Saturday, December 3, 2016

Artists, you do have to market yourself

A lot of artists shy away from marketing, saying their main job is to create, and not get de-focussed by other activities. It would be good for all of us artists to know, that the great Da Vinci had to market his skills too. The faster all artists learn to market themselves, the better off they will be!

While applying for a position with the Duke of Milan, Da Vinci customized his letter to the Duke's requirements. Being an inventor, engineer, architect, and military strategist, he could pitch for these talents to be used for warfare. He did add at the end of the letter that he could paint, too!

A wooden model of the bridge

We know of Da Vinci's phenomenal capabilities as a designer and thinker. Many of his designs are still considered "too modern" for execution! In 1502, Da Vinci proposed the design of a bridge to the Sultan of Constantinople, top span the "Golden Horn" inlet in Istanbul. The bridge if built, at a length of 1201 feet and a width of 79 feet, would have been the longest in the world. But the Sultan balked, thinking such a project would be impossible to execute. 

The completed Da Vinci bridge
The proposed bridge also included a "pressed bow" of 790 feet length, and 141 feet high clearance for ships to pass. Like many of Leonardo's innovations, the original drawing was misplaced, but was found more than 400 years later in 1952. Vebjorn Sand, a Norwegian artist saw the drawing in 1996, and proposed that the Norwegian Public Roads Administration use the drawing. The Oslo Leonardo Bridge Project completed in October 2001, and is a monumental ode to the genius of Da Vinci. 

The phenomenally talented Leonardo da Vinci wrote to the Duke thus after finding out about the palace requirements, and pitching the right skills (the painting skills are mentioned last):

“Having, most illustrious lord, seen and considered the experiments of all those who pose as masters in the art of inventing instruments of war, and finding that their inventions differ in no way from those in common use, I am emboldened, without prejudice to anyone, to solicit an appointment of acquainting your Excellency with certain of my secrets. 

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci,
chalk drawing, 1512
1. I can construct bridges which are very light and strong and very portable, with which to pursue and defeat the enemy; and others more solid, which resist fire or assault, yet are easily removed and placed in position; and I can also burn and destroy those of the enemy.

2. In case of a siege I can cut off water from the trenches and make pontoons and scaling ladders and other similar contrivances.

3. If by reason of the elevation or the strength of its position a place cannot be bombarded, I can demolish every fortress if its foundations have not been set on stone.

4. I can also make a kind of cannon which is light and easy of transport, with which to hurl small stones like hail, and of which the smoke causes great terror to the enemy, so that they suffer heavy loss and confusion.

5. I can noiselessly construct to any prescribed point subterranean passages either straight or winding, passing if necessary underneath trenches or a river.

The original letter by Da Vinci,
pitching his skills
6. I can make armoured wagons carrying artillery, which shall break through the most serried ranks of the enemy, and so open a safe passage for his infantry.

7. If occasion should arise, I can construct cannon and mortars and light ordnance in shape both ornamental and useful and different from those in common use.

8. When it is impossible to use cannon I can supply in their stead catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other instruments of admirable efficiency not in general use—I short, as the occasion requires I can supply infinite means of attack and defense.

9. And if the fight should take place upon the sea I can construct many engines most suitable either for attack or defense and ships which can resist the fire of the heaviest cannon, and powders or weapons.

The last supper, Leonardo da Vinci,
Mural painting, 1495-1498

10. In time of peace, I believe that I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in the construction of buildings both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another.

 I can further execute sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, also in painting I can do as much as anyone else, whoever he may be.

Moreover, I would undertake the commission of the bronze horse, which shall endue with immortal glory and eternal honour the auspicious memory of your father and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

And if any of the aforesaid things should seem to anyone impossible or impracticable, I offer myself as ready to make trial of them in your park or in whatever place shall please your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility. 

