For twenty-five years Ara has been a presence in the art life of Bombay. It is not as if his work has been revolutionary or a contributing factor to the break-through of contemporary styles. It cannot even be said that he has been an influence on successive generations of young artists or that the upheavals, political and artistic, of his times have had a very determining influence on him and his art. Although he has been a member of many "groups" and was counted, at times, among the rebels, he is peculiarly solitary as an artist though not as a human being), conservative a way but never reactionary, a finder more than a seeker. Yet hardly any other artist in Bombay has made a greater impact on popular imagination, has done more to establish a live contact between the artist and his public, between art and life, than Ara over a quarter of a century.
Ara's exhibitions draw unsophisticated crowds (in addition to the sophisticated); the legendary "man in the street" walks in person and, if sometimes baffled, obviously enjoys what he sees. Does this then make Ara a popular artist in the sense of the maitres populaires who are or pretend to be adult children reflecting the visible world in a naive primitivism? Ara is no primitive but in his life's work there is a pervading sense of naive innocence, Mr. Nissim Ezekiet, a well-known Bombay critic, recently quoted Marianne More's definition of poetry as creating "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" and said "in Ara's garden there are no toads".
Ara's reaction to life has been direct and immediate. He responds to things and people visually and not intellectually; his response is poetical in the sense that the visualisation invests the subject with a kind of supra reality which permits a free play of associations. In his paintings, an assemblage of empty discarded pots or a nude acquire new dimensions of feeling and heightened awareness. But this is not always so it has been one of the peculiar traits of Ara's work that it has been uneven in quality of spirit, not only from period to period; but also within a single period. In frequent spurts of extra-ordinary productivity Ara paints scores of paintings, usually within one range of subjects such as still lifes of flowers or still life’s of empty pots or still lifes of fruits or nudes or rather realistic scenes from life. Some will have a certain glow off poetic intensity and others will be literally duds. Some will be decorative boudoir pieces (to quote Mr. Nissim Ezekiel again), often regrettably near the border of vulgarity, and others sensitive poetic statements surprising in their sincere simplicity, as brief and spontaneous as a haiku. This lack of discrimination, in his work, is part of his personality and must be accepted as; such. It has confounded the critics and also brought, some, times, the wrong kind of admirers. But that part of his work that has the spark and the glow has made a solid contribution to the image of art in Bombay from the early forties. And many of his paintings have kindled that first small flame of recognition of what art really is and have replaced in many Indian homes, for the first time, the lithographed calendar picture with an original work of art.
Krishna Hawlaji Ara was born in Bolarum near Hyderabad in April 1914. His father, a car driver, died when Ara was ten: years old; he had already lost his mother when he was three. Helped by a sympathetic teacher he discovered his love for pictures and paintings, and he was not more than seven when he went to Bombay in search of art. Through hard years of domestic service, a spell in jail after participating in the Salt Satyagraha and a job as a car cleaner, he kept up his urge to paint. He did some evening work in a studio doing dreary object drawings, passed an Art Teachers' examination and painted many pictures under all sorts of influences. His Japanese employers encouraged and bought the mythological paintings which he did in the weak derivative style of the then Indian schools.
Eventually his fantasy and poetic intuition began to assert themselves. His optimism and love of life triumphed over adversity. About 1940, he began sending paintings, first water colours in a loose sketchy style, to the big annual art exhibitions. These he followed up with large imaginative oil paintings of Bombay city-spaces. The critics took notice and Ara's name began to be heard. In 1941, with Japan's entry into the war, Ara lost his employers and decided to become a painter. A year later he held his first one-man show, which was a success, and Ara never looked back.
In the course of the years he won prizes and held innumerable exhibitions, travelled, led the precarious life of an artist, often had little to live on, but always helped others if he had something to spare. He did sets for Indian films and for a time supervised a studio making ceramic tiles.
