To many of us the success, professionally at any rate, of Mr. Ali’s recent individual show in Delhi must have caused quite a surprise. All the more so as this was his very first held in the capital. Some people, indeed, received his works with a sense of relied battered and confounded as they have been by a profusion of half-hearted, pseudo-intellectual abstractions. The reaction of the more informed was, as expected, touched with a restraint but was quite complementary on the whole. Yet another reaction was rather summary in its denial of Mr. Ali’s quite obvious talent and was characterised by all the prejudices and inhibitions that form part of a kind of criticism meted out to figurative works these days.
Mr. Ali has been in Delhi for nearly a decade now and has during this period shown his work in several important annual exhibitions held in the capital. His early work does not interest us much. There was nothing special in these early paintings, either by the way of pictorial conception or technique. But there is one recurrent quality in his work right from start- his utter sincerity in what he does and his respect for craftsmanship. These qualities have deepened and matured in the years and have gone far in shaping him as a serious and convincing figurative painter. He has a very sound practical mind which although wide awake to all that is happening around in the world of art takes in only what is suitable and essential.
Till recently Mr. Ali was known for his water colours. These are basically decorative both in conception and treatment and made a mark up to a point. There was a tendency in him to over-do his decorative element and, as all painters in this manner, he lost himself in elaborate details of intricate pattern and design, rendering his work markedly florid at times. One reason, perhaps, for this tendency could be his erstwhile pre-occupation with textile design.
These water colours are, all the same, important to us for two reasons. One, they have given him the discipline and precision which are very significant characteristics of his work today. Two, these water colours point out that the years have not changed his source of inspiration as an artist. Indeed, they confirm his intense dependence upon the objective world, the fascination of the rural scene and people. That he has retained these ingredients despite his singular vulnerability to the quick sands of change in the artistic landscape of the country, testifies to the strength of his character and conviction as a figurative painter. His paintings are peopled with the men and women of the countryside and the Southern coastline with which he is familiar. These stoic, able bodied men and women, the sinewy fisher folk and their pet animals and birds come again and again into his ken.
His preoccupation with these elements is so intense and consistent that he now renders them almost to the point of symbolism. We see in his work the peculiar optimism of the rural folk and their down-to-earth character, attributes which are as much part of Mr. Ali’s own personality notwithstanding of his urban upbringing.
With all this, Mr. Ali’s earlier work remains but tentative and is, at its worst, highly stylised showing up an unwelcome angularity and harshness of line, rigid and obtrusive.
Mr. Ali has left the water colours far behind today. There is no jerk in his development however. The change has been brought about in a subtle manner, gradually and steadily. His new canvases are conceived much more expansively, resulting in well-knit compositions wherein the details and the inessentials peep in but unobtrusively as necessary undertones. There is a greater fusion of design and colour, line and form which was lacking in the earlier work. The various components are no longer merely assembled as before but suggest an integration that can only come about with a broad vision. There is a greater freedom from technique which appeared to have overpowered him in his earlier years. The landscape which was only an indulgence is no longer a backdrop but has come to its own, sometimes overshadowing the figures. Mr. Ali has been a fine draftsman always and a good part of his paintings owe their merit to this. But in a painting drawing is only a suggestion. His pictures are frequently reconstructions and they do not bear out sufficiently the traces of virgin inspiration. This exaggerated drawing and cogitated composition give to some of his paintings a certain kind of immobility which is better avoided. A little more passion for the paint and a little more reliance on spontaneity should render his work an enduring quality. I am inclined to believe that his recent paintings have given us just a glimpse of his personality. But what is seen is imbued with a vitality which holds enough promise to acquire full form and stature.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, Vol xxxiv No. 1 (x2)