Portrait of a lady, Leonardo da Vinci,
Oil on wood, 1490-1496
Leonardo Da Vinci

The employment did happen, and Da Vinci worked with the Duke for sixteen long years. He completed several important projects for the state, as well as many of his important paintings, including "The last Supper" for the Refectory of the Convent of Santa delle Grazi, Milan, and the luminous La Belle Ferroniere, said to be a portrait of Beatrice d'Este, wife of Ludvico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and Da Vinci's chief patron for all these years.

Well, even for such talents, employment was not certain, and Da Vinci worked pretty hard on the letter, his commissioned works and for state projects of Milan. So artists, you do have to use all your marketing skills!
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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The banker and the artist

Krishen Khanna was working with the Grindlays Bank in Mumbai, when he came in contact with an artist group of friends, and later became a part of the Progressive Arts Group. Largely a self-taught artist, he had strong ideas of his own what he wanted to paint and what he did not. He moonlighted for a long time, working weekdays at the Bank and painting on the weekends and in the evenings, before deciding to quit the Bank, and became a full time artist.

Untitled, Oil on canvas, by Krishen Khanna

He painted about whatever affected him: The partition of India that displaced human lives like rag dolls on a humongous scale; the band-wallahs or musicians who walked with the Baraatis, or the wedding guests, faceless men whom the guests would not spare a second glance at; the chai-dhaba the small tea-shop, where they were all young artists together: M F Hussia, F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee and he himself, where they drank gallons of tea, and talked of everything.

The last bite, Oil on canvas, by Krishen Khanna

Untitled by Krishen Khanna

Each of Krishen Khanna's works told a story. There was another reason I took a special interest in his art! My first job was as a banker (State Bank of India) and I always was an artist within as well, and I knew you could do many things at the same time, and at times you made choices. I was intrigued recently, to come across several stories outside India, of bankers-cum or bankers-turned artists. Obviously they interested me and I am sharing some of them here:

William Savage made his decision to turn into an artists when his finance firm Babcock & Brown closed shop. Before that he was a nattily dressed artist rather than a hungry, paint splattered one. He was in San Francisco, had being doing water colours, and had just sold his first painting, and there was hope. So when Babock & Brown closed down, he dived into full time art.


Bridge cafe by William Savage
Marko Remec joined Morgan Stanley after business school and was a banker for 25 years before turning full time sculptor.

For this work on a New York street, he combined steel dome safety mirrors and utility poles, to make a statement on urban paranoia and narcissism.

He had painted in college too, and was always an artist, as well as a banker.


"You are not the boss of me": Tree totem by Marko Remec

Martie Datu worked at a multinational bank and her father's investment firm, but now her work station looks very different. It is full of images from her childhood, and of happy children straddling her present background of skyscrapers, metros and urban parks.


Martie Datu's current work station

Evidently, for those of you straddling two boats or even three boats, it is fine; do what is right for you: you can take the plunge whenever.

Or keep managing a heady mix!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Suhas Roy and his mystical compositions

Artist Suhas Roy who passed away in Kolkatta earlier this month, at the age of 80, was known in the last few years primarily for his Radha series. Though Radha Rani has been worshipped as a goddess, a Devi, the most powerful association in our minds is of Radha as an embodiment of pure love and devotion to Shri Krishna.

Radha, Mixed media, 10 by 12 in.

The word Radha is said to have come from Aradha (worship or homage) and Aradhana (paying homage). The love of Radha for Krishna is eternal, spontaneous, and like Bhakti (or devotion). Suhas Roy's paintings of Radha try to capture this devotion, longing and Bhakti, and bring a mix of youth, innocence and a dream like quality, in the figures.

Dry pastel, 48 by 36 cm.

Suhas Roy studied at the Indian College of Arts and Draughtsmanship, Kolkatta, and also at the Ecole Superior des Beaux Arts, Paris. He had been the Head of Department of Painting, at Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan, till he retired.

Christ - 1, Conte on board, 20 by 30 in.

Suhas Roy travelled extensively in Europe, US and Japan, and was hugely impressed by the Great Masters, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Particularly the Pieta influenced Suhas Roy so much, that for several years, he sketched and painted his own versions of The Lamentation.

