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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Mahendra Mistry: Once upon a time
by Swapna Vora

February 20, 2009

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

Mahendra Mistry's work cherishes India's celluloid inheritance. It includes traditional painting and digital wizardry and depicts movie stars, film scenes, songs and sentiments. This is done with precise, careful drawing and soft, old world tones on canvas. Tints of sepia, old gold, brass, bronze and charcoal with highlights, like studio spotlights, abound. This is work where we need not guess the meaning, we know immediately that it is real, emotional and deeply evocative of the way the world used to be.



Indian movies are loved across the world. One is amused to find Sudanese, Irish or Russians and folk from the deepest Chad, Congo or New Guinea speak knowledgeably and affectionately about them. (Some time ago, the British declared Amitabh Bachchan their favorite actor!) "Oh how much we laughed and oh, we never recovered from Rajesh Khanna's death in Anand," are common comments. No one has accused old Indian movies of overriding local art or destroying local culture. To the contrary, everyone seems to identify with their depictions of universal situations. 'Universal' maybe but also filled with unbelievably gorgeous men, unbelievably holy and divine looking women (and well before plastic surgery): a golden corridor of nostalgia when love between the genders was a fact of life, when children were considered everybody's and movies were still highlighting humanity's highest values. This universe brimming with drama, villains, contrasts between the rich and poor, empathy, and the new joy of independence is the world that Mahendra Mistry has recreated. He has used time and talent: first remembering, then filtering memories into sharp drawings, adding special effects with software, printing them on canvas, and again drawing and painting on them. The result is many layers of work, old fashioned, realistic and recognizable albeit combined with the latest Photoshop techniques and finished with actual paint. Every Indian (and many an African, Arab or Afghan) who sees them will be overwhelmed with memories. Remember Shashi Kapoor and Simi in 'Siddhartha', remember Nutan in Milan', and the glorious Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in 'Guide' were the sighs and whispers in the gallery. These stories, these collective memories and emotions are captured here in pictures: a national family affair, possibly an international one, as these movies often traveled to remote Africa, the Far East, South America and mostly everywhere. Anyone who saw Hindi movies from this golden era will enjoy these paintings, a diary of collective memory, beloved stories, songs sung often, diamond eyes, legendary directors and the golden spotlight of fortune.


Mahendra Mistry grew up in a small town in Gujarat. He loved movies and, as a child, scraped together pocket money to see them. He said movies cost one rupee, a good sum those days. He reminisced about the poets then engaged to write songs, the authors who composed romantic tales, swashbuckling heroism, occasional suspension of possibility and the glittering gods and goddesses who acted in them. This was a time when those who worked with movies did so because of a compulsion, for while talent was abundant, money was scarce.


K.L. Saigal

Movie making began in India almost as soon as movies were invented and thousands grew up loving these screen heroines. However movies were released in cities like Mumbai first and small town residents saw them much later. Meanwhile Radio Ceylon broadcasted the songs weeks in advance and so people often knew them by heart. Mistry said his friends even had cassettes with entire dialogues and songs, everything but the visuals. The first boy to see the movie would gather a rapt crowd of friends and relate the story, scene by scene: how the train engine swung into the station, how the light changed, how the sky shone, how and when the rain came down. Such skill! He would start with credit lines, then the numbers that flashed, hum out the opening music and describe how and when the hero appeared. Often when Mistry went to a movie, he had already heard the dialogues and sung the songs for hours with his pals, a traditional Indian pastime. These songs were usually exquisitely worded, written by much loved, nationally acclaimed poets.

Raj Kumar

Mahendra is a modest person with the dreamy expression of a painter and a frequent filmgoer. He wanted to paint and his family wondered how he was going to support this habit. However his father respected this wish and let the boy study at the local art college. Mistry then painted, illustrated children's stories, and today reminisces that printing books at the press filled town of Sivakashi took months. He drew pictures for small magazines like Jansatta, Chandni and Rangtarang. He remembers being restricted to four colors for this was a time long before the days of offset printing. Often requested to visit the printing presses, he refused as they were in faraway Madras/Chennai and the whole travel and printing process was pretty lengthy.


