Yusuf Arakkal's The Newspaper Reader belongs to a series of paintings in which the artist consciously dealt with the same subject: newsprint in all its meanings, shapes and fashions.
"Among those works which are with collectors across the world, I think this particular work is [the] most satisfying... I was doing this series inspired by newsprint layouts and [their] various manifestations... I have used torn newspaper pieces... I distinctly remember [a] sketch [I made] of a person who was reading a newspaper in three poses – that [is what] I used as the basis for this composition."
Initially, the piece was inspired by the pure graphic quality of a newspaper layout. Up close, the layout seems to disintegrate, leaving the matter entirely to the involvement of the reader. Most readers of newspapers, for example, are thoroughly engaged in their reading, ironically oblivious to their surroundings. After all, even torn pieces of newspaper possess a quality that attracts our attention.
Yusuf Arakkal comes from Kerala, where reading newspaper is not just a habit but an obsession; he mentioned that he himself read four newspapers every morning despite his busy schedule, a habit he formed while still very young. And this particular obsession, whether intellectual, aesthetic or both, seems to be at the very root of this series.
Arakkal had to face tremendous struggle, fighting every inch of the way to become an artist. His early years have a picaresque quality as he describes how he ran away from the comforts of the family home in Kerala, where the name ‘Kerala’ itself is synonymous with the royal family of Arakkal that used to be very prominent in Cannanore in the days of the British Raj. He took a train to Bangalore and found himself on the streets working in tea-shops and railway stations, where he had to fight for his own territory.
Loneliness is perhaps the most significant element in Arakkal's work. No matter what the subject matter or the medium of work, the sheer terror of solitude is what makes Arakkal's work accessible to any audience. It is this terror that both defines and liberates individuals, allowing them to confront themselves in the ambiguous world of art. In the artist's own words: "...the aesthetic problem is most important – that is what interests me every time I go back to my canvas. The message takes second place; otherwise art can end up as slogan shouting."
To those who have been following his work, Arakkal has experimented almost endlessly in different forms of expression: his sculptures in bronze, wood, stone and found objects, for example, are as different from his painted work as can possibly be. In fact, he's even created a public installation: the 'Double Helix' sculpture on Bengaluru's MG Road.
Arakkal has no intention of limiting himself."The need to express myself is so intense that even the medium is not so important." That's why, about a decade back he put his paints and easels aside, and sped away in a Contessa to Kerala which he had left behind 45 years ago. The result was a coffee table book, In Touch with my Roots - A Creative Journey through Kerala, witty, descriptive social commentary on Kerala. The words soon give way to pictures in pen and ink, oils and water colours. "It's fun to wander off somewhere," says Arakkal, "and start a whole new approach to life and art. There should be a thread of continuity of work, but things can still change."