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Aarti Zaveri's brush with war heroes

Oct 18, 2012

Aarti Zaveri is a unique artist - not only is she self-taught, she is a master of portraiture. It was this talent that got her the rare opportunity to be the portrait artist of India’s Ministry of Defence.

Delhi: The Indian army may still be debating about the entry of women as combatants but there is one woman who has made her mark in the power corridors of the Government of India’s Ministry of Defence. No, she is not an aspiring soldier but an artist. In fact, Aarti Zaveri is a unique artist - not only is she self-taught, she is a master of portraiture. It was this talent that got her the rare opportunity to be the portrait artist of the ministry.

As an army kid, Zaveri's childhood followed a predictable routine. School was an overhauled barrack and recreation meant swimming at the local club or an occasional movie screened at a converted airplane hangar of wartime vintage. Her life took a turn when her father, an army doctor, hung up his uniform. Then, a few years later, she got married and moved to Delhi with her husband. While change was always a part of her life, the one thing that remained constant was her creative instinct and love for colours. "From childhood, capturing human emotions and excavating aesthetic treasures hidden in every form has been my passion," is how the she describes the artist in herself.

So, even as she was settling into her new home, Zaveri began to explore the possibilities of taking her creative pursuits forward. A taste for theatre led her to an amateur group, The Living Room Theatre Group, located in south Delhi, and she soon became a regular. It is here that she met fellow theatre buff, Brigadier P. Bedi, who gave her the chance of a lifetime.

In 2007, Bedi was scouting for an artist who could paint portraits of young officers and soldiers who had sacrificed their lives during the Kargil war. Some of them had been posthumously awarded the country's greatest military honour, the Param Vir Chakra. As a professional with several solo and group shows to her credit, Zaveri was the perfect candidate for the job. Moreover, having seen the armed forces in action from close quarters enabled her to better understand the lives of the men she would be painting.

Talking about her growth as an artist Zaveri says, "My art forms are based on the human figure, particularly the male form. My journey began with realistic portrayals and moved to masked images and then to modern forms. The shift from making realistic studies to the more individualistic approach of hidden portraiture has been a part of my quest to express myself through my work. I learnt that from my mentor, master sculptor-artist, Ankit Patel, who always viewed my works from the standpoint of: 'Where is Aarti in these paintings?' The chance to create lifelike images of war heroes was just another way for me to express my artistic self."

The unique nature of her assignment was challenging. While the men Zaveri was being asked to paint had been young and daring, and whose courage had been witnessed by everyone in the country, she had never met them personally. So how was she to truly portray their personality on canvas?

That's when she reassured herself that "making portraits was very much like face reading", a task she had often done in the past as a part of a series of artworks based on faces that hold a mask to the subject’s real self. She says, "I need to visualise and internalise the real person before I paint. My secret 'tool' for doing this is a concerted reading of faces in crowds and even among friends. For this commission, I relied on the pictures of the officers."

Before getting into the task of painting, Zaveri was taken on a tour of the corridors of Sena Bhavan, the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence in Delhi, where her finished works would be displayed. In characteristic military style, the exact size of each portrait was detailed, the list of the awards and honours the subject had received was given and she was even specifically told about the ribbons and medals that would adorn their person in the portrait. Since each of these works had to be busts and not full-length portraits, she understood that the entire concentration of the viewer would fall on the facial features of the heroes.

Zaveri's first commission was Capt Vikram Batra, a Param Vir Chakra awardee. She says, "For me, he immortalised the one-liner, 'Dil mange more' (the heart wants more)'. Since it is the eyes that give the face a lifelike feel, I went through heaps of photographs and studied the young man's eyes. In fact, as I studied the pictures of the other young men, I realised that their eyes spoke volumes. None of them had a dead pan or a matter-of-fact look. The pictures sparked off an almost 'unreal' sensation in me as I peered closer. I knew that I needed to bring that feeling into my work if the portraits were to make sense."

To help her in her quest to unveil the real person behind the war hero, she decided to visit their family members. First up she met Lt Arun Khetrapal's parents. "His mother spoke at length about him and her deep sense of loss came through as she narrated some memorable incidents from the times they had spent together. Similar was my experience with JCO Bana Singh's family, who provided many a missing link that I had failed to spot by merely examining his eyes in the photograph. I was struck by the pride his family felt in their son's achievement. That emotion presented itself on the canvas through my brush strokes. Besides, Bana Singh was considerably older than the other heroes and the age lines on the face made for technical inputs into this particular work."

Zaveri concentrated on giving life to her portraits through a vivid portrayal of the eyes so that it would feel as if the eyes were looking straight at the viewer, whatever the angle. "This 3D effect gave the portraits a lifelike simulation," she explains.


Of course, her artistic license in this assignment was minimal. In fact, she had to be careful about all the details. For instance, the colour of the uniforms had to be the exact shade of olive green and many shades and tints had to be tried out before it finally matched the specifications. The uniform details had to follow protocol requirements such as the exact fold of the sleeves, the stiffness of the collar and the placement of the buttons, among other things. Even the background of each portrait was regimented to a solid shade of greenish-blue.

It was a proud moment for Zaveri when the work of months of her artistic labour was finally displayed in the power corridors of the Ministry of Defence. She received praise from not just from Defence Minister A.K. Anthony, but also from the proud army brass assembled for the unveiling. She was also given a Certificate of Merit in recognition of her work by the Ministry of Defence, acknowledged by the defence minister, the defence secretary and the three service chiefs.

But Zaveri draws her deepest real sense of satisfaction from the fact that she managed to do some justice to the portrayal of young lives lost in war.

Today, of course, olive green is not the only colour in "colour crazy" Zaveri's life; her tryst with the palette continues. She says, "I strongly believe that bright colours nurse the power to fight away life’s monotony, desolation and despair. My love of oils, colours and strokes always inspires in me a horizon of visions for creativity and makes me strive for perfection!"

SOURCE: Women's Feature Service

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