In his village in Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh, people look at him with a lot of admiration in their eyes. He has become a local hero of sort in that backward village. This once run away kid has now come back with money and fame; he has been even looking after his family and the education of his three brothers. Akhlaq Ahmad has now come to terms with such kind of admiration that he enjoys once in a while when he visits the village. But for him, the life in Delhi is still harsh and ridden with the issues of day to day survival. Akhlaq is happy that he is able to pursue the career of an artist though his kind of art is not yet appreciated by the gallery circuit, out there in the street Akhlaq art has become a craze among the people who promote street art and amongst the foreigners who look for some exotic visual stuff from India during their visit. Akhlaq Ahmad is a Delhi based painter who paints in the ‘signboard’ painting style. This article is not about his paintings but more about Akhlaq Ahmad aka Sabbu Painter and his efforts to survive in a big city like Delhi, not only as a painter but also as a dignified human being.
(work by Akhlaq Ahmad)
All the runaway kids are not lucky though many of them turn out to be achievers in real life. Children who run away from home in fact dare two things: they choose to eschew the comfort zone of family however worst the conditions there may be. Two, they choose to push their own limits. They are driven by a strange sense of enquiry. They are alchemists of sorts. It may sound very romantic considering the plights that these kids face on a daily basis in the unprotected streets both in the days and the nights. They are gold diggers and some of them do find gold. One of them is Vicky Roy, a runaway kid from West Bengal who made it big in the scene of international photography. “He is lucky and hardworking,” says Akhlaq. “I am hardworking but luck has not yet bless me,” he says with a chuckle. “May be you have not learnt the ropes,” I insist. “If you learn to market yourself, perhaps luck will smile at you too,” I say. But I am sure that Akhlaq would make it big in the coming years if he sticks to his style and shows inclination to developing concepts that go with his style. And I said before, his style is that of the signboard painters. It is too colourful, demanding attention in a crude way, but it is naive and kitschy, expressing some sort of innocence. There are deliberate puns in it and accidental mistakes; together they make the signboard painters’ style and Akhlaq is a master of it.
(Akhlaq Ahmad with his work)
Akhlaq did not learn this style from any university though he is a post graduate in painting from the famous fine arts department of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. He learnt it from the university called life and its classrooms were the studios that made huge cinema banners and hoardings. Akhlaq was not an artist like many artists who say that they had started quite early. I remember F.N.Souza saying that he did his first drawing in his mother’s womb. In this sense he had overtaken both Raja Ravi Varma and Pablo Picasso; both of them were child prodigies and found their first canvas on the walls of their parental houses. Akhlaq accepts that when he was in the village as a high school student the maximum drawing that he did were copying some images from the science text books to the note books. “I was not blessed with drawing skills and in the village I was not even thinking of becoming an artist,” says he. It would be interesting to know how his tryst with art happened.
(a painting by Akhlaq Ahmad)
Born in 1985 on the first day of the month of January, Akhlaq was the third amongst the six children his parents had. He and his elder brother were close as there was not a huge age gap between them. They were well off as they lived in a joint family. Once the family division happened, Akhlaq’s father decided to do some farming. The boys were sent to the farm for irrigating the field. But like in stories, after playing enough with whatever was available on the way to the farm, the boys were very sleepy and they slept off under a tree. When the father came to the field, he saw his sleeping sons. Scolding, he woke them up from their slumber and father’s ire was so much that he said that if anything went wrong with the crop they were going to face it. Hearing this Akhlaq decided to leave home. Stealing some money from home, he jumped into the first train available and reached Mumbai.
(work by Akhlaq Ahmad)
It was in 2000. Akhlaq knew that a lot of people from his village were living in Mumbai and he had heard a lot of stories about them from the village folk. Somehow he managed to reach a place called Lal Mitti Bandra in Mumbai where his kinsmen lived. They were surprised to see him there but offered to give him work for a few days to earn some money and go back. Most of them were tea sellers and a fifteen year old Akhlaq also started selling tea and his first assignment as a tea boy was in Kamatipura, Mumbai’s red light district. “In the vicinity there was a cinema hall and its name was Alfred Cinema,” Akhlaq remembers that day fondly. It was on that day his destiny took a different turn. Next to it was a shack studio where artists made huge film hoardings. “I asked for a job and immediately I landed up in a job, which was washing and cleaning the brushes,” smiles Akhlaq. Life became a bit easier then as he started getting Twenty Five rupees per day. “It was enough for food and other expenses and I used to sleep in footpath with friends.” One day the studio owner asked him whether he could take the boards to different cinema halls and bring them back. “It was more exciting than washing and cleaning the brushes and I started getting a daily payment of Rs.300/-“ Akhlaq was very confident then to live in Mumbai.