Dilip Kumar

While Mahendra has different genres to his credit, this particular series is a memory chip for Indian movies, mostly Hindi ones. His first paintings were typically realistic for he did little abstract experimentation. He drew figures of tribal Adivasis, ('first inhabitants'), dabbled in folk art, and painted scenes of rural life and villagers near Ahmedabad. He saw them at various country fairs, like the Tarneter fair, Diwali melas and the festival when Gods too celebrate Diwali in heaven. He remembers going to Dang for the sugarcane festival where sugarcane is munched and the delicious fresh juice drunk. Next he did a classical dance series and went on to paint Ganesh. Traditional topics much loved by Indian schoolteachers! However he loved Mumbai and its movie culture of heroes, stories and the silver screen.

"Do you like Mumbai?"

"Yes, yes," he nods excitedly thinking of its 'filmi' culture, that renowned filmmakers lurk just round the corner, where one breathes the same air as legendary heroes, where memories are made, and cheers and tears flow as values are pondered in Technicolor. Mumbai was always a place where things were possible. Tales of rags to riches and alas, riches to rags, of love beyond measure, of unselfish friendship, faith and loss were common currency, for everything was on a magical scale with really grand stories. And then over the years he decided to depict this loved inheritance in a truly novel way, painting a diary of drawings, adding printing, software, and then painting and printing again and again. Each painting takes him a month and he usually does a couple together. There are many references here for those who know the stories behind this series. This is a treasury of movie memories and a nation's emotions which still resonate across today's arbitrary political and geographical borders.


Dev Anand


Raj Kapoor

"A dangerous profession but I could not leave it. Where is the money in this for you, my loving but concerned family queried," he says. "I loved and loved movies and saw many several times", not knowing that one day he would paint these scenes. He loved the songs, the words, even the posters. He also loved James Bond's gun barrel followed by the flood of red light, the manly Clint Eastwood, Charlie Chaplin's clowning and the gorgeous Gregory Peck in 'The guns of Navarone'. Cowboys, (America's gaiwalas!) and Kirk Douglas's exploits were discussed in Ahmedabad's 'poles' (precincts). Mistry loved both McKenna's Gold and the beloved Raj Kapoor's Joker. He didn't understand English but followed the actions and discussed them later on. He spoke happily of old movies like, 'Jab jab phool khile', and the love songs composed specifically for them. This was a time when emotions crossed manmade divisions and today too these stories, songs and heroes are dearly loved across what used to be Hindustan. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans all sigh happily and purr with pleasure when discussing some Indian movie. In times of civil unrest, it is reported that the Pakistani government promptly starts broadcasting Indian movies to take people's minds off some incendiary trauma.

R.K. Heroines

Mistry reminisced about Radio Ceylon broadcasting Binaca Geetmala with the well-known anchor, Amin Sayani. Radio, he said, was everything then and he and his small town boys practiced singing alongside. Often the most loved stories are those we really know and each time we hear them with pleasure, sometimes from the beginning, sometimes through other doorways and enjoy them again as we examine what was already said and how it was said.

Later while painting, he would play songs from Pakeezah, the T Series, Anand, Jis Desh mein Ganga behti hai, etc. "All this", he added, "is soaked in my subconscious." He listened to Vividh Bharati, the government sponsored radio broadcast when glamorous movie stars were interviewed. Then, he laughed, great names were interviewed but today, representing our conquest by the digital age, technicians are called. Recalling stories and trying out his particular, many layered techniques for creating this lovely, evocative art took him years. There was support from his family, a vital component for many creative people. He says this collection depicts the joy of movies and story telling, the floods of memory, the many candles that have been lit and extinguished. These paintings will undoubtedly be loved by NRI folk, the many Indians who live far way from India in Iceland, in France or in Timbuktu.


