It was the year 2002. Mohammed Osman was finishing a course in Fine Arts in Hyderabad and it was time for him to find a subject that inspired him. "I had studied many styles and approaches, now it was time for me to find my own," he says. Today, the 47-year-old artist, who currently exhibiting gallery g in Bengaluru, has his paintings at the homes of collectors around the world, his Gangireddu bulls putting on a magnificent show of colour and vibrance.
Every year, as spring arrives, South India becomes a drama of colour, as people return home to their families, kites dot the sky and if you're lucky, the songs of the Haridasu fill the air. This is Sankranti, the harvest festival. And amidst the festivities come the brightly-adorned Gangireddu bulls, bedecked in flowers, anklets and colourful sarees. Osman, who grew up in rural Andhra Pradesh, was still hunting for a subject that inspired him. He returned to his home town in rural Andhra Pradesh and was certain he wanted a figurative subject, one strongly rooted in tradition and culture. "With that in mind, I wandered around."
Nearly four years passed and in 2006, Osman happened to see a decorated Gangireddu being led past. It stopped him in his tracks. "I stood there and watched them for a long time," he recalls. "A normal person would look and move on. I saw a beautiful canvas and an exquisite composition, from the flowers to the anklets tied around their legs. I knew this was my subject. It was an instant connection."
A momentary fascination for the average observer would become Osman's life work. He began to watch the Gangireddu bulls and the gangireddulavallu, the turbaned, nomadic men who lead these animals from village to village. "This keeps them busy for about six months of the year," says Osman. As he dug deeper, he found himself face to face with a dying tradition, a once glorious, much sought-after custom, whose practitioners live now in stark poverty. "This is their only livelihood," he says, recounting his visits to their communities, where he meets the men and their families. The sarees, he explains, are usually donated by the women in the community, who give away the pieces they no longer wear.
Finding endless inspiration in a single subject is a challenge, but this doesn't occur to Osman, not really. "I paint the bulls in different positions, from different angles, with various expressions. There's so much to see," he says. It's an incredible dedication to detail - Osman can take upto three weeks to finish a single piece, often working 12 hours a day. "I have been working with this subject for a long time, I can do three or four pieces in a month and sell them all, too. But that's not what drives me."
In fact, Osman arrived at college fairly late in his life, already married, with two small children who needed looking after. He would work part time, painting license plates, posters and anything else that came his way, dabbling in interior design if he got the chance. Work was plentiful then, although Osman had arrived just when things had begun to change. Technology left many of these artists unemployed, but luckily, Osman recalls, there was always something for him to do.
It wasn't easy. "Ten years of extreme struggle, so many sleepless nights and anxious, frustrated days," he says. "There is another side to my story," he continues, over the phone. For years, as he struggled to make a name for himself, with little guarantee that it would ever happen, he battled extreme anxiety. "Not depression, never that, I have always been enthusiastic about life. But the anxiety was terrible." T.S. Eliot's famous words spring to mind: Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.
Osman agrees. "Everything worthwhile requires struggle, it's true in any profession, of course, but the internal struggle is part of creativity. It's about learning to handle one's emotions and you do, as you grow older, see more of life. And an artist needs to see beyond what is obvious, to see things and desire things that most people don't."
What: Dance With the Bulls
When: Till May 31
Where: gallery g, Maini Sadan, 38, Lavelle Road