What is not known widely is that one of his paintings from his series at the time, "Through the Gospel", forms a part of the collection of The Vatican. Suhas Roy published a book of his paintings created during that period of personal journey called: "A Solitary Quest".

Christ, Oil on canvas, 56 by 41 cm.

Suhas Roy was born in Dhaka, and like many artists of his generation hit by partition of India, the loss stayed with him all his life. Several of his early compositions in water colours are inspired by the Bangladesh countryside.

A water colour

Suhas Roy will be remembered and missed for his mystical imagery, the wide range of textures and materials used, and for the simplicity of his compositions.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Durga Pooja art works

Why is the Durga Pooja like an exciting, cultural immersion and not confined to quiet prayers? Well, mostly because Ma Durga has so many incarnations and is an embodiment of so many things: she is the goddess of power or Shakti, and the cause of all past, present and future occurrences.

Ma Durga is the mother of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity; the mother of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, knowledge, learning, music and arts; the mother of Karthikeya, the god of war; and she is the mother of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles for all auspicious events.

"The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection." - Michelangelo

Temporary places called Pandals are set up to welcome and venerate the goddess and to make arrangements for devotees. The entrance to the Pandal or the gateway, the panels at the sides, the ceilings, and the floors are all composed and decorated to honour the divine. All of them serve as opportunities to artists to pay homage to Ma Durga.
A gateway

Atop the entrance to a Pandal

In a Pooja, we make offerings of all that is good and nourishing and beautiful in our lives: fruits and vegetables, grains, flowers, art and music and dance. The goddess is also showered with gifts of sarees and sweets.

Ceiling of a Pandal
In the Pandal, the idol or Protima of Ma Durga is accompanied by her children, their Vahans or vehicles and the Kala-Bou, a banana plant depicting the mother nature part of Durga.

The Owl, Vahana of Lakshmi, symbolizes observation and perception. The divine Swan, Vahana of Saraswati symbolizes purity and realization of knowledge. The Peacock, Vahana of Kartikeya, symbolizes beauty. The Mouse, Vahana of Ganesha symbolizes the Vighna or obstacles our mind create very much like the fickle and darting movements of a mouse, that have to be controlled by the mind.

A panel at the Pooja Pandal

Ma Durga herself being powerful, beautiful and radiant has the Lion as her Vahana. During Durga Puja, she is shown in her Avatar of Mahishasura or slayer of the half-buffalo, half-Asura or demon.

The devotees of Ma Durga come from all communities, but do take care to deck themselves in their best clothes and jewellery. Devotees go to the Pandal every morning for Pushpanjali, or offerings of flowers and leaves for the goddess. They go for the evening Arati, or lighting of lamps. 

The last day of Pooja is the Sindur Khela, when the goddess is bid farewell, till the next year with vermillion and sweets.

Over the years, Pooja Pandals have got more organized. Each locality has tried to differentiate itself. Some of them have themes for the Pooja, or take up causes. One New Delhi Pooja for example, wanted to draw attention to the dying jute industry. They got specially commissioned a Ma Durga idol made of jute, in addition to the normal clay one. 

While the clay idol was immersed in water in the usual ritual fashion called Bisarjan, the jute idol is being preserved. The organizers of this Pandal want the jute idol to have a place in a museum or an educational institution.


Pooja Pandal resembling the PAlais Garnier

Another New Delhi Pooja Pandal paid homage to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris. The entire Pandal was designed and put together over two months to resemble the Palais Garnier, or the National Opera House. 


A Kolkatta Pandal paid homage to the once ubiquitous black and yellow Hindustan Motors Ambassador taxis. The Pandal artists bought 15 taxis, 200 silencer pipes and 300 car doors for the purpose.  

