Back in 2005, when he was a student at the Government College of Fine Arts in Thrissur, Kerala, Abul Hisham would, every day after class, make his way to the heart of the city — the circular road, Swaraj Round, circling around the hillock known as the Thekkinkadu Maidan. On it stood the imposing Vadakkunnathan Temple. This is the place from where the city radiates outwards, and this is where — whether you’re a tourist or an artist or simply someone with lots of time on your hands — you go to observe how the ordinary citizens of Thrissur live their lives. For someone like Hisham, drawn early to the half-told and half-seen dramas of human lives, there was no better place from which to draw inspiration. “I would go there with my classmates and find these various figures — a group of friends playing cards, a lottery-ticket seller — and make images of them. That was when I started paying attention to the little details,” he says.
Capturing the gestures, expressions and postures of these figures in his sketches was early practice for what would eventually emerge as Hisham’s main artistic preoccupation — storytelling. It is a preoccupation that is fully on display in the 30-year-old’s latest solo, “Recitation”, at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke in Mumbai, featuring eight large works that hint at stories waiting to be told. There’s the group of bathers, their faces frozen in a rictus of terror, as they are watched by a group of wolves in the suggestively named Hidden Obstacles (19th Trap). What are these people so scared of? The wolves, with their gleaming eyes and slavering jaws, or something else? That these bathers, some of whom are captured in postures of piety, are covered in jewels, seems to hint at something far more subtle than the fear of being mauled by wild animals. Then there’s the figure in This or That (Stalker’s Stories), who has been portrayed with his legs folded in a yogic posture. But that’s just the lower half of him, as his torso is covered in what looks like part of an armour.
Intriguingly, his eyes seem to be rolling back in something like ecstasy whereas his hands clasp his knees in a contemplative attitude. Are we in that part of the story where we see a man, keen to immerse himself in contemplation, battle with his other impulses? Or, given the other elements at work in the painting, are we in a different story altogether?
Hisham’s journey as an artist right from his childhood. His father ran an art materials shop in Thrissur, besides being an artist himself. Hisham decided early that this was the path that he would take as well, and, after finishing school, he joined the Government College of Fine Arts to pursue Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in painting. “Originally, I went to college with the idea that I would pursue a career in animation or some form of applied arts, but I soon realised that design was not for me, and that I was more inclined towards painting,“ he says. It also helped that college opened up all sorts of intellectual possibilities. “Thrissur is the cultural capital of Kerala and I was introduced to so many ideas through theatre, music, films. I realised that I could express everything I was learning from these in my painting,” he says. He then went to the SN School of Arts in Hyderabad in 2010 for Master’s of Fine Arts in painting, and was based there until last year, when he moved back to Thrissur. His first two solos, “Domination” (2010) at Kashi Art Gallery in Kochi and “Abul Hisham — New Works” (2014) at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, showed a deft adaptation of influences from art history, cinema and pop culture into works of startling originality.
The new works have a more shadowy feel, with a greater interplay of ambiguity and specificity. Indeed, it is this very quality that makes them seem like folios salvaged from a long-lost album of paintings. Looking at them, it feels like one has stumbled into the middle part of a story already being told. In fact, one of the influences that has shaped Hisham’s artistic expression are the albums created by painters for the Mughal emperors. “I love the idea of albums of Mughal miniatures, which tell a story, such as the Hamzanama. When I saw these, I asked myself why I couldn’t make something like this myself,” says the artist. His endeavour, however, is to capture the drama of the human mind, as it struggles with itself and the world outside. There’s something of a spiritual quest in these works, with hints scattered among the paraphernalia surrounding the figures in the works — incense sticks, prayer beads — and the recurrence of the Arabic words algharur (ego) and raghbat (desire). The artist, who draws on his own personal practice of contemplation for his work says, “The question that drives me now is how to depict the process of contemplation, the conflict between our need to observe our own selves and the need to interact with the world.”