Ibrahim, the maverick

April 29, 2022 at 9:15 PMApr (Cinema, Friends, Literature, Media, Poetry, Slice Of Life)

“Hello. Would you have the contact details of Ibrahim Rayintakath?” asked a stranger via DM on Facebook. When I told the stranger I was not in touch with Ibrahim and did not have his contact details, the person said, “I am impressed by his illustration featured as today’s google doodle. So I wanted to contact him”. What?- I exclaimed! I had not seen that day’s google doodle. So Immediately I checked and it was an illustration whose style, though brilliant, did not seem like that of Ibrahim. I checked if it was actually by him and yes, it was by him. A smile appeared on my face- ear to ear! I kept looking at the google doodle for a while and then just lifted my head a bit to look up at a painting hanging on the wall of my room; a painting of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, which Ibrahim had painted for me when we were still students at the film institute (FTII). Looking at both- Faiz and the google doodle of that day- I realized how his style had changed quite significantly, and I was happy that he, unlike many including me, was not stagnating, and was growing as an artist. The smile on my face was still in place and the stretched smile relaxed only when unconsciously a voice from my heart took wings through the lips- Kutty!

Kutty- that is how Ibrahim was referred to and popularly known on campus.

A decade ago… Few months had passed since we entered the campus and our batch of screenwriting was at a crucial junction in developing our first screenplay for submissions. My writing had kept me awake even at an hour when the hostel had gone silent, which wouldn’t happen a couple of hours past midnight. Unable to fight sleep anymore, I decided to shut my laptop and hit the bed. Just when I was about to switch off the light, I saw the water bottle on my table was almost empty. Picking it up from the table, I walked out of the room, to get the bottle filled from the water cooler placed on the floor below ours. As I got down the stairs and reached the floor below, there, next to the lift, stood a lean guy, with sandpaper beard, sketching on the wall. The sketch was a portrait of the maverick filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak! Who is this fellow?- I asked myself in silence, with jaws dropped. Though tempted to ask the man himself, his unwavering focus on his work made it not just difficult but impossible. I stood for a while admiring Ritwik Ghatak being brought to life telling myself, “If God exists and s/he really ‘makes’ us and sends us to earth, maybe this is how s/he worked in the time of Ghatak’s creation”. I filled the water, got back to the same spot, stood for a while more till Ghatak’s painting was completed, and then went back to my room.

Next day I narrated all of this to my roommate Lohit. Incidentally, our friend Maisam, from the Direction dept, was visiting our room then. He said, “That is Kutty. He is from the Art Direction department”. The Direction and Art Direction students had some common classes during the first module and that is how Maisam knew of Kutty, who largely remained silent and recluse from things happening on campus. “Do you know him?” I asked and Maisam answered in the positive. I requested Maisam to take me to Kutty’s room and introduce me to him. Maisam agreed and we went to Kutty’s room. In my mind, I had decided to request Kutty make a painting of Gulzar on the walls of our room. I had shared it with Lohit and taken his consent as well. While discussing this, Maisam had spoken about how Kutty has done paintings of his fav filmmakers on his room wall! When we knocked at the door and Kutty’s roommate opened the door, I could immediately see on the wall a huge painting of my fav filmmaker G. Aravindan! I was floored by how Kutty in his painting of Aravindan had not just done the face of the man but also captured the serenity and calmness of his personality, which was starkly different from the restless personality of Ghatak, which he had captured in his painting of Ghatak too, which I had witnessed just the previous night! Now realizing the extraordinariness of Kutty, I hesitated to ask him if he would do a painting of Gulzar in our room. While I was tossing a coin in my mind, Kutty, who was not visible until then came forward. Maisam introduced me to him. Kutty smiled and said nothing. The smile was welcoming. The coin I had flipped in my mind was still mid-air, Maisam told Kutty why I wanted to meet Kutty. I got a bit uncomfortable and irritatedly turned towards Maisam, almost asking- why did you have to say it? But before I could say anything, I heard someone in the other direction say, “Okay. Will do”. That was Kutty! Now I was smiling ear to ear, which did not end even when the joyful ‘thank you’ came out of my mouth! I immediately asked Kutty, “Please tell me how much you charge for a painting?” Kutty shook his head to say he doesn’t charge. I said, “No, that is not done”, and Kutty interrupted to say, “No, its okay”. It is hard to argue or negotiate with people who are largely silent and keep to themselves. I asked if I could at least get the paints that would be required, and Kutty said no, this time not by shaking his head but by gesturing the same with his hands. We then decided on a day and time for Kutty to come to 404, New Hostel, and do a painting of Gulzar.