The taxis were deconstructed and put together in art installations all around the Pandal.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Face to face with Yusuf Arakkal

Bangalore based artist Yusuf Arakkal was always interested in the human figure and human faces. He decided recently, to do a collection of portraits of fellow artists.

Portrait of Thota Vaikuntam

Here is one of his drawings: of the artist Thota Vaikuntam, captured at work.

Portraits are rare nowadays. The theme of fellow artists was also an unusual one.

All the portraits by Arakkal were pen and ink drawings using lines, and dots - no colours and no shading. They were drawn on reversed canvas, and executed in a 'framed-box' approach. Generally, it was all black ink, and single-tone backgrounds.

Portrait of Syed Haider Raza

The collection of 135 portraits were on show at an exhibition called "Faces of Creativity", at Chennai, last month. Arakkal desired that the entire collection should be sold to a single collector or to an institution, to be available for viewing in its entirety.

The timing of the project was remarkable, given the news of his untimely demise today morning. It almost seems to be like a farewell gift from Arakkal to his fellow artists.

Yusuf Arakkal was born in Kerala. His mother belonged to a royal family, said to be the only Muslim family, descended from the royal family of Chirakkal. His father belonged to the Muslim business family Keyees, famous in Calicut and Thalassery.

Young Arakkal was looked after well at his family home, but ran away as a teenager to Bangalore, driven by a desire to live life on his own terms, in the streets and alleys of the city, and to learn painting.

Young Arakkal studied at the Chitrakala Parishath, Bangalore. The linework was always strong, as in this portrait. He was fond of drawing, and he knew the strength of lines.

It was probably due to the influence of his early years', that several of his works showed the urban poor, the social outcasts and the alienated.

Hope, Screenprint by Yusuf Arakkal

There was an air of despondency hanging in the air, even in the fine art-print he called 'Hope'. This print was created for the project 'Break the silence' by Art-for-humanity, an HIV-AIDS initiative.

An untitled oil-on-canvas by Arakkal

Like the surroundings of his teenage areas, the walls and backgrounds in Arakkal's paintings often reminded us of peeling plaster, dirty cracking walls, and old, often dirty, make shift belongings.

They told a story.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The face of war

Andre Breton was one of the original group of Surrealists who introduced the ideas of automatism and intuitive art making. He championed the cause of "found objects", mixed media, collages and chace associations. He also championed the use of art as anti-war statements.

The Surrealist movement gave rise to several pieces of work like Salvador Dali's 'Retrospective bust of a woman' (1933). A baguette crowns the head of the woman. Cobs of corn dangle on both sides of her face. Ants swarm along her face, as if gathering the crumbs.
On top of all, is balanced an ink-well with a praying couple.

The movement also gave rise to the use of non-conventional materials in art and sculpture, like the wax sculpture by Edgar Degas, 'Little dancer of fourteen years' (1881), dressed in a real tutu skirt, a bodice, a wig of real hair, and with real ballet slippers. 28 bronze repetitions of the sculpture have been made since then by major museums around the world, for exhibition purposes.

A recent sculpture using 'found objects', by 33 year old artist, entitled "The face of war" has captured the imagination of critics, fellow artists and art lovers around the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the face of war in the 2-metre high portrait created by Ukrainian artist Daria Marchenko. The portrait has been made using 5000 bullet cartridges brought in from the frontline in eastern Ukraine. The first few shells were sent to Daria by her boyfriend, a member of the Euromaidan movement that worked against the corrupt and unpopular government of Viktor Yanukovych.

Now many of Daria's friends fighting across Ukraine send her bombs, grenades, shells and other war materials that they find, for use in her future compositions.

For Daria, each shell is the face of war, symbolising some one wounded or killed. She uses a hand-held light to cast interesting, elongated shadows across the portrait. Sometimes the shadows throw deep shadows around Putin's eyes, making them more sinister; at times, they make the face angular, more energetic and aggressive; and sometimes the shadows make the mouth more cruel.

