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The Painter of Portraits

Mahendra Parashuram Vartak painter First timers to Laxmi Baug, Dharavi, should have no trouble locating Mahendra Parashuram Vartak’s house. A portrait of Shah Rukh Khan adorns the outer wall and a casual assortment of painting tools and supplies lies nearby. SRK looks like he always does – forever young, clear complexioned, dashing – and in this particular portrait, the colours pop out vividly. It is clearly an SRK from the nineties. Vartak has never met the Bollywood mega-superstar in person but replicated the pose from a magazine photo.

Vartak disappears into his house and emerges with a portrait of Salman Khan. “My first painting was of Kamal Hassan, however. He is my favourite actor and my first choice,” he says, looking fondly at the picture. That was the year 1978 and the now 56 year old Vartak was then a young man wandering around Jehangir at Kala Ghoda or Samarth Arts, of Bollywood poster fame, at Dadar.

Inspiration has been his tutor. Having never formally studied the practice of painting, Vartak’s schooldays were spent next to his bench-partner who had a gift for drawing. He observed his friends drawing skills and started practising on his own. The autodidact today works at the BMC’s tuberculosis centre in Dharavi, where he looks after MDR and XDR TB cases. “A government job was most preferred those days for its stability, pension and the promise of a good standard of living. But, had I gotten other options, I would have learnt shoe manufacturing,” says Vartak. Still, no talk about making a full-time business out of painting portraits.

Vartak’s clients are mainly fans of film stars or grieving relatives of those who have expired. Weddings and newborns rarely request these portraits. Vartak again disappears into his house and this time comes out with a portrait of an old man with greyish blue eyes. “My father,” he points out sentimentally, “who passed away in 1993. He was very proud of what I do.” On his canvases, a relative has the same place as a superstar.

Having made more than 150 paintings on canvas and plywood mainly as a hobby, Vartak’s masterpieces could be easily scorned by distinguished art school graduates. There is a touch of the artisanal in his works and his demand for photographs to mimic in his art. He takes about 2 weeks to make a single portrait. Yes, a true artist might be expected to take longer.

Yet. Vartak’s work is part of the dying tradition of Bollywood poster art that preceded the digital era of sophisticated graphics in India. The colours were flamboyant, detailing was restrictive and the purpose of the poster was to capture an essence, a fleeting feeling. More importantly, these were produced quickly to match the release dates of the movie itself. Vartak’s portraits belong to that era when photographs were a luxury.

As we sip some of the chai under Vartak’s roof, which is splattered with paint to mimic a faded galaxy, he introduces us to his family. There is the wife, the son and the cat. He adopted his son five years ago and, on most days, the son knows the truth about his origins. On other days, he believes that his parents are joking. As he doodles on scraps of paper, you wonder if this boy will grow to be an artist too.