Kutty came casually carrying the essentials- pencil, paint, and brush! We moved the bed, cots, and tables in the room and made space for the magic to begin. Kutty stared at the blank wall, made a mental assessment, and took out the image of Gulzar I had given him. Rahul, my classmate, immediately ran to his room and got his camera. “Let me capture the entire process,” he said. Kutty was moving his fingers in the air, staring at the wall from a distance, making an invisible draft of the painting. After a while, Kutty slowly moved closer to the wall. Rahul began to set the focus of his camera. Kutty raised his hand which held a pencil and drew the first line. Click came the sound from where Rahul stood. Magic had begun to unfold.

In the next couple of hours, Kutty brought Gulzar to life in our room. It was like Gulzar had slowly emerged out of the wall. Rahul had captured every stage of the painting on his camera. We proudly said- Now Gulzar is also our roommate! In the end, Kutty posed with the painting for the camera, and Kutty and I together also posed with Gulzar for the camera. These pictures, in a day, went on Facebook. The whole of campus got to know about the painting Kutty did in our room. Some friends visited the room to see the painting and if we ever kept the room door half-open, passersby would peep in and say a word or two admiring the painting. Above all the room’s atmosphere changed with Gulzar coming in, through Kutty. The space which through our living there had already become personal, became even more personal, and our attachment to the room got a bit more intense! Because of Kutty!

Life went on and whenever Kutty and I crossed paths we just exchanged smiles and travelled in our own orbits. But that simple, unpretentious smile of Kutty would recharge my soul. We never met for coffee/ tea. We never sat and discussed cinema or art or even our own lives. But we developed fondness for each other in silence. Some months later, on realizing that I would have to vacate the hostel at the end of the course and with that my relation with the Gulzar painting would come to an end, I requested Kutty to do a painting on canvas which I can carry home with me. He suggested this time we do something other than Gulzar. I had to decide and after much thought, I decided to request Kutty to do a painting of Faiz. I went and bought a good canvas, some paints and brushes in the next few days and informed Kutty about it. One fine afternoon Kutty came to 404 and brought Faiz to life on canvas. Though he had not read Faiz, he almost gave the painting a touch that captured the mood of Faiz’s aesthetics. The strokes of the Faiz painting were different from that of Gulzar, both captured their essence. How did Kutty grasp this? – I still do not know. The magical and mystical nature of creative energy is such, perhaps!

I again took a photo of the painting made by Kutty and posted it on Facebook. Several weeks later one night while sitting and chatting under the Wisdom Tree, fellow student Shwetabh Singh asked, “How do you convince Kutty to do paintings after paintings for you?” and I very casually said, “It requires no convincing. Make a request and he will just do it. He doesn’t throw weight.” Shwetabh expressed disbelief by staring at me with raised eyebrows for a moment. He then told me how some of them had requested Kutty to do a painting for them in their room and Kutty made some excuse! It just made me feel very very special, though I couldn’t understand why he had not agreed to do painting for others. Kutty is a man who follows his heart, his intuition- I realized, and I was glad his intuitive feeling had not come in the way between him and me.

Recollecting all of this, when a stranger on Facebook asked me about Kutty after seeing the google doodle made by him, I wondered where Kutty was! I had not kept in touch with him after I left the campus. We had hardly spoken, so keeping in touch via email or texts made no sense to me, or rather felt very artificial for our silent friendship. But after all those years now I just wanted to know where Kutty is and wished to get in touch with him. I immediately rang Lohit, my former classmate and roommate at the film institute, who had taken admission in the Direction course and was back on campus. He told me how Kutty discontinued his schooling at the film institute after the first year and never got back to complete it! He also told me that Kutty did not keep in touch with anyone from the batch and so nobody knows where he is! I was shocked. But on reflecting the kind of person and artist Kutty as I had seen him, I realized it isn’t surprising that Kutty did not complete the course, discontinued schooling and did not keep in touch with anyone. He was his own master and will always be- I told myself.