(a work by Akhlaq Ahmad displayed at Jaipur Literature Festival)
Somehow, Akhlaq was interested to see what is going on in the studios. It was then he got an opportunity to work in another studio. “It was a sort of poaching the helping hands from one studio by the other studio owners,” says Akhlaq. In the new studio, he was given a chance to fill in calligraphy and huge areas on the board with colour. “They did not allow beginners like us to do work on board. My initial training was to write small letters, like subtitles (Jai-Veeru Band- the king of music). The main lettering will be done by the master artist (for example Jai-Veeru Band) and the trainee will get to write only the subtitle (the king of music). Instead of board or canvas, we were given gunny bags. I used to get paid Rs.25/- for this.” Training went on for months and finally Akhlaq got promotion as a first assistant and he got the chance to paint on boards. “Once I got mastery in working on board with poster and enamel colours, one of my friends told me to go and meet Babu Bhai in Mahim, where he used to run a studio. I got a job in Babu Bhai studio as a hoarding painter and I started earning money.”
(A commissioned street art piece by Akhlaq Ahmad)
Back home, the initial irritation and anger of the parents gave way to some kind of rejoice as their run away son started sending money for the upkeep of home. Besides, he was taking interest in the studies of his younger and older siblings. Years went by and Sabbu painter became his signature as he used to be called Sabbu at home. Even then he never had any idea about Delhi or something called fine arts. “In the studio, other people used to talk about famous artists and the kind of money that they make. But I used to think that those were just exaggerated stories.” But things took a different turn for Sabbu when Babu Bhai’s daughter once asked him to accompany her to her home studio. “She was a student in Sir J.J.School of Art. Once I went inside her studio, she asked me to take off my shirt. I was aghast. I refused to do so. She laughed. She told me that she wanted to draw my body and it was how she was taught art in her college. I was not convinced and I doubted her intentions,” Akhlaq remembers. One day, this girl took him to Sir J.J.School of Art. “It was where I came to know that art could be taught in such big buildings. Babu Bhai’s daughter explained things to me. She also told me that if I passed Intermediate, I could also join the college to study art. I laughed it aside.”
(Akhlaq Ahmad- work in progress)
Mumbai was getting on his nerves and Akhlaq decided to leave the place for good. His sister’s marriage took him to Lucknow, where he approached a studio for work. “Instead of brush, they gave me a broom. They asked me to clean the studio.” Akhlaq’s dignity was questioned there. He did not want to accept that job. “For the first time in my life I uttered the word ‘artist’ with so much of confidence and I told him that I am not here to do cleaning. I am an ARTIST.” Such egos were nipped in bud in small towns. Akhlaq found himself in another studio where a benevolent gentleman told him to go to Delhi and gave him some studio addresses in Old Delhi. “I went to studios like Jolly Studio, Baba Studio and so on but they did not give me any work as they were also running out of job due to digital technique on flex boards.” Akhlaq had a different reality to face in Delhi. But there too his kinsmen from village came up with help. Many of his village men were staying in Laddo Sarai area and most of them were either ‘egg sellers’ meaning ‘omelette and bread’ makers or juice stall vendors. Some of them were paan waalas. One of his friends there suggested to start an ‘ande ki redi’ means makeshift shop for Omelettes. Akhlaq started off his Delhi life as an omelette maker.
