Visitors at the India Art Fair 2017 (IAF) couldn’t have possibly missed a 20-foot-long and 6-foot-high mural at the venue. The mural, titled Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, was painted by Akhlaq Ahmad, who used to paint film posters and juice-shop hoardings earlier. There are more than 1,000 such hoardings painted and signed by him as “Shabbu”, which is his pet name.

The title of the mural is borrowed from the novel of the same name by the Irish writer James Joyce. In it, Ahmad traces his life’s journey (just as Joyce in his novel) from his village Kidwai Purwa in Uttar Pradesh to other multiple locations in India and abroad. Ahmad himself is painted in his mural — seen in the same company as politician Vasundhara Raje Scindia, curator and photographer Ram Rahman and other personalities. The mural depicts Ahmad’s progress as an artist.

“I ran away from home when I was 15, in the year 2000,” says Ahmad. “I was angry at my father who hit me one day when I mismanaged the flow of water in our farm. I anyway never liked to be in the farm and wanted to leave the place. I took Rs 900 and boarded a train to Mumbai after a couple of days of the incident.”

Before boarding the train Ahmad had researched about whom to meet in Mumbai and came to know about his acquaintances working there as tea and food vendors. He stayed with them. “It was fine for some days but after 10-15 days I was told either to go back to the village or do some work. So I, too, started selling tea,” says Ahmad.

But life changed one day when Ahmad went to deliver tea at the Alfred cinema at Pathe Bapurao Marg in Mumbai. He says, “It was fascinating to see artists painting various film posters. They were mixing colours and like me other people were also watching them with awe and admiration. I liked the work and wanted to learn.”

Ahmad got the job of cleaning the palettes and mixing colours for artists, for Rs 50 a day. After his shift got over, he would stick around the studio and closely observe the paintings — trying to pick up fine points of form and technique. But things didn’t go as planned. He says, “I was made to do a lot of running around. Someone asked me for tea, samosa and other things. I was not allowed to observe. I decided to quit the job for something else.”

“I ran away from home when I was 15. I was angry at my father who hit me one day when I mismanaged the flow of water in our farm. I took Rs 900 and boarded a train to Mumbai after a couple of days of the incident.” 
Ahmad took the job of sticking posters on walls at different locations in Mumbai. “I worked at night and studied painting every morning. No one could ask me to fetch some tea now, as I was no more employed by them. I was very happy. I gained a lot of knowledge for two years before moving to Delhi. The work was about to get over in Mumbai and I learnt that few people from my village are painting hoardings for juice shops in Delhi. To keep my work going, I shifted there.”

Life was not trouble-free for Ahmad in the national capital. The work didn’t come easily. To survive he sold omlettes. The job of painting shop hoardings eventually came to him and he also enrolled in Jamia Millia Islamia as a painting student. He says, “At night I would paint the boards and went to the classes in the morning. I never forgot to sign my name and put my phone number on the hoardings. That’s how Hanif Kureshi contacted me.”

Kureshi is one of the founders of ST+ART India Foundation. The organisation has created prominent street works and is currently engaged in painting the Arjangarh metro station on the Yellow Line. Kureshi says, “I wanted someone to create a magazine cover for some publication I was working with as a designer. I saw Ahmad’s work and contacted him. I saw great potential in his work.”

Akhlaq Ahmed in front of the mural pained by him for the IAF 2017, titled Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

Kureshi is a mentor to Ahmad, introducing him to the art community. Ahmad says, “He put me in touch with many artists and curators like Johnny M.L., Ram Rahman, and so on. I further travelled to London and Jaipur for various projects.”

There are many similarities between Ahmad and his favourite artist M.F. Husain. The modernist also started as a humble painter of film posters. People used to gather around Husain when he painted — something similar happens to Ahmad most of the time. And Ahmad, just like Husain, is a prolific painter. “At IAF, Ram Rahman sir called me ‘Chota Husain’ in front of Owaiz Husain (son of M.F. ). I was happy. I don’t know if I will be able to match the excellence of the artist or not, but I feel joyful when someone says so. I feel nice as now I am at least able to earn and support my family,” says Ahmad.

Ahmad has reconciled with his father. He also helps his four brothers and a sister financially so that they can complete their education: “Everything is well at home.”


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