That evening Lohit called to tell me Shahi is in touch with Kutty and said he had collected Kutty’s number from Shahi for me. I was overjoyed when he said this and promptly sent me the number soon after disconnecting the call. Once the number landed in my inbox, I wasn’t sure if I should contact Kutty, because we had hardly spoken and also because he had consciously not remained in touch with many from the institute. Contemplating on whether to get in touch with Kutty or not, I took two days to finally drop a text to Kutty. “Hi, this is Samvartha,” I texted. After a few hours, when Kutty saw the text, he immediately replied, “Man! So good to hear from you” and followed it up with, “It has been long,” and then immediately with something that I did not expect coming. He said, “Did you make any films? If you are making films, I will do the posters for all your films.” Kutty had again brought a broad smile on my face and tears into my eyes! “I haven’t done any films yet. I don’t see myself doing one either. But, in case some miracle happens and I end up doing a film, you can do the posters!” The conversation, as expected, did not last long. But it did not feel abrupt, awkward or anything. Even in its brevity it was complete and fulfilling.

For over a year we occasionally texted each other- never asking how the other person is- but sharing some work which we thought/ felt the other person would be interested in engaging with. Then there was a long period of silence. It is during this phase that I had started working on translation of Nagraj Manjule’s poetry collection unhaachya kataaviruddh to Kannada.

After four drafts when I finally met Nagraj Manjule, had an elaborate discussion with him about his poems and my translation, I had decided to rework on the translation one last time and that would be my final draft. Soon after my return from Pune I began reworking on the final draft and also getting ready to go to Trivandrum for the International Film Festival of Kerala, a yearly ritual friend Rachita and I had put into place. Since it was the final draft I was working on and because my translation had been approved by Nagraj, I had started dreaming about the book coming out soon. I had happily communicated to the publisher Kishore that the final version of the translation will be ready soon and suggested he gets ready to publish the book. Kishore was happy and got into the logistics of it. He said, “Once your manuscript is ready we need to do pagination, get an ISBN, and we also need to get the cover page designed”.

After the conversation with Kishore, I was telling Rachita how nice it is to have her by me when these developments are taking place because she was by me when the whole act of translation began. I was also updating her about the journey the translation work has made and how now we are discussing the final stages. Maybe because I was in Kerala or maybe because I was with a friend from the film institute, or maybe because of both combined, or maybe because of destiny, while being preoccupied with the cover design, about which I was discussing with Rachita, I suddenly remembered Kutty! I jumped in the middle of our walk back to the room after dinner, stopped Rachita then and there and asked, “How about asking Kutty to do the cover design?” Of course it had been years and Rachita couldn’t immediately recollect Kutty. “Who Kutty?” she asked. “arrey!” I exclaimed and said, “Ibrahim Kutty, the one who painted Gulzar on the hostel wall”, I said. “Wonderful!” said Rachita in her signature style. Once we got back to the room, I kept typing messages, editing it, rephrasing it etc to send Kutty, to check if he could do the cover design for my book. I was unhappy with every text I had typed, so I decided to give it time and do it the following day.