The portrait has eight kinds of cartridges, some corroded and copper coloured, some quite new and glistening gold. As people look at the changing expressions of Putin's portrait in the moving light- sometimes proud, at times contemplative, they have their own thoughts about the nearly 7,000 people killed so far in the Ukraine conflict.

The portrait is a dominating presence in Daria's studio.

"Sleeping in the same room with him was a bit scary at first," said Daria in a recent interview, "But I got used to it."

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

On advice from a caterpillar

Alice's adventures in Wonderland after falling through the rabbit hole gave us wonderful and enduring characters like the cheshire cat, the caterpillar, the mock turtle, the pig-baby, the mad hatter and of course so many nonsense verses, and endless discussions about the parallel world of mathematical concepts of space and time being alluded to.

While Lewis Carroll or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson illustrated the first manuscript himself, he approached illustrator John Tenniel to create the drawings for the first published version. I do think those first illustrations contributed hugely to how we visualised these characters. Here is one of the grinning Cheshire cat for example from the 1869 publication. This cat has a will of its own!

The original Alice (Alice Pleasance Liddell, who was 10 years old when Dodgson cooked up this story for her) the inspiration behind the story apparently had dark hair, but different illustrators have generally shown her with golden hair.

Here is one by Leonard Weisgard (1949).

The Princeton University Press brought out recently a special 150th anniversary edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with rarely seen illustrations by Salvador Dali. I particularly like the Caterpillar illustration:

I do think Dali's Caterpillar has the right hallucinated and wise appearance!

The Caterpillar Alice encounters in Wonderland is exactly three inches high and smokes a hookah. Which sounds absurd of course, but seems perfectly in place with all the goings-on at Wonderland.

The Caterpillar is also very logical, though he may sound rude to some.

For example, when asked who she was by the Caterpillar, Alice in her confused state stammers, "I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, Sir, because I'm not myself, you see." The Caterpillar retorts "I don't see," leaving no room for confusion.

It is also at the Caterpillar 's command that Alice delivers one of the most delightful poems in the book:

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
     "And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head-
     Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
     "I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
     Why, I do it again and again......."

The Caterpillar gave Alice a parting advice: "Keep your temper." Alice was surprised, "Is that all?"
"No," said the Caterpillar wisely.

Alice in Dali's illustrations, appears as a wispy shape of a little girl (with a skipping rope?) with her shadow in all the illustrations. Dali created an illustration for each chapter of the book, apart from a frontispiece.

I find Alice's figure in Dali's illustrations to be like an observer in a dream. Particularly in this one, drawn for the chapter 'The Caucus Race and a Long Tale' about all the animals swimming through the 'pool of tears' created by Alice, and trying to come out dry from it! The little-Alice figure is hardly to be seen at the right bottom corner.

If you want to see more, you can have a look at the other Dali illustrations at

or see the video about the Dali illustrations at

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Raza and the Circle of Life

The artist Syed Haider Raza started off painting landscapes, but some time in his journey into metaphysics and the biology, he chose the "Bindu", or the central point of energy, as his chief symbol, and the circles of life to surround it, as his theme of work.

He said the "Bindu" was like the seed, the beginning of all life, that contained everything that would "ever be".

He added in his works later, concepts of the "Tribhuj" or sacred triangle, as well as symbols of Purusha and Prakriti (the male and female forms of energy). All in resplendent acrylics and oils.

Raza lived in France for more than six decades, and exhibited there extensively. He returned to India only in 2010. But as far as his thinking and his compositions went, he was always in India. He remarked on his return, that he "had never left".

He died a few days back, on the 23rd July, 2016, at the ripe old age of 94. Interestingly, apart from the last two months when he was seriously ill, and towards the end he was in fact on life support, Raza painted every singly day of his adult life! He said his job was to paint, and his day must "begin and end with art". Even after his return to India, Raza was exhibiting fresh paintings every year.

Raza at his studio

Like many artists who become famous towards the end of life, Raza had seen many ups and downs in life. Few know that for some time, to make ends meet, he even taught Hindi in France! 
What will be remembered surely, is that in 2010, one of his paintings "Saurashtra" sold for a staggering $34.87 Million at a Christie's auction.