Mera Juta Hi Japani

He says the journey of life can be hard, but light shimmers in thin streams on the far horizon, silence appeals. "The hum and melodies of old movies linger and my brush, heavy with color, skims across the canvas. I have this strange, wonderful attraction to movies. Movies seen in romantic, dark caves of hushed auditoriums today bring back sweet and bitter memories. If you too loved these old world movies, a bell will chime in your mind. Old theaters, beloved friends, gone-by moments spent with a loved one, the seasons, the rimzim sound of rain, perhaps a first meeting, a cool breeze: the strings of your heart too may resonate. And a soft sorrow, the straight forwardness and simplicity of values will linger. The poetic films by Satyajit Ray, the opulent settings of 'Mughal E Azam', the unhappiness of the sad and tragic actor Dilip Kumar, whose eyes still had not had their light washed out with tears. The gorgeous Nargis with a cup of tea, and, 'Jis desh mein Ganga'. Oh what a wonderful title!" He remembers: " 'Mera nam Joker' with its three leading ladies and not one but two intervals: oh what a movie! The magical treatment in Guide, the grand dialogues delivered by Rajkumar! Gurudutt's 'Pyasa' is like a painting, the entire film. I think of those thoughtful and glorious heroines like Waheeda Rehman, Nutan and Shabana and I remember once more." He speaks of the comedian Mehmood and that fat Tun Tun who went on a diet and in desperation ate all the dishes and again he is filled with laughter. "One day, drenched with these feelings, I took to paint and canvas." He adds, "The locations, film music and songs, the heart touching expressions on the actors' faces, the stories, and the direction of music and photography, I know it so well. I hope to capture some of this in paint and canvas. So many wanted me to paint heroines, others wanted historical depictions of every movie but I finally chose those that stirred me. Without planning, pictures entered the canvas and brought their own life. I used less color but my heart experienced rainbows. Two or three years went by in this delirious pleasure. My love wants you to place your hand on your heart, a song on your lips, and with half opened eyelids enjoy as you too thrill to these painted moments."


Smita Patil

Mother India

Haseeno Ka Mela

"What can I say about me? My paintings introduce me, speak of me."

These paintings bring memories of driving miles to see movies. Village screens which sometimes consisted of a swaying bedsheet in someone's courtyard. Theaters where women sat separately in balconies. Falling asleep and being carried home by loving nannies, the audience hissing companionably at certain well-established, shameless villains, teenagers whistling appreciatively and anonymously in dark safety at some local lovely, children insisting on staying awake too late. Hot summer nights. Someone who had spied or met or simply thought he had met some film star (or was it the star's neighbor?) achieved temporary status as an authoritative film critic. Whole families went to the movies together, often with neighbors, cooks and nannies, and walked back at midnight in narrow lanes thinking about what they had seen: these are memories about movies for many Indians. A national family affair! Moviemakers had not yet 'obliterated their knowledge of how to be human". Some values may be past their sell-by date but we need not tell.

Raj Kapoor's stories

Satyajit Ray's Shatranj ke Khiladi

Shammi Kapoor

Old Movies

In the dark auditorium, shadows, then a song. Silence follows, a face which brings rapture appears, and then a light rain speaks of pain. Ashes, life begins once more.

And what diasporic eyes had missed so long: sheets of colors, sprays of scents, green and colorful caresses in exuberance. Can we save emotions like we save photos? At least we have these paintings: cool, just as beautiful, a comfortable quilt of dreams carried without care from one age to another. There is no wisdom in losing these dreams, this rainbow of humanity and happiness.



Mahendra Mistry was born in Modasa, a small town in Gujarat. He received his diploma from the C N College of Fine Arts, Ahmedabad, in '74 and was declared first in the entire state. His work has been exhibited at the Jehangir Gallery, (Mumbai), Lalit Kala Akademi, (Delhi), the World Trade Center, (Jakarta) and at several solo exhibitions in Ahmedabad and Mumbai. He has prestigious awards from the Lalit Kala Akademi, (Gujarat), Aifacs, (Delhi), and the Bombay Art Society. His works have been collected by former Prime Minister Vajpayee, the National Gallery of Modern Art, (Delhi), the Royal Orient train, the Indian Embassy, (Washington DC), Air India, Modi Rubber, Kotak Mahindra, Pranlal Bhogilal, Bajaj Electricals, Taj Hotels, The Sport Club of Gujarat, Bakery Group, (Ahmedabad), Dhirubhai Ambani, etc.

Mistry says it has been a long journey after art college from illustrating children's books to painting on canvas, and now adding software. He remains a strong figure in his particular world of Indian painters.

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