Remembering Yusuf Arakkal, Artist Who Let His Characters Thrive

A skilled artist, a voracious reader, a critic and a man for all seasons.

Yusuf Arakkal. Credit: Facebook

Yusuf Arakkal
Credit: Facebook

Yusuf Arakkal, the creator of portraits and magnificent oils, passed away this morning. With his demise, Indian contemporary art has lost a magnificent artist and an inspiration to many of this generation.

In many ways, Arakkal was India’s Rembrandt. Born in 1945 into the royal Arakkal family of Chirakkal, he left Kerala at the tender age of 16.

'Paper Reader'. Credit:

‘Paper Reader’. Credit:

In 2002, Arakkal unveiled an intriguing collection which took inspiration from European masters. He took famous iconic works of Picasso, Vermeer, Modgliani, Chagall and Gauguin, and went about deconstructing them, adding his own imagery to their famous works. Imagine titles such as Giacometti’s ‘Tall Woman Standing on a Carpet’ and Chagall’s ‘Ida at My Window’.

Arakkal was not just a skilled artist but also a voracious reader, a critic and a man for all seasons. He loved his life as an artist and his home was a veritable museum, with sculptures and art works belonging to India’s greatest practitioners.

His life as an artist began when he joined the Chitrakala Parishadh (CKP) in Bangalore to attend art classes. He often reminisced over how his days at the CKP were undoubtedly some of the best in his life. He balanced life between a night shift at a factory and classes during the day. When asked about his prowess for portraits and figurative works, Arakkal often credited his mentor Jaya Varma of the Raja Ravi Varma family, who was an academic painter.

Arakkal’s large brooding canvasses found many buyers in Delhi – one of them being Vineet Nayyar, chairman of Mahindra Satyam.

War, Guernica Re-occurs. Credit:

‘War, Guernica Re-occurs’. Credit:

His work reflected melancholia – they were dark, foreboding, gloomy and filled with imagery that spoke of loneliness and despair. Then, in the 2000s, he created canvasses in which he broke the lower part of the subject and created a line dividing the central image – it looked as if the subject was spilling over. Arakkal always maintained that the imagery in his work was based on realities around him. He spoke of how his imagery was born out of his own consciousness. But Arakkal’s consciousness was deeply rooted in the gravitas of time and the accumulation of knowledge and literary allusions he had picked up over the years.

So accurate and precise was he about his emotions and his translated imagery on canvas that he could speak for hours on art, the masters and his own sensibility.

In an interview to me in 2000 in Delhi, he said:

“I have always tried  to add an extra dimension to my canvases by giving my subjects or central characters a freedom to thrive, they cant be prisoned  or in confinement. Some people say my techniques are about new trends – I disagree, I haven’t created any new trends; if we look carefully at Indian tradition  our miniature painters of yore had done so in their time.”

Interestingly, one of Arakkal’s finest works hangs at the Park Sheraton in Chennai. This is an abstract rendition of a work he called ‘Kites’. Arakkal’s early paintings were abstract compositions on the lives of  city dwellers. Darkness and abject desolation would be lit up by a profusion of luminous colours to personify struggles in urban dwellings and cities.

He had a preference for somber shades, he employed earthy textures and tonalities touched by a tensile stroke or dab of sunset yellow or burning crimson. His technique was born out of his own language of perfection – he would  concentrate greatly on the texture of his canvases and gave them a grainy, rough, sandy surface. Arakkal’s canvasses were a brilliant testimony to the magnitude and power of pathos, as seen in his solitary humans in various positions of deep thought and sadness or sorrow. He often affirmed that the face, whether it was of a man or a woman, was his and his alone. He brought the abstract and the figurative together. Over the years, he did many series. The ‘Kite’ series created in 1992 in Paris, the ‘Ganga’ series, the ‘Wheel’ series and many more.

Arakkal also worked as a graphic artist at the Lalit Kala Garhi studios in Delhi  and was an exceptional print maker. He had a very fine hand and was a virtuoso at creating etchings. In fact, the fine contours in his canvasses reflected his mastery over the medium. Arakkal was a recipient of many awards. He received the Lalit Kala Akademi Award in 1979 and in 1981, the Shiromani Kala Puruskar from the government of India in 1983 and the award of the Third Asian Art Biennale, Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1986.

Arakkal also received the prestigious Lorenzo De Medici Gold Medal at the Florence Internazionale Biennale in Florence, Italy for his work ‘Bacon’s Man with the Child and Priest’.

Over the years, Arakkal also produced a large collection of miscellaneous works consisting of drawings, paintings, sculptures, murals, paper works, prints and writing.

In an evocative observation about his own works, he once noted, “There is an anguished being, disturbed, and in distress, somewhere deep inside me; a human being who yearns for a meaningful existence. It is the human presence that arouses my attention and stirs my creative inner space.”

He is survived by his wife, Sara, and son Shibu.

Uma Nair is a curator and art critic