A soulful of art –tribute to Yusuf Arakkal

It feels like a million years ago now that he gave me a lesson in art appreciation, and this gift has given me immeasurable happiness in the best museums across the world. He also taught me how to enjoy my favourite tipple without getting tipsy.

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“Art is my soul”

Others far more qualified than me have spoken about Yusuf as an artist, this is my personal memorial to an old friend.

I got the news of his death very late. I had slept through the day, after a long travel. That night, I lay awake remembering the many ways Yusuf impacted our lives. On a Monday afternoon, nearly 20 years ago, when I went to pick up my son from Lumbini play school, Gayatri Rao who ran the school, showed me a wondrous sight. After weeks of refusing to colour any drawings, Aditya had spent the whole morning colouring. Realisation dawned as we looked at the many colourful pages.

I was then a columnist for the Times of India, and the previous Saturday had gone to interview Yusuf (in their old home in NGEF colony). I had taken the little fellow along, and while Yusuf and I chatted, he was left to explore the studio and had been obviously inspired by the world of colour.

My interview was about a new series of nudes that Yusuf was going to show; those were days before digital cameras and I needed a visual to illustrate my piece in the column. Yusuf picked up paper and pencil and quickly sketched a small version. I handed in the sketch with my article and retrieved it from the press after the page was made. The lovely little sketch hangs in my drawing room, along with a few other artworks that he took pleasure in gifting us over the years.

Afternoons that stretched to evenings at the iconic Victoria hotel, which used to be his home away from home (where Bangalore Central mall stands);  impromptu Sunday lunches in their new home, the travel tips that both Sara and Yusuf offered (he was a great one for travelling – “Only when you see the world, will you grow”, he told Allen when the latter complained about my wanderlust).

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Yusuf Arakkal, me, SG Vasudev & G Subramanian – catching up after many months at Galerie De’Arts in 2014

It feels like a million years ago now that he gave me a lesson in art appreciation, pointing out what makes SG Vasudev’s work special. And this gift has given me immeasurable happiness in the best museums across the world. He also taught me how to enjoy my favourite tipple without getting tipsy.

He turned out dapper in beautiful jackets picked out by Sara, and good naturedly preened about his likeness to Col Gaddafi. A gregarious soul who loved serious debates as much as unabashed flirting, he was completely at ease with himself.

He didn’t call or visit when Allen died, and it pained me. They were as close as brothers; Yusuf had taken it upon himself to play counsellor to us, advising us about relationships (and me about clothes). And for a long time, like with many others, he too had forgotten me, and Aditya. Many moons later, the phone rang late at night, and the familiar teasing voice spoke. He gave some reason for not being in touch earlier; they were out-of-town when they got the news. Now, he had more pressing matters to speak about; in his usual outspoken way, he was up-in-arms about something, and prodded me to carry on working with the same ideals that Allen had.

We spoke and met a few times over the last few years, and as it is with old friends, the undeniable warmth and easy banter resurfaced. He had attained great fame but he allowed me the privilege of chiding him.

The energy of his paintings is a tangible presence and I was enveloped in it as I sat on the couch with Sara, two days after he died. The world mourns the passing of a great artist. For Sara, it is a loss of a person who sculpted her life. Forty three years is a lifetime, and yet it is not enough. It is going to be a long, hard walk ahead for her. One that I know well, and my heart aches for her even as it does for Yusuf, whose warmth and friendship I cherish.

What a man, what a life. I can’t say adieu as some one this larger than life can’t be forgotten. In a quote in BEST OF BANGALORE (Raintree Media), Yusuf said, “Creativity is God’s gift to mankind, art is my soul”. That is the measure of the man.

Villain on screen & a gentle soul off it

 

SRID9586He may be a villain on screen, but in real life, he is an erudite polyglot who wears his fame very lightly and is sensitive to social imbalances. Prakash Rai aka Prakash Raj has adopted a village that he hopes would become a model.

This Bengaluru huduga has shot to national fame, but when he spoke to us at the Rotary Club of Bangalore last Monday, there were no starry airs. He preferred to answer questions from the audience. Three key points have stayed with me:

Persistent demands for him to quote dialogues from his film were met with the stoic and dignified reply, “I get paid to say my dialogue”. When someone asked him yet again, he cited the example of veteran Hindi actor Raaj Kumar who when asked to say dialogues at a party by an army officer, retorted, ‘Why don’t you do a march past?’.

