Mission Delhi – Shakeel Artist, Old Delhi
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He is the signboard hand-painter of Shahjahanabad. Almost every existing (and fast disappearing) hand-painted shop banner in the Walled City bears his painted signature at the bottom corner—Shakeel Art. See, there it is, on the banner hoarding of Ghee Wala Guest House, on Madina Book Depot, Supreme Tent House, Good Looks Beauty Parlour, Star Flower, Hiri Ayurvedic Pharmacy, Taj Welding, Furqan Foods, National Bakery, Nadim Buffalo Halal Meat Shop, Sharif Restaurant, Alvi Dental Clinic, and on and on.
Shakeel Artist (real name Shakeel Akhtar) is one of Old Delhi’s very few surviving signboard painters who work by hand. He is the only one here skilled in not just in Hindi and English, but also in Urdu and Arabic.
The painter lives in Gali Chuhiya Mem, close to Nazar Hotel, the signboard of which, too, is his creation. He however works a short distance away from his street, inside a cramped cubicle, across the lane from Ansarul Bangali Hotel, a modest eatery overshadowed by the flamboyance of its painted hoarding, courtesy Shakeel Artist. (The signboard with calligraphy in three languages is embellished with the portrait of a giant sad-eyed fish.) The entrance to the studio is partly blocked by a chai stall. This afternoon, the stall’s bench is houseful, prompting a customer to step into the studio, and casually pick up a spare chair, which happens to be Jackson-Pollocked with paint stains of assignments past.
Shakeel Artist doesn’t even momentarily lift his eyes at the chair kidnapper, completely absorbed in painting a gravestone signboard for a customer.
He finally speaks, giving the essentials of his biography —“I’m in my 60s. I’ve been painting signboards for 40 years. Learned the art from Abdul Hamid signboard artist, my father, who learned his art from Munshi Ahmad Ghani calligrapher, my grandfather.” His only son, Khidar, has built a career as a lab technician in the “blood test line” but “he has learned the family art from me, and helps me in emergency.”
Before the age of computer-driven digitalised designing and printing, Shakeel Artist was far busier than he is today. He would also paint “filmi line ke banner.” He remembers drawing the posters for films Arzoo, Safar and Mere Lal. “The film distributor would leave the photos of the select scenes from the film with me, and I would work from those photos in large 12 by 24 foot white markin (sic) cloth, which would be printed into hundreds of copies.”
Following a pause, Shakeel Artist insists “there are still people who believe in haath ke kaam (handmade work),” asserting that “haath mein haqeeqat hain (hand has the reality).”
As the work on the gravestone signboard concludes, Shakeel Artist carefully parks it by the wall, and gazes at it critically, his arms crossed on his chest. He reads aloud the inscription in Urdu, detailing the deceased’s name and address: “Muhammed Yakub, Kala Mahal.”
[This is the 566th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
The painter of Purani Dilli