Next morning while having breakfast, I decided to send a voice note to Kutty instead of a written text. “You once told me you would do the posters for my film. I don’t see myself doing films. But now I have a book ready to be published. Will you do the cover page for it?” I asked in a long voice note where I also explained about the collection unhaachya kaTaaviruddh and the poet Nagraj Manjule. In no time Kutty replied saying he would happily do the cover page. I was overjoyed. Kutty then said to do an appropriate cover design he wanted me to send him the translation of the poems because he did not understand Marathi! Damn! With a sad face I replied to him saying my translation was in Kannada and not in English. “I understand neither of them,” said Kutty and before I could process it, he said, “But I want to do this”. Kutty and I then got on to a call… I was hearing the voice of Kutty after so long! I was happy that he wanted to do the cover page and that I was hearing his voice after so long. In that joyful conversation without me realizing the coffee on the table got cold. But Kutty and I had made a breakthrough. Kutty asked me if I could do an English translation of the poems and also suggested that I could come up with two books simultaneously. I laughed aloud and told Kutty that I am not confident about my English. Kutty asked me to forget about publishing the English translation, but asked if I could do an English translation of these poems just for him to get a sense of the poems. I wasn’t confident even to do that. So I suggested doing a prosaic English translation of the poems and give explanations for the same. Kutty agreed to it. I told Kutty that I would not do a prosaic translation of each poem but only a few, the ones which I think are important and capture the mood of the collection, sufficient enough to hint Kutty on the kind of cover page he could design.

In the next few days I did a prosaic translation of six to seven poems of Nagraj Manjule into English. All for Kutty. On returning home I added Kutty to the chain mail that was being exchanged between Kishore, the publisher, Prajna who was doing the proofreading of all the drafts and me. Introducing Kutty to Kishore and Prajna, I announced that Kutty would be doing the cover-page and also shared with them his earlier works- of Gulzar and Faiz- for them to get an understanding of Kutty and his works. The two of them happily applauded the decision of bringing in Kutty. In a couple of weeks Kutty sent a design for the cover page, an absolutely new style from Kutty! In a few lines he had explained how he did not want to illustrate any poem’s content but wanted to create, through his art, an emotional atmosphere that tunes the readers to the poems. As much as I liked the idea and the thought behind it, I somehow wasn’t convinced entirely by the cover he had prepared. Maybe it was my own bias which was looking for a certain style of Kutty which I associated him with. But Kutty, being the maverik artist that he is, continuously redefining himself and growing in style, had reached newer horizons. Since my relation with Kutty hasnt been either intimate nor just transactional, I could just sit and write a mail to Kutty explaining what about Nagraj’s poems speaks to me, why I find that voice important, why this collection, this translation means so much to me and where I personally stand in my life, what my worldview is and how this project is a reflection of all that. Kutty, the aloof and silent, did not reply to the mail. But in a few days he sent me a rough sketch of the gulmohar flowers, and in a line responded to my mail which showed how he had grasped the essence of my thoughts just perfectly. The cover design by itself spoke for it too! Kutty again made me smile ear to ear… But it was not for too long. Now, Kutty shared his vision of not wanting to use any available font for the cover. “A handwritten text of the title will go well with this,” he said. I agreed with his vision but how were we to make it happen? Kutty doesn’t know Kannada, and I don’t know how to use technology, software etc. Years ago when Kutty had to write a couplet of Faiz on canvas, to accompany the painting, I had written the text in Devnagri script. It was possible also because Kutty and I were in the same physical space and it was manual. Now we were not in the same space and the writing involved technology! There was a knot which had to be disentangled. Kutty then came up with an idea. He said, “Write the text in Kannada and send it to me. I will replicate it here and then you can check if I have got it right.” The idea appealed to me. But now the problem was this- over the years, unused to writing after making a shift to typing, my handwriting had turned worse than what it originally was. So, I made my parents write on a sheet of paper ‘bisilina shaDyantrada viruddha‘- Kannada title of the book, took an image of it and sent it to Kutty. I had used arrow marks to show how the strokes move while writing. Following the cue, Kutty recreated the Kannada alphabets and sketched the title which looked ragefully blossomed- like the central image of the title poem! With that the cover page was almost final. Kutty shared it on the chain mail and Kishore and Prajna also welcomed it.

The time and effort that went into translating unhachya kaTaaviruddh is a story in itself. It took over 6 drafts and the story spans between 2016 and 2022. The process of translation which began in full force in the 2018 monsoon, reached a final stage at the end of 2019 Dec. The plan then was to release the book in 2020 April. When the pandemic hit and the planned release of bisilina shaDyantrada viruddha had to be postponed indefinitely, it ached my heart very much. In those days I have just watched the cover page designed by Kutty and felt better.

