Dawoodi Bohras - Features

Abbas Batliwala

An artist true to himself, true to his soil

Every morning after breakfast you will find Abbas Batliwala in his studio communing with his canvas. “It’s the best time of day,” he says. A time to reflect on inner universe. From its unknown depths emerges an insistent creative urge that has defined his destiny and given him his true calling. If not for this urge Abbas would have been just another shopkeeper. “I’m no more than a salesman,” he says. Not for him the airs of an artist. He makes light of his talent and fame.

The Bohra Dastarkhan: the traditional Bohra way of eating.

But do not mistake his modesty for shyness. He may be the quiet type, but Abbas is a confident, passionate artist who is also a part-time shopkeeper. Actually, artist he is inside out, shop-keeping just came in the way. Or maybe not. 

Ironically, the shop opened up a world before him and the artist in him grabbed it with both hands. But this happy coincidence was unthinkable when he was a gangly, good-for-nothing teenager. He had no talent for Science so becoming a doctor or engineer, the dream of every middle-class parent, was out of the question. Commerce seemed to be the only option left because the Arts was looked down upon and was meant only for girls or rather girls were meant for the Arts only.

Such was the cultural and intellectual milieu in which he grew up. In the late Seventies Udaipur, in middle-class Dawoodi Bohra households with family business, education for boys was a means without an end. Yes, getting through school and college and acquiring some kind of a degree was a nice to have but nothing much was expected of their sons. If they were not bright they ended up sitting at the shop. The girls on the other hand, while they waited to be suitably married off, were allowed to pursue higher studies, right up to PhDs. (That girls ended up being more educated than boys, and how this imbalance disturbed the timid Bohra patriarchy is another story for another time.)

For Abbas too, born in 1958 in a well-to-do family, his future was laid out before him. From early on he realised that the shop is where he is ultimately headed, and to ease his pain he figured he should learn a few tricks of the trade, and decided to take up Commerce in college. But he flunked. Abbas did not care. His father and grandfather cared even less. So long as you could count money you were a suitable shop-keeping material.

His grandfather persuaded him to sit at the shop. And Abbas, with no excuse not to, obliged. But his heart was not into it. “My routine was to spend six hours a day at the shop,” he says, “but the remaining 18 were my own.” Today he can proudly look back and say that he put those 18 hours to good use. He somehow finished college and went on to do Masters in Drawing and Painting at Udaipur University. The seeker had found his path, salvation was only a matter of time.

The suppressed artist in him who had so far found expression in careless doodles and drawings now had a definite focus and purpose. He was a sincere student, and under the guidance of dedicated teachers he learned the techniques of form, colour and control, and honed his talent. He finished his M.A. with a Gold Medal in 1982 and has not looked back since. Abbas is all praise for Shail Choyal, his lecturer who supported him in the early days and helped him climb the “ladder of success”.

What a success it has been. Today Abbas is an established artist of repute and has created his own unique identity and style. The many awards and accolades are testimony to the talent and promise he has shown right from the beginning. Abbas has held solo exhibitions in Udaipur and New Delhi and has participated in many others all over north India. His paintings are on display in museums and are part of private collections in India and abroad. Among the many awards he has received, the one that makes him proud is the 7th Triennale India award he bagged in 1991.

But all that pales before what his home, his family and his community have given him: recognition and respect. “To receive the award of recognition from Sheikh Ahemd Ali Raj on Ali Day is the proudest moment of my life,” Abbas says. This recognition has been a long time coming, though. There was a time when as a young struggling artist nobody believed in him. He had this inner passion to paint, “and I was determined to keep at it, even if nobody encouraged me or appreciated what I wanted to do,” he says.

Abbas Batliwala: Self portrait

People’s indifference was understandable. The calling of an artist did not jive well with the conservative sensibilities of a small-town, traditional Bohra society. For young Bohra men in those days who did not show much promise, their life was cut out for them: attend to the shop and make a profit; attend to the wife and make babies; keep to the straight and narrow and preserve the traditional order of things. That dictum, tried and tested, had served the community well. Besides, in a no-nonsense, trading community which sought munafa (profit) in everything, frivolities such as painting, literature, music were (are) frowned upon as a waste of time.

Abbas had taken to the shop so nobody could at least accuse him of wasting time. But he was not satisfied. After his Masters there were many offers of jobs, even as an Arts’ lecturer, but he turned them down. The shop held a strong appeal for him. For one, it offered him economic security, and for another, enough free time as it was a joint family business and he would share responsibilities with two older brothers. But most importantly, it would also become the source of his inspiration. This he could have scarcely imagined at that time.

According to Pablo Picasso painting is just another way of keeping a diary. What you see, what you experience is what you paint. Abbas saw human drama unfolding before him every day. What seemed like a dead-end career behind the till, he turned it around as material for his diary. “The subject of my paintings are my customers, ordinary village people whom I interact with every day,” he says. The marketplace – Mandi where his shop is – is a hive of commerce and in the midst of this noise and heat Abbas quietly teases out the humanity of ordinary, common people. “I observe people closely.  I talk to the vendors, the chaiwala, the common folk and learn from them.”

Abbas’ paintings are nothing if not a reflection of the world around him. He filters this world through his consciousness and shapes it with his unique style. He describes his genre as a stylised art form. But one can also detect a touch of magical realism in it. The big eyes, slightly distorted forms, bold colours are his signature. As his themes are simple and ordinary so are his colours primary and bright. Not for him the subtleties of pastels, nor the weighty issues of “art for art’s sake” or “art as a political statement”. For him art is because it cannot be helped. “I have this inner urge that needs to be expressed,” he says simply.