From the Saurashtra series

And I somehow remembered another circle of life, the song from "The Lion King", with its spectacular opening lines in the Zulu language, and that ended with a universal message:

"....It's the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

For the love of Vincent

Vincent Van Gogh died at the young age of 37, after having shot himself with a revolver, in the wheat fields of Auvers-sur-Oise.

Paul Gauguin’s portrait of Van Gogh, Oil on canvas, 1888.
Painted when Gauguin visited Van Gogh at Arles.

Whether it was the circumstances of his death, or the stories of his life, of unrequited love affairs, of not having the money to paint or sometimes even to feed himself, Van Gogh is remembered as the lonely, unloved, hugely talented artist.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Van Gogh, Pastel on cardboard, 1887. 
 His most loved paintings are of the fields of Arles, sunflowers and cypresses, and star-lit nights. He obviously loved painting portraits, and produced several self-portraits, writing to his sister that he “should like to paint portraits which appear after a century to people living then as apparitions…..I do not endeavor to achieve this through photographic resemblance, but my means of our impassioned emotions- that is to say using our knowledge and our modern taste for color as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character…”

It is for the “impassioned emotions” on display whether Van Gogh was painting cherry trees and orchards, his bedroom in Arles, a night café or the bridge over the river Rhone, that he is loved so much. Some of this love has translated to an international collaborative project called “Loving Vicent”:

About a hundred artists have got together to hand-paint about 57,000 frames, in the style of Van Gogh, and capturing locations, people and  vignettes from his short life, to form an animated film. It is probably the first animated movie of its type, built entirely from these lovingly painted frames. You could catch a glimpse of the trailer of the movie at:

“The red vineyard” by Vincent Van Gogh, Oil on canvas, 1888. 
This was the only painting sold by Van Gogh while he was alive!

“The night café” by Vincent Van Gogh, Oil on canvas, 1888.

In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote: "In my picture of The Night Café I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil's furnace, of pale sulphur. And all with an appearance of Japanese gaiety, and the good nature of Tartarin."

Monday, June 20, 2016

Stained glass windows with solar cells

Glass has been used in buildings for ages: modern cities use glass window panes and glass facades in a big way to bring in some light and a hint of open space in crowded buildings perched along crowded roads. As glass gets used more and more in homes, shops and offices we hear more specialized terms for it like: float glass, tinted glass, toughened glass, glazed glass, laminated glass, photo-chromatic glass and so on.

As glass gets more versatile, its use has been growing, along with the use of steel and concrete. Sometimes this results in marvellous buildings which are architectural marvels.

Some of the most beautiful and well-known buildings in the world, using an all glass exterior are the Louvre Pyramid in front of the Louvre Museum in Paris and The Gherkin in London. Both these buildings are phenomenal for the natural light they let in, and the light patterns they create.

I came across one example however which has been a pioneer in blending the use of glass with technology and art.

Churches have used stained glass windows, and panelled ceilings to both showcase art, as well as create an ambience of light, harmony and beauty, for a long time.

The Cathedral of the Holy Family, in Saskatoon, Canada, has an unique glass installation in its spire. It has solar panels integrated into the glass windows. The windows themselves are large, and more than 1000 solar cells have been embedded into them. This has been done in an integrated and aesthetic composition.

The design was conceived and executed by artist Sarah Hall, who specializes in large scale art glass installations, and has been an innovator in using technology to make the designs more environment friendly. Each of the solar cells has been hand soldered and embedded into the panes.

We get a lot of sunshine in India pretty much throughout the year, and are currently reeling under maximum temperatures of 46-47 degrees Centigrade! We also have a huge amount of construction going on at all times in a number of new and growing cities. Some of them do have an aesthetic glass facade.

Hope some of the builders would latch on to this wonderful idea. They could create awesome installations as well as save on electricity!