September 20, 2012

Gujarnica: Yusuf Arakkal's 2003 installations on the Gujarat riots

From Tehelka, 13 September 2012

‘Gujarnica was a product of my emotional outburst’

In 2003, artist Yusuf Arakkal made two large installations on the Gujarat riots --- ‘Gujarnica’, a triptych depicting the gruesome pogroms, and 'War, Guernica Re-occurs', a series of three 8x3.5 ft panels reflecting the impact the riots have left on our minds.The latter even won him a silver medal at the fourth Biennale Internazionale Dell'Arte Contemporanea at Florence in 2003. With the verdict on the Naroda Patiya case having come out recently, he tells Shazia Nigar why he chose to express himself on canvas

'Gujarnica’, a triptych depicting the gruesome pogroms of the Gujarat riots

You painted your triptych ‘Gujarnica’ in response to the 2002 massacre. Can you tell us about the process:When did you start work on the painting, how long did it take, but, most importantly, how did the painting help you work through your own feelings about the violence?
I had been reading about the Gujarat riots and seeing a lot of visuals in the media. The more I saw of what happened in Naroda Patiya and other areas, the more I was disturbed and pained. I didn't know what to do at that point. Then my friend, sarod maestro Dr. Rajeev Taranth, told me that I should paint a picture about it. I remembered how Picasso painted Guernica on the bombing of a small town during the Spanish Civil war. He created a masterpiece. I consider it to be the most important reaction to war. Thus when I finished the painting, Rajeev suggested I call it Gujarnica.

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After I finished Gujarnica, I got an invite from the fourth Biennale Internazionale Dell'Arte Contemporanea in Florence. I was the first Indian invited to participate. Intially, I wanted to send Gujarnica, but I felt that there were certain artistic deficiencies in it. You know when you shout at someone you forget to use nice words. That's why I made the second painting War, Guernica Re-occurs, which is about 11-feet long and 7-feet high. I sent it for the Florence Biennale where it won me a silver medal. That was in 2003.

Can you describe what Picasso’s Guernica means to you? Was it immediately obvious to you when you decided to do your own painting that Guernica would be the reference?
It means a lot to me and has given me a lot of direction in my life. The first time I learned about Guernica was when it was at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. I saw the painting at the Prado in Madrid when it was returned to Spain. I had seen a lot of reproductions earlier but when I saw the actual work, I was amazed. Picasso is known for using a lot of vibrant colours, but this painting is almost black and white. The way he has visualised the agony of the people --- the crying human figure, the horse in agony, have become symbolic world over. I don't think it is possible to describe the way he manages to convey his message.

In fact, Picasso's Guernica is one of the sources from which I have taken images for War, Guernica Re-occurs. The last time I saw the painting was in 2003 after I won the silver medal at the Biennale Internazionale Dell'Arte Contemporanea at Florence for War, Guernica Re-occurs. I was very surprised when I won the silver medal. My wife and I were supposed to return to India the day after the award ceremony. However, after winning the award I had to pay my respects to Picasso. Thus instead we flew to Madrid and viewed Guernica at the Reina Sofia.

Once you finished the painting, why did you decide not to show it?
Frankly, I was not very happy with the painting as an artist because this was more of an emotional outburst. I didn't want to sell that painting so I kept it to myself. I was very attached to it sentimentally. I didn't even talk about it till recently.

Frankly, I was not very happy with the painting as an artist because this was more of an emotional outburst. I didn't want to sell that painting so I kept it to myself. I was very attached to it sentimentally. I didn't even talk about it till recently.

The obvious follow-up to that would be --- what about the Naroda Patiya verdict changed your mind? Why is this the right time to show your work?
I was very disturbed when I heard about the riots. My first reaction was to take a flight to Baroda. I wanted to meet some friends there and know more about what was happening. As soon as I landed, a very dear friend, who didn't want to be named, asked me to leave immediately because it was Baroda and I am well known in the art circles. They were afraid that something would happen to me. So I left the same night and came back to Bombay. The only thing I could do as a creative person was to react in this way, through a painting. I was always praying that the culprit should be brought to book. And I think Tehelka did a great job of it. When this verdict came out, I felt that justice was done. Somehow the confidence of the people is being restored. Our country is a great country, no doubt about it. Only a few elements here and there are creating these problems.

Look at what's happening in the Northeast. Some of the best human beings I have met are people from the Northeast and suddenly they are being hounded from Bengaluru. Some of my friends are scared. These situations are created by a few unscrupulous people. We should all be vigilant about it, especially the media, and us creative people. Everybody should talk about it and everybody should react to it. I don't think there is any point in us relying on the politicians to do that.

Tell us a little about the techniques you used for ‘Gujarnica’, how you settled on the form.
I was actually trained in European academic painting. Before I went to art school, a famous portrait painter called Jaya Varma, who belonged to Raja Ravi Varma's family, taught me European Academic painting for one-and-a-half years. He was 75 at that time. That was my basic training in art. Only then did I do my graduation. Later when I started painting, I was doing it more or less in an academic painting technique. The method was to work layer by layer and I would take months to finish a painting. I felt like I started with an important issue and by the time I finished a lot of things were lost in the process. So I thought I should find a technique of my own which would allow me to finish my paintings faster. So I searched and experimented. I finally found a technique that is basically used by European Academic painters themselves and is called Glazing. After they work on a painting with dull colours, they overlap the painting with thin colours. So I put up a canvas, create a thick layer background and use thin paints on it on a very fast track. Today I can produce a 10 by 10 canvas in hours.