( A project work by Akhlaq Ahmad)
One of his uncles was a principal in Azad College in UP. He told him to appear for Intermediate examinations as a private student. Akhlaq suddenly remembered Babu Bhai’s daughter’s words. If he could pass intermediate exams, he could study art in a college. He did enrol as a private student and to his own surprise he passed with comfortable numbers. Akhlaq applied for BFA fine arts in Jamia Millia Islamia and he did not get through because of his ‘bad English’. “I worked on it for a year and next time I applied again and got through,” Akhlaq joined Jamia in 2008 and came out as a post graduate in 2014. But life was not easy. He was looking for some additional earning. One day, a friend of his who was running a cane juice stall asked him to paint a sign board for his trolley shop, which Akhlaq did. Suddenly, many juice sellers in Delhi wanted similar signboards for their shops. It was the turning point in Akhlaq’s life. After college hours, sharp at five o clock in the evening he ran to start his omelette shop and till ten at night he sold omelettes and then rushed to do the painting assignments in distant places. He worked till two o clock in the early morning. After catching a few hours of sleep he got back to college in the morning sharp at eight o clock. “Nobody knew how I managed my studies as they never saw me doing a job,” Akhlaq remembers.
( a project work by Akhlaq Ahmad)
Akhlaq was slowly becoming a craze amongst the juice sellers in Delhi. Everybody wanted an Akhlaq signboard. He started painting, “sometimes for thousand rupees, sometimes for three hundred rupees and sometimes for a song,” Akhlaq smiles. He could not have complained because many of them had helped him during his initial days. Now he started getting calls from totally strange people of which many were foreigners (the trend still continues). “I sign ‘sabbu artist’ and add my mobile phone number on the boards. People call me and ask me to paint signboard style paintings for them. They are all small works and people prefer to give it as exotic gifts to their friends. I started getting money and it continues even today.” As he started earning decently, Akhlaq brought his elder brother to Delhi and put him in Jamia. Today his brother is a MSc B.Ed and has appeared for the UGC’s NET examination. He also supports his younger siblings who are in tenth and eighth standard respectively. Akhlaq wants them to come to Delhi for further studies.
(Hanif Kureshi, artist and Akhlaq's mentor)
2011 was a milestone in Akhlaq’s life. He was in the final year BFA. One day someone called him and introduced himself as ‘Hanif’. An early lone crusader for public art and street art in Delhi, Hanif Kureshi, as an advertising professional working with the brand W+K company, was looking for a person who could do hand painted typography. Hanif saw a juice stall board and he liked it instantly. He picked up the phone and called in the number painted on the board. Akhlaq picked up the call and the rest is history. Hanif liked his work instantly and started getting public commissions and international festivals for Akhlaq. With Hanif, Akhlaq travelled to England, Goa, Pune and so on to present his works in street art festivals. Hanif has also made a short film on Akhlaq. With Hanif’s introduction and the well wishers like Jaipur Literature Festival’s Sanjoy Roy and Ojas Art’s Anubhav Nath, Akhlaq became an exotic painter though he has not yet got his gallery debut. “I get project based works and also the commission works that help me going. But I aspire for gallery based exhibition too.”
(Akhlaq with a T-shirt designed by him)
Fame has not changed Sabbu the painter aka Akhlaq. “Television programs and newspaper articles, and above all the money that I send home and the support that I give to my brothers, have made the village people to grow awe and respect for me.” Some of them thought it was an easy walkover and they came over to work with Akhlaq and learn the tricks. “Once they come to know that it is not as easy as it looks, they go back.” Ram Rahman, the photography artist when he was one of the curators of the second edition of the now defunct United Art Fair invited Akhlaq to do some works there, which brought him a lot of attention. Besides he has worked in Apeejay Media Gallery in Badarpur Border, A huge property wall in Kandivili East in Mumbai and ‘IN Box Project’ in Delhi. There are many in the pipeline but his dream is to exhibit in major galleries. “I have a dream,” says Akhlaq. “Is it like becoming another M.F.Husain?” I ask keeping Husain’s training as a hoarding painter in Bombay. Akhlaq laughs. “Ram Rahman introduces me to people saying ‘here is the small Husain and big Husain in the making’ and many other people have cited this parallel. But to be frank, I do not have anything common with Husain. He was a versatile artist. I do not know whether I could claim that versatility.” Life goes on so are the aspirations of Akhlaq. He remembers an incident when Hanif came to do a promo shoot for him in the campus of Jamia. “Hanif asked me to go and sit near my friends, the contemporary painters. They were told that they were on camera. But they pushed me away saying that I was not their kind of painter. They were mocking me calling me Husain. I did not know if they were serious or it was just a prank.” Akhlaq remains silent for a moment. I feel here is an artist who could go places provided some major gallery comes forward to direct and support his works and life. Till then we could wish him all the best.