In the time between 2020 and 2022 when the release got delayed, I narrated to all my students, batch after batch, the story of translating Nagraj’s poetry collection and also showed them the cover page designed by Kutty. When the world was moving at a different pace and life was flipping between the real and the unreal, and the journey of translation began seeming distant and hence a bit unreal, the cover page made the entire journey seem real. I held on to it.

During this phase, I did get frustrated several times and expressed it before Nagraj Manjule. At times I urged him to agree for an online release event. But Nagraj Manjule convinced me in return to be patient, wait for things to get back to normal. “When you have put so much of effort, why not have the book released in a celebratory manner?” he would ask. Then one day he said, “Even my film has not released because of the pandemic. So I understand your frustration. Let Jhund release first and then after a month of its release, let us release your book”. Those words convinced me entirely.

In Feb 2022 when the release dates of Jhund was announced, I could slowly see my book also coming to life. A conversation with Nagraj enabled us to decide on a tentative date for the release. I immediately dropped a text to Kishore and Kutty to get ready for the final lap of the journey. My enthusiasm was out of control and in consultation with Rajaram Tallur, the preparation began. But there was no response from Kutty. Weeks passed and Kutty hadn’t responded. I sent reminders. No response. Knowing Kutty’s elusive and maverick swabhaava, his sudden disappearance wasn’t surprising. But then, I was getting worried about both- Kutty and the book. So finally I sent a melodramatic text saying it was urgent and Kutty replied saying he has been unwell and has moved to his hometown and his laptop, in which all the works are there, is not with him! My concern about both reached next level. But it is not possbible for me to prioritize anything over human life. Hence, I decided to ask Kutty to not worry and take care of himself. But by then Kutty said its possible that the raw files of the page are on his mail which he can access. He asked for some time to look for it. In a couple of hours the raw files landed in my inbox. On the other hand, by then, the inner pages of the books were designed and ready. Now the cover page was wedded to the inside pages and made ready for print. And in a day, the book was sent to the press.

Few days later Kishore sent some images of the published book. People from the press had clicked photos and sent it to Kishore, which he had forwarded it to me. The quality of the image wasn’t that great and as a result the book cover looked a bit weak. My heart became heavy. But I did not know what to do but hope that the books in real look much different from what it looks in the photograph. That night when Kishore and I spoke, we decided that it would be better if the books are sent to Udupi directly where the book launch event is happening rather than sending them to Bangalore where Kishore lives and then him bringing them to Udupi. Two days later the books were sent to Udupi from Bombay where the book was printed. With my friend Vivek I went to the bus-stop to collect the cartons that carried the books. I was keeping my fingers crossed while driving back home with a carton of books before me, and Vivek sitting behind me on the scooter holding one carton of books.

On reaching home, very anxiously I opened the carton and against all my fears, the book cover had come out extremely beautiful. I held the book in my hand like a young girl holding her birthday gift- a frock that she had desired for long! After checking if the print of the inside pages are fine, and showing my parents the copy, I immediately rang Kutty. It was a video call for I wanted to show him the book. I wasn’t sure if he had recovered, and if he would answer. To my luck Kutty answered and I saw Kutty’s face after almost 9 years! He was smiling, as he always did, ear to ear, and on seeing his face, I too was smiling ear to ear. I showed him the book, with twinkle in my eyes. He got super excited and said, “Oh! Finally!” and I joined him in repeating, “yes, finally!”

Unfortunately Kutty couldn’t attend the book launch event. Few days after the launch, I sent Kutty a copy of the book. When it reached him, Kutty sent an image of it via whatsapp. I could imagine him smiling ear to ear. I texted back asking if he is happy with the outcome. “Definitely am!” he said and added, “Its the first book cover I’ve made.” It was followed with a “Haha” which made me first go “Oh” out of surprise and then laugh with Kutty hahahaha.

I secretly want to believe that many might have approached him for a book cover, but he refused to do it. Maybe some day some Shwetabh will ask me, “How did you convince Kutty to do the cover page?” I wouldn’t have an answer for that. But I would have this long story of my strangely beautiful association with Kutty to share, and a beautiful cover-page to flaunt!

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