Prakash is an avid reader, and can speak and read all the languages of the films in which he acts. “I would just be a parrot if I said the dialogue without understanding the context of the culture.” He added, “ Learning to speak a language shows that you respect the people of the land.” (Will all those who crib about learning Kannada or the language of any region that they live in, learn from this great person?)

What would he have been had he not been an actor? “Even had I been a mechanic, I would have been an award-winning mechanic”, he said without sounding the least bit boastful. This is my motto too, and as you can see, I acted like a complete fangirl.

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There is a little backstory that I want to share too. When I published Allen’s novel a few months after he passed away in 2009, I relied on our friend and old colleague Prakash Belawadi to help me with the launch. He wanted Prakash Rai/Raj to be present, as Allen Mendonca who was also a film critic had apparently shared a rapport with the actor. But Prakash Raj was away at a shoot, and couldn’t be at the launch. Yesterday, six and half years later, the President of the Rotary Club presented him with a memento and without knowing what it was, Prakash opened the gift wrap and smiled when he saw the cover of Sentinel House.

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President of Rotary Club o Bangalore Ranga Rao hands over a memento to the speaker of the day, award-winning actor Prakash Raj.
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Aditya Mendonca is thrilled when Prakash Raj holds up the book authored by Allen Mendonca.

The ‘green’ man of theatre

In 36 years of theatre, Bimal Desai has been around the park several times. I refer to Cubbon Park, to save which Desai has battled over the years. “I have achieved very little and lost quite a bit”, he says. But it is thanks to him that gates came up, entry banned for traffic in the mornings, shooting of films stopped, political and other sundry public rallys were banned totally inside the park.

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In one of life’s coincidences, I was at Cubbon Park one Sunday morning to watch a young colleague and her friends perform ‘A midsummer night’s dream’. The same night I went to Lavina and Bimal Desai’s utterly gorgeous home to celebrate the 36 fun years he has spent in theatre. Just a few days earlier, he had directed ‘Twice around the park’ at a theatre festival.

The characteristic that strikes you most about Desai is his down-to-earth attitude. For him theatre is entertainment, and he lays it out there, plain and simple. Not for him the exploration of angst or complexities of interpretations.

His theatre company Theatre Lab has done 40 plays so far, notable among them being ‘God’ by Woody Allen, ‘Plaza Suite’ by Neil Simon, ‘Catch me if you can’, an adaptation of Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert’s work and ‘Rough Crossing’ by Tom Stoppard.

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Ashok Mandanna heads the list of his favourite actors, who include Judith Roby, Tuffy (Darius) Taraporevala, Coco, Brian Nobbay and Prakash Belawadi. “My most memorable moment was acting for the first time opposite Ashok Mandanna. It was a dream come true”, he confesses in fanboy candour.

“It was during college in MES that my interest in theatre came alive. I was the pioneer in starting inter class English plays in college. I was a member of BLT in 1980’s. It was very difficult to get a break as an actor. Both Mahesh Dattani and I used to do production work. The frustration of not getting a break motivated me to ask Mahesh to direct his first play for Theatre Lab. That’s how it was born.”

From acting, Desai moved on to set design and direction, taking a course in this specialisation at North Western University of Chicago. “It has always been my aim to make an audience laugh, have a good time and send them home happy! Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment is what I believe in!”

His forte might be laugh a minute but he is a very successful businessperson. Apart from a variety of  other family businesses, he and his brother run Mothers Recipe, an ethnic food company whose range of popular pickles and preserves are present in 40 countries. He also owns the Four Points by Sheraton, a hotel in Whitefield. “During the day I spend my time by working and I dedicate my evenings to theatre”, he says.

Apart from the laughs, Bengaluru owes him big for saving what is left of an important lung space in the city centre. Desai is the original green crusader, who hired a lawyer and filed public interest litigations which found favour with Justice Michael Saldanha who passed bold orders to protect the Cubbon Park from further decimation. From 300 acres, the park has been whittled down to 190 acres with several chunks parcelled out to various buildings. Some heartening moves such as stopping traffic movement through the park on weekends have been long in the coming, and Desai feels that some of the people in the vanguard of ‘developing’ the park could have different agendas.

Do read Allen Mendonca’s lyrical prose here about the man who put on war paint to save Cubbon Park: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/Possessed-by-the-spirit-of-Beantown/articleshow/70444840.cms

Desai’s green battle is also detailed here: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mp/2003/01/20/stories/2003012001410200.htm

The sunny Sunday morning that began with a Shakespeare play in Cubbon Park ended fittingly over dinner with the theatreperson who saved the park. Wonder what the Bard would have made of this.