The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 13, 2001
Time Off

Pictures that speak
By Manohar Malgonkar

THIS is a success story, of talent finding its rewards in a profession that is reputed to be extremely niggardly towards its practitioners: painting. And somehow, without knowing quite how, I seem to have assisted in the process of an artist achieving a breakthrough.

Taste in art is constantly changing. Rebel artists who go against the grain of accepted standards of what is good art usually die paupers. Vincent Van Gogh, whose canvases bring staggeringly high prices at art auctions today sold only one of his paintings during his lifetime. His friend who fled to Tahiti and lived in penury for the rest of his life, Paul Gaugin, was also recognised as a major artist only after he had died.

In sharp contrast to Van Gogh and Gaugin who, while they lived, were failures, is the story of one of their contemporaries who lived in England, a Dutchman called Laurence Alma Tadema. He became the most sought-after painter for the family portraits of the owners of Britain’s famed Stately Houses and was knighted by Queen Victoria. Today these same paintings are thought to be "crimes committed in the name of taste."

Then again, the same critics who condemn Alma Tadema’s ambitious portraits and are thought to be guardians of good taste in works of art, go into raptures over the ...well, ‘works’, of Jackson Pollock, who painted large canvases placed like mats on the floor, not with brushes, but with his feet—with gumboots on. He poured paint on his canvases and then went walkabout on the canvas, as it were, till he was satisfied that a picture was complete.

Treasures in princely museums
May 6, 2001
Battle honours for staying power
April 29, 2001
Errors of precision
April 15, 2001
Hats off to the sahibs
April 1, 2001
The fate of trees
February 4, 2001
Indelible memories
January 21, 2001
Small men too can make history
January 14, 2001
Of officers & gentlemen
November 19, 2000
Officers and gentlemen
October 15,2000
Villains and heroes
October 7, 2000
Among the immortals
October 1, 2000
The sad story of unquiet graves
August 20, 2000

Rare manuscripts
August 13, 2000

Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
July 2, 2000

Jackson Pollock’s pictures bring consistently high prices at art auctions.

So what is art? No one has been able to define it. Only a couple of years ago, the New York Times, invited some twenty or so eminent authorities on art to define the word art. There were twenty-or-so different answers.

Art is whatever we feel comfortable with when we view it; indeed whatever we choose to call art is art, because even graffiti, rude words spray-painted on lavatory walls, has found acceptance as art, and the rich and the famous buy pictures for the oddest reasons such as their being painted in juice of overripe blueberries or dog’s urine.

At that, there is one branch of painting which even most critics believe should conform to established norms: portraiture. If only because a portrait has to be the representation of a person, a recognisable likeness, it must be like a photograph. But here the comparison ends, because a painted portrait can never be as accurate in details as a good photograph, it must possess something that a photograph can never possess: life, a vibrancy, a quality neatly caught by the Marathi word bolka, meaning expressive, or, literally, which says something.

And this is where art triumphs over gadgetry; a photograph, even by a master of the art of portrait photography such as Yousuf Karsh, can never be as capable of saying things as, say, a painting by EI Greko, or Jaan Vermeer or Franz Hals.

That name, Franz Hals, a painter of men and women of such towering talent that critics seem to vie with one another for finding superlatives to describe his genius, brings my story on the right track, as it were, of how even the most accomplished artists cannot make a decent living by their labour.

Hals was never short of commissions, and soldiered away at his easel even in his old age. When he was past seventy, he had to sell all his possessions in order to pay what he owed to his baker who had supplied him bread on credit. From then on, he lived on the charity of the local municipality, and continued to work hard at his paintings till he died, at the age of 84.

So, to my success story. All my life, I have gone on acquiring paintings even though I must confess that only a dozen or so are paintings that I have paid any money for. Others are gifts by artist friends. So when early in 1993, my wife died, I began to look for a portrait-painter in India to paint a portrait of her from a photograph that I liked. But in India, abstract art is the rage, and portrait painters, a lost species.

Or so I believed till one evening, while idly surfing TV channels, my eye was caught by an array of portraits, perhaps half a dozen or so, and some still obviously unfinished. I had never heard of the artist, and could not have judged from that glimpse on the TV screen whether the portraits were good, or indeed even lifelike. And yet I must have been struck by some quality in whatever I had seen to have noted down the artist’s name: Sudhir Katkar, who lived in Mumbai.

From the telephone directory, I found Katkar’s address and wrote to him asking him if he would be able to paint a portrait for me from a photograph, and when he sent me an answer that he would take a shot at it, I telephoned to make an appointment and went to Mumbai, just to see him.

His studio was a small room with canvases in all sizes stacked four and five deep against the walls. He himself, bantam-sized and business-like, more at home in Marathi or Hindi than in English, gave me the impression that he had few other interests outside his work. He somewhat bluntly asked me if I expected a concessional price, and reassured that I didn’t, we soon finished out talks. He promised to have the portrait ready in two months’ time and, I was gratified to see, kept his promise.

I could not have been in his studio for more than 20 minutes, and we didn’t meet again for the next seven years. I myself was pleased with the portrait he had done and thought it to be a speaking one, and others who saw it, either in his studio, or later in my house, must have been sufficiently impressed by it to ask me for the artist’s name and address. My son-in-law, Andre Kapur who is a high-profile businessman and his friends between them must have given Katkar another half a dozen commissions, and from their talk I could see that he was kept busy with commissions and that his prices had shot up.

Then in the summer of 2000, he asked if he might visit my house for a few days, and when he came, I thought he had come to do some on-the-spot paintings of jungle and village scenes. He made an easy guest, and spent most of his time reading my books in their Marathi translation and listening to Bhimsen Joshi on my CD player.

Early this year, he delivered four paintings at my son-in-law’s house in Mumbai, three water-colours of scenes around my house which also showed me doing my own things, such as reading a newspaper in a deck chair, or just sitting under a gulmohur tree in resplendent flowering, and the fourth a life-sized oil painting showing me banging away at my typewriter.

On my own, I would never have commissioned an artist to paint a picture of myself, let alone a formal portrait, and, indeed, I think it is in bad taste for any one to display his own pictures prominently in his house. Added to this question of taste, there was the embarrassment of accepting as gifts, paintings on which a professional artist had spent a good deal of his working time. Anyhow there were these pictures, now in my house, and it was up to me to tidy up things — at least absolve my conscience by offering to remunerate Sudhir Katkar, even at a concessional rate. But when I spoke to him to broach the subject, his reply surprised me: "You owe me nothing, Mr Malgonkar. I’m doing very well now, by your blessings. If you like those pictures, it will make me happy. If you hang them in your house, I shall feel proud."

Yes, I like them. And yes I’ve put them up — even that four-feet by three feet oil-painting of me at my desk!

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