Raza, S Bakre, HA Gade and KH Ara who was the eldest. Dadiba Pundole feels that while Ara had no connection with the other famous art group, the Bengal School, there was a connection with Jamini Roy. "The use of the opaque pigment on paper is reminiscent of Jamini Roy, " says Pundole. Ara painted primarily on paper, so much so that 95 per cent of his work is on paper. He began by doing small paper works, which later became larger. The imperial size of his paper works was his signature. Paper was cheaper than canvas but another reason Ara could have chosen India-made paper was that he had joined the freedom struggle and Gandhi's call to satyagraha and swadeshi may have been a factor.

Since Ara had not been trained at any art school, he learnt to handle the brush on his own. He did not know how to load the brush in the 'academic' style and applied pigment with a dry brush directly on the surface. Nor did he layer the paper but worked on the base surface directly. This could have been out of ignorance or design. The result was an overpoweringly sensitive colour application. He became known for his use of negative spaces. It gave his work a raw and unfinished look, and his paintings were often mistaken for pastels or gouache on paper.

Spontaneous and sensitive, honest and non-pretentious, Ara became the icon of the self-taught artist who achieved a notable amount of recognition and success in his lifetime. While his repertoire was mainly limited to still lifes and nudes he brought an imaginative, spontaneous element to his treatment of these otherwise pedestrian themes. His paintings are not deliberate or intellectually heavy. Ara often spoke of the need for "an honest expression of form". Christ surrounded by nuclear clouds in his painting Lest we Forget His Sacrifice (1976) moves beyond the conventional settings of still lifes and nudes.

Ara passed away in Mumbai in 1985 and after twelve years in 1997 his painting The Temptation of Buddha was auctioned for Rs 66 lakh. Unfortunately, the scams surrounding fake Aras have ruined his works for auction. In 1991, several Ara artworks in Mumbai's Jehangir Art Gallery were exposed as fake. Although the art critic Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni said they were authentic, the episode set off alarm bells and has since put all Ara works under scrutiny.

Gallery owner Abhay Maskara in his pocket-sized book titled Collecting Art: An Insider's View of the Indian Art World records a personal anecdote: the curious case of a dry cleaner who tried to sell him two original framed Aras that Maskara was convinced were fakes, only to discover later that there was every chance they could have been genuine since Ara was a regular at that particular dry cleaner's. "The problem, " he says, "is there are no public or private archives to speak of, nor are there any complete records with the artist's surviving family members that can serve as a means to authenticate the works. "

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