In the first years of his career as an artist, Ara produced some large compositions which were remarkable for their complete visualisation and organisation. This power of imagination conspicuous from his early days has never left him and has made up for certain crudities and faults in execution. In Dance done in 1941-42 the artist gives an idea of his power of imaginative conception in which space and action are beautifully balanced. In 1944, he won the Governor's Prize for a large water colour Maratha Battle which was later acquired by the Bombay Government. This painting gives a fantastic view of a swaying battle line disappearing in distant dust in which hundreds of figures are marshalled to a pervading rhythm. For one who had learnt his art without formal training, this was achievement indeed. Ara also did landscapes and figure compositions in bold but controlled colours and developed a decisively painterly talent. Already in his early paintings he displays his capacity for creating an ambience which transcends the, mere subject matter. The often stark realism of his style transforms itself into a new reality through the total sentient grasp of his vision.
Still lifes and flower pieces soon became the centre of his interest and have not ceased to fascinate him in more than twenty long years. There has been infinite variety on the one-hand and obvious repetition on the other. The best of his still life’s charm and convince us by the simplicity of their design and the extreme sensitiveness of their colour. When he indicates a white vase against a white background with a few flowers just touched in space, simplicity reaches-what paradox-a degree of sophistication and taste which appears deliberate but rarely is.
Pots and bottles are set against various backgrounds, sometimes in a surrealist manner, and achieve strangely human personalities. The drama of existence the very fact of being, can evolve from the humblest of things in an Ara painting.Poetry is created without a prevalence of toads.
It is in his still lifes that Ara's talent fulfills itself. They do not follow the laboured manner of naturalistic object painting, but are conceived and ordered spontaneously in elegant compositions-compositions where shapes, masses and colours are beautifully balanced. This balance can be felt almost tangibly in the black and white still life reproductions in this book. When all colour values are reduced to grey or black masses, the .essential structure of the painting reveals itself distinctly.
Ara uses colour (almost always water colour) in a great variety of techniques from fluid watery washes to dry impasto. The unity of style and texture in individual paintings and the almost playful evolution of the colour schemes point more than anything else to the primary urges that created them; to the artists abiding and irrepressible joy in the act of painting.
In most of his work, Ara takes his basic forms from nature. Yet the beholders' interest is never centered on or fixed by the subject as such, but is allowed to associate freely with the many and changing images evoked. Occasionally Ara has tried his hand at "abstract" or non-objective painting .but it appears that he neither convinced his public nor himself that he had found a way of personal expression in these experiments. Once he held an exhibition of almost bare canvases slashed by a blade to create rhythmic designs which were meant to interpret Urdu poems.
For many years Ara has painted the female nude in a never ending variety of poses. In some paintings his ambition is defeated by an inherent weakness of drawing, in others he succeeds in translating the observed form into a fully understood visualization of vibrant flesh. Even where his nudes appear to be provocative, they are peculiarly innocent of: voluptuousness and sex, they seem almost detached and devoid of moods. They are just bodies in being, sufficient unto themselves and content to exist. Taken as a whole, the nude paintings, with singular exceptions, do not belong to the best of Ara's work.
In summing up Ara's work one finds it difficult to define his style or styles and his creative personality. Many traits and tendencies fuse in his paintings. Should he be called an impressionist or a romantic realist, if such a combination exists? His great intensity of feeling and vision is often contrasted by technical Imperfection. And yet, there are few painters who can handle colour expressively with as much certainty of touch as Ara in his best work. Once I said of him: "Ara's art has always been intuitive, imaginative, spontaneous and improvised and not deliberate and intellectual, not intent on finding expression through studied and calculated means. This has produced in him a certain eclecticism which is not really imitative and derivative but has led him from style to style in a kind of rambling journey more of discovery than of search".
The real secret of Ara's work possibly reveals itself by long acquaintance. It is to be found in the simple and enduring joy of being able to paint. There is no struggle with fate in Ara's painting, no solving of problems; just the pleasure and the pride of painting as a self sufficient act of life, and as a childhood's dream come true.
Published by Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 1965.