By Shevlin Sebastian
Photo of Asif Ali by Melton Antony; the participating artists
In 1993, art impresario Asif Ali was preparing to hold a cultural show at the poolside auditorium of Al-Nasr Leisureland, Dubai. One of the participating artists, Gokulan Thrissur did a painting of the back of a woman who was playing the veena. Asif got it hung as a backdrop.
When a senior plainclothes policeman, who had come to inspect the auditorium, saw the backdrop, he said that this was not allowed. So, he went to get more policemen, so that he could arrest Asif.
“I did not know that in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) you could not draw pictures of a woman, and put it up in public,” says Asif. “But now I was in danger of being imprisoned.”
But a quick-thinking Asif told Gokulan to make the girl’s head like a sun and the veena like a mountain. After half an hour when the policeman returned with a couple of his colleagues, the painting was completely changed.
The policeman looked shocked. Then he smiled, shook his head, and said, “You Indians are too talented.”
The show was allowed to go ahead and it was a success. Emboldened, in 1994, Asif decided to go ahead with his first painting exhibition at Sharjah. The works of five artists were showcased. Among them was Asif’s younger brother Riyas Komu, who, later, along with fellow artist Bose Krishnamchari founded the Kochi Muziris Biennale in December, 2012.
Asif recounted all this while he stood among paintings of his 100th exhibition called ‘Chithra Chantha’ (Art Mart), which he has organised with cartoonist Ibraham Badhusha at the Oberon Mall at Kochi. More than 100 artists are taking part, showcasing more than 250 paintings, woodworks, photographs and sculptures.
Among them are paintings by Sindhu, the wife of the late Mollywood director Lohithadas, actress Sheela, and Vinitha Anand, the granddaughter of the legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma. Mainstream artists like Jimmy Mathew, Dudu Unni, Sara Hussain and Raveendran Valappad are also taking part.
Some artists have different reasons for taking part. Renjith Thekkoote wants to build a house from the money that he earns by selling his works at the exhibition. Two artists are in hospital: Johnson Aluva and Ummer Thathapilly. “They are hoping to get buyers for their their works, so that they can pay the hospital bills,” says Asif.
As Asif talks, small groups of people step into the exhibition area on the fifth floor. “Art is catching on among ordinary people,” he says. “Those who build new homes would like to put up works of art. The Biennale has also made a difference.”
But Asif readily admits that cinema is the first love of the people. “When you watch a film, you can follow the story,” he says. “And it is usually stories about the people we know and hence can relate to. However, when you look at an art work, there are many stories but they remain hidden within the canvas. In fact, when you look at a work, you have to make up your own story. And that is not easy.”
Nevertheless, that has never discouraged Asif. After spending more than twenty years in Sharjah, working in the advertising and marketing sectors, Asif settled down in Aluva and started the Komusons Art Gallery in 2007. Thus far, he has held exhibitions in Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, Kodungallur, Kochi, Nedumbassery and Fort Kochi. “I enjoy encouraging artists,” he says.
When asked about their character, Asif says, “They are moody and over-sensitive. Most of them are loners. They tend to avoid conflicts. For them, art is a passion. They are looking for creative fulfillment. When they start a work, they forget the outside world and concentrate deeply. They will only reconnect with others after the work is over. Their satisfaction comes from the work. It is not that they create works of art because they want to sell them. In fact, most artists are poor at marketing. In Mumbai, there are curators who do the marketing. In Kerala, this is where I come in.”
Apart from being an art promoter, Asif has been a photographer, and produced and directed numerous TV commercials, radio advertisements, documentaries, songs, and serials, apart from cultural programmes. “Life is short,” says the 67-year-old. “I want to make the most of it.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)