When my brother and I were growing up in Delhi, among our closest friends were our neighbours the Mukhopadhyay brothers. Each was a year junior to us, and it would seem natural that the elder siblings would form a close friendship and the younger would form a close friendship too. But the closeness extended with all pairs. Though the age gap between the oldest (me) and the youngest (Arpan Mukhopadhyay, a.k.a. Ali) was five years — a significant difference when you are ten and five respectively — we had a great deal of fun together. We ceased to be neighbours when Ali was in his teens, and I left Delhi soon after, but the memory of watching him evolve from an impossibly cute child to a somewhat problematic student to a talented footballer to an extraordinary artist remains fresh. And the memory is all that remains. Ali died, shockingly, in January 1999 at the age of 20, leaving behind bittersweet memories and several astonishing canvases.
Now, almost ten years later, Ali’s parents, brother, family and well-wishers have brought out a book, “Ali’s World”, published by Roli Books, available online here and soon to be available at bookshops across India, consisting of biographical notes and memories interspersed with nearly four dozen of his artworks. As part of its release, they are holding a two-day exhibition of 28 of his works at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, on July 26 and 27, 2008. (I am typing this after having attended the first day.)
Looking through the exhibition and the prints in the book brought home to me, once again, what this young man had achieved at twenty. But I am probably too close to the picture to see it objectively, so let me quote an unbiased judge instead:
When I see Ali’s work I am mesmerised. I feel moved by what I see. His paintings engage and enrich me… I just loved his work. It gets you in the gut and speaks to you, moves
So says actor and director Aamir Khan, in the foreword to the book; he clarifies that he had this reaction on first seeing the pictures, before knowing the personal story of Ali.
Why did Aamir Khan write the foreword? There one needs to get into the personal story. As I said above, Ali had a problematic childhood in many ways: partly his propensity to get into innumerable accidents (though nobody could have foreseen the one that eventually claimed him), and partly his very erratic performance in school: a mixture of immense talent and mediocre results. As his parents say in the book, though he was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia, awareness of such problems was not as common in those days as now. Thankfully, they followed their instincts in letting him choose his own path in life.
When this book was nearly ready, they say, they watched Aamir’s movie Taare Zameen Par and were immensely moved by the story of a dyslexic child who is encouraged by his teacher to become an artist. “On an impulse”, they sent Aamir a pre-publication copy of the book. Though he gets vast quantities of such unsolicited material, something about these paintings struck him, and on reading the text, he responded by writing the foreword.
Reading the text of the book was a little disconcerting: it showed me how little I really knew Ali in some ways, and how much his parents had to contend with in bringing him up. But at the end of the day it is an inspiring story — not just to me, but, I think, even to those who never knew Ali.
I will upload a couple of images of the paintings, that I snapped at the exhibition today, when I get a chance. But if you read this early enough and are nearby, do try and make it on the second day: July 27 at the Convention Foyer of the India Habitat Centre, Lodi Road, New Delhi.
UPDATE: Pictures from the exhibition.