An accomplished limner back in Chennai, this man works long hours at a Dubai grocery to support family. But he's not giving up on his art.
An artist's work is one of patience
I arrived in Dubai in 2007 with only a visit visa and dreams of making my mark as an artist. I am 32 years old, and I studied drawing formally in 2002 at a private institute in Chennai, in southern India. I trained under a well-known Tamil artist named Padmavasan. The course fee was about 20,000 Indian rupees, or approximately Dh1,900. While going to school, I was also working as an assistant art director in Tamil movies, a job I enjoyed. But I quit and moved to Malaysia in 2005, shortly after my son was born, mainly because working in movies and TV serials didn't ensure a fixed monthly income - it depended on the number of projects I had going.
On average, I would make around Dh360 for a 40-day film project. There have been times when I've worked simultaneously on two or three projects, but this schedule was getting difficult after my marriage. My wife didn't appreciate the long and erratic working hours. I exhibited my works once at a major show, in 2004, while I still lived in Chennai. Of the 60 paintings at the show, I sold 20. I could not secure any sponsorship, and had to fund the exhibition on my own. The cost was about Dh2,750, but I recovered my investment through selling the paintings, which netted a total of around Dh7,300.
With my son's birth, we needed a regular income, so I moved abroad. I spent two years in Kuala Lumpur, where I sold many paintings to members of the local Indian community, who were nostalgic for images of Indian culture. I think I sold about 50 paintings - 40 of which were part of that earlier exhibition in Chennai - earning the equivalent of Dh500 to Dh1,000 for each one. My stint in Malaysia was good from a painting point of view, but it didn't afford my family the financial stability we were seeking, so I returned to Chennai in 2007 to rethink my plans.
The needs of the family had increased to the point that I was forced to travel to the UAE to find better employment. I paid about Dh3,500 for the airfare and visa. Luckily, I have a number of friends here, so I stayed with them in Dubai for two months while I tried to find a suitable position that could use my skills as an artist. They were kind enough to host me for free. I wasn't very successful. Without a job to return to in India, I decided to accept a position as a supermarket salesman in Dubai. I liked the employer, and my salary would allow me to send at least Dh800 to my family every month. I would rather not mention the name of the supermarket or my actual salary.
My wife and now five-year-old son live with my parents back in India. The family spends the money I send home on food and education, as my wife is studying for her master's degree in zoology through a long-distance programme. Despite all this, my family tries to save at least half of my remittance, about Dh400, every month. We hope to be able to build a new home, but in today's India we would need at least 400,000 rupees (about Dh31,500) to start this project. We are still far away from saving that much.
Fortunately, I do not have any outstanding debts, and unlike many Indian workers here, I didn't have to pay an agent's fee to find my job. I live in company accommodation in Bur Dubai. For a small fee my company also provides food. I find the arrangement excellent, because I don't have to plan my meals. Every minute I save is a minute I gain for my art. My working hours are from 8am to 1:30pm and from 4:30pm to 10pm. I usually draw and sketch at night, from 11pm to 2am. It's quiet then, and I need silence to concentrate on my art.
When in India, my subjects were always related to Indian culture or popular Indian icons, such as Aishwarya Rai. In the UAE, I have already sketched a number of the country's leaders and Dubai's monuments. I am also preparing a collection of images from the UAE's Arab culture, which I hope to paint as large oil canvases the next time I visit India on holiday. I need more space and time to paint larger canvases. Also, supplies are cheaper back in India.
When I need supplies in Dubai, I usually purchase them from Emirates Trading in Karama. I use a Rotring black-ink pen for my sketches. As the lines of my works vary in thickness, I have to buy several pens in order to produce wider or narrower lines. I brought my Rotring pens from India, as they could easily cost twice as much in Dubai. The pen I use, for instance, costs Dh28 in India, but about Dh50 in Dubai.
The paper I sketch on is a thicker stock, which costs me Dh40 for two large sheets. It takes me at least two weeks to complete a work, so usually I go through two sheets a month. I generally take photographs of the scenes I sketch. Until last month, I was using my friend's camera, but have now spent Dh800 to purchase an Olympus 10-megapixel camera from Carrefour. I don't have time to spend money on anything else - my work and my art keeps me very busy. My only other major expense is telephone calls to India from my mobile, which cost about Dh300 a month.
My dream is to be able to host an exhibition of my work in Dubai. I am aware that there is not much sponsorship available, but it seems that the art network here is organised quite well. I am building a collection of line drawings. I already have about 20 of these, and have begun to explore the different galleries in Dubai. I hope one of them will exhibit some of my works, as I have not seen much line art in the Emirates. An artist's work is one of patience.
The genre of art I have specialised in requires immense composure and patience, as I have to remain extremely focused to work with only lines throughout the painting. The development of this skill has made me even more understanding of the importance of time. Many people have offered to buy my works, especially the scenes of the souqs and Madinat Jumeirah. I have been offered up to Dh1,000 for them, but I prefer to wait and exhibit a larger collection.
It will be much more gratifying to see them as part of a show than to make individual sales. * As told to Vinita Bharadwaj