“There are times when I spend hours before a blank canvas, waiting for inspiration to strike,” he confesses. And inspiration can come in many forms. “A particular colour, a particular form seems just right for that moment, for that space on canvas. Painting is a little more complex than storytelling,” he says. “The same goes for appreciation of art. It is not necessary for a painting to have any meaning. Sometimes when you look at a work of art, it touches you, you feel a vague sense of joy – that is all there is to it,” Abbas adds.

“At other times, it demands a second look. Just like when you read something and don’t understand it the first time. So it is with art. The artist’s point may not be apparent at first glance, that’s why you see people staring at a painting for a long time. Even then, it would be your interpretation. That’s the beauty of art, it is open and inviting. You can bring your whole universe of experience and emotion into it,” he says.

Even so, no painting can be pigeonholed into one particular meaning. “The artist distills his inner essence into it.  And as an artist I want to remain true to my inner self, my land, my values,” he says. “The internet has opened up the vast world before us. You can go check out what Japanese artists or American artists or African artists are doing. Borrow a little from here and a little from there and create something different. But in all this where is the true artist?” he asks. “He has lost his individuality, his essence,” he says.

Like techno music, techno art overladen with technique is becoming popular. Abbas dismisses new trends and experimentation as fads. “Some artists throw garbage on the street and call it art, but is it?” he asks. Call him old-school, but he is a true son of the soil. He and his many fellow artists in Udaipur are rooted to the land, he says. “For us, the canvas, the brush and the paint are our tools. We don’t need anything else. The smell of the earth, so to speak, the originality of the artist must come through,” he says. “As in literature and in music, you need to find inner balance. You must be comfortable with what you are doing,” he says.

“That is the reason my themes are not grand, but there is a variety in them. Sometimes I’ll do a funny piece, sometimes a reflective one with layers of meaning, it all depends what’s going on in my mind. The bottom line is that I want to remain true to myself," he says. Being “true to myself” is his constant refrain. One look at his paintings and you know why.

Bold colours and rural themes.

You soon discover a pattern, a cadence of colour, warmth and a certain rustic sophistication. The folk motifs, the bold, earthy tones, ordinary settings are elements from the society and people that feed his creative imagination. For example, the big eyes of his subjects are inspired by the statues of Hindu gods. “In my earlier paintings, they (the eyes) used be much bigger but now I’ve toned them down,” he says. Similarly, the ubiquitous puppets, the masks, the kites, the striped chaddi (underpants) and the baniyan (undershirt) feature prominently in an unabashed declaration of everyday reality. He insists on dignifying the vernacular and celebrating the ordinary.

Perhaps that is why his paintings resonate with his audience. He participates in exhibitions every few years, and his painting do sell. “But selling is never the motive,” he says. “The idea is to gain exposure, connect with the audience and other artists.” Rarely he paints to order, and when he does his heart is never into it. “I paint for myself,” he declares. “When I paint, it is time to be by myself. A time of silence and solitude."

Although he admires many great artists, Abbas says he is not influenced by anyone. “My style is my own,” he says. There is no pride in that assertion but only disarming humility. He knows his humble background and can readily relate to the humble beginnings of great masters such as Van Gogh and M. F. Hussain. “Van Gogh died in poverty, you know,” he says. “In college we studied about Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt, Michelangelo etc. And there is one thing common about them; they were passionate about their art. They painted because they had to, and no power in the world could stop them from doing what they wanted to do,” he says.

With such passion and determination extraordinary destinies are forged. Abbas displays both these qualities in good measure, but in his own quiet, unassuming way. “Once you set your mind to it no power in the world can hold you back,” he says.  It is moot though if this claim would still hold if he were not from a Bohra reformist family. The orthodox Dawoodi Bohras (commonly known as Shabab in Udaipur) are encouraged to do business by the priestly class which rules them with an iron hand. Higher education is discouraged, and one can be certain that painting would be condemned outright. If Abbas were part of that upbringing, it is entirely possible that instead of wielding the brush he might be today holding the envelope and prostrating before aamils and shazadas.

Sometime back Abbas had done a painting showing an orthodox Bohra family in the traditional attire (rida and saya, topi) bending typically before a priest with folded hands. In that painting there was also a young boy in whose hand he put an Indian flag. Many people asked him, why the flag? His answer was, “the boy wants freedom.” 

Abbas despairs how (orthodox) Bohras have lost their simplicity and charm. “They look the same and think the same,” he says. “We reformists have shown that it is possible to live with freedom and respect. We maybe few – only a handful – but we are determined and committed. We’re on the path of truth. Just watch, the revolution will come, and when it comes it will explode like a volcano,” he says. 

When that happens Abbas may not be around to record it, but will have hopefully inspired many others to do so. His advice to the youth is, follow your dreams. He followed his, and today comfortably straddles the two worlds of art and business. He breached the traditional mould and yet lived up to his traditional responsibilities as a son, brother, husband, father. Abbas is happily married and has two daughters, 22 and 19. Neither has taken up art, but they inherit a fine legacy - a legacy we can all be proud of.

This morning, Abbas Batliwala is once again in his studio, contemplating the canvas from afar. ”Distance is necessary to gain perspective,” he says. How out of nothing that empty space will become a work of art is a mystery. Like Creation itself. ♦

Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.  - André Gide