Volume - 1 : Issue - 3

Published : April - June 2002

Group : Personalities


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An artistic Stroke of Genius

By Sundar Iyer

To call him a multifaceted man would be an understatement. Not only is he an artist of international repute, not only is he the hands behind few of the rare portraits in the world, not only is he the person who has transformed the art of painting into a performing art, but he is also a scientist, freedom fighter, dramatist, humorist, mime artist, emcee, puppeteer, dancer, musician, singer, writer, poet, designer, psycho-palmist, cartoonist and a photographer. In other words, Hiro G. Hingorani (Known as H. Lall in the art circle) truly exemplifies the term ‘Showman.’ Alghouth he has excelled in most of his initiatives, his works as a painter have certainly made him an icon of his era.

Not one to be satisfied treading regular paths, he thrives walking unexplored territories while demystifying the unknown, the unheard or the unseen. Over the years, he is known for his exceptional work on the canvas, and invariably leaves the viewer in complete awe at the magnificence of his paintings. He says with a chuckle, “I am born with an extra gene which leads me to doing things, radically and differently. I find utmost satisfaction in creating a piece of art that is both innovative and inspiring.” Undoubtedly, it is this extra gene that has contributed towards many of his rare works, driving him always to do the extraordinary with a touch of flamboyance. “I always have the aching desire to create something out of the ordinary,” he says, with his eyes glinting behind his glasses.

Born in Karachi, in Sindh (United India), Hiro would celebrate his 77th birthday on the 4th of December this year. Despite his growing age Hiro Hingorani is still going strong, obvious from the fact that he continues to regularly perform his widely acclaimed show ‘Caricatures in Art’ both in India and overseas. In fact, many from his regular audience would vouch that he is much more fun to watch now that he was ever before. Blessed with the gift of the gab and an uncanny sense of humour, he has his audience captivated with his charm and persona. And throw a brush in his hand, a few strokes here and there, and voila! within a matter of few minutes, you would be stunned at seeing your mirror image on his canvas. He is known to be the fastest portrait maker in the world, and this has not only given him due recognition, but an unparallel sense of satisfaction. He says, “For an artist it is appreciation and not the monetary factor that is much valued. The smile that shines across the viewer’s face after seeing my works, is much more dear to me than any dollar or pound.”

Hingorani has come a long way since his days as a child in the late 1920’s. Born to parents Gobindram and Rami, Hiro was the only son among a family of five children. As a result he was much pampered and loved by his parents and four sisters. Having completed his schooling in Premier High School in Karachi, Hiro went on to pursue his graduation in science from the well-known D. J. Sindh College, which was then under the jurisdiction of Bombay University. Recalling his childhood days, he says, “I could draw from the age of six. As a youngster, I remember, my older cousins coming to me and requesting and pleading with me to draw for their science journals and other assignments. My teachers in school particularly guided and encouraged me. Throughout Class I to Class VII, I stood first in Art in class. AS I grew, the art in me grew and my interest in art broadened.” He continues with a slight twinkle in his eyes, “In those days, I used to be in awe of cinema hoardings. Whenever I saw a man with a brush in his hand, I used to sit back and watch him go through his motions. This gave me an amazing sense of thrill and it wasn’t long after that the realization dawned on me that I was born to be an artist.”

He further adds, “In those days, Bombay was the capital of Art in the country. I used to look forward to my school vacations with my uncle at Bombay. I used to save every penny and purchase second-hand international art magazines that used to be sold in the streets of Bombay. I always aspired to study at the internationally acclaimed J J school of Art.” But that was never to be, as he didn’t receive necessary encouragement from his parents. He swallows a lump while justifying his father’s decision, “In those days, Art was not a remunerative profession. My father was aware of this and suggested that after my three years in J J, at best I would be a drawing teacher who in those days received an extremely low salary. I was convinced and went on to complete my graduation in Zoology in 1947, but never let the art in me die.”

A couple of months after his graduation, the region witnessed the catastrophe of partition, and circumstances led to the migration of his family from their cherished homeland to Delhi, where his father acquired a job with the PWD. Due to the tough financial conditions of his home in the early days after partition, he started taking up minor painting assignments while hunting for a job matching his education. It was during this period that he was keen to study at Sharda Vaukil School of Art. The school authorities had told him that they wouldn’t charge him any fees, but would admit him only if they felt he had it in him. They were impressed with his artistic skills, and soon he gained vast knowledge in the Bengal School of Art. Within a short period of time, the school authorities asked him to teach the juniors too. Thus, he got to lean and work at the same time. He recalls with pride his first major professional painting assignment, “I was assigned to design the cover page of the then renowned weekly, ‘Navyug’ at Delhi. In my brief freelance stints with Navyug, I had the opportunity to enhance my techniques, as I got to work along with a few German technicians. I regularly freelanced for many publications for about a year, making cartoons, drawings and illustrations.”

It was during this time that he moved to Bombay in the lookout for more work in the art stream, as there were more publications published from the city. This also presented him with the opportunity to interact with many budding artists in the city. He recalls, “I used to always purchase my equipments from the Pherozshah Mehta Marg, even when I was in Karachi. The shop owners guided and encouraged me a lot.” He does not fail to mention, “At times, I used to be depressed watching many a talent lying unrecognized at the streets outside Jehangir Art gallery. Like many other junior artists, I too used to display my paintings at the art exhibitions organized in the city.” But he believed in his works and knew that there certainly would come the day when honest and dedicated efforts would reap just rewards.

At this juncture in life, in early 1950 he acquired a job with the Extension wing of the Agricultural department of the Central Government of India. He says, “I started as a Field Assistant at the Delhi branch and subsequently in the year 1956 was promoted as a Class I officer and posted to Allahabad. Over the years, he climbed the ranks as a Class II officer, a scientist and subsequently retired as the Principal of the Extension Institute of the Government of India at Hyderabad. His work saw him shifting base from Delhi to Allahabad, Agra to Hyderabad spreading a span of 32 years. After his retirement he relocated himself in the late 80’s to the cultural capital of the country, the grand city, Bombay. Currently residing in a plush apartment in the suburbs of Juhu, Hiro Hingorani comes across as a man content with life and its offerings.

Especially satisfied with his achievements in the field of Art. Achievements in Art, one may ask? An individual who spent nearly 40 years of his lifetime as a government official and recognized as an exceptional artist one may ponder? But that in itself is the hallmark of this man. He pursued his passion for painting after working hours, and continued to grow in it despite being unable to make it his profession. And not only did he grow, but on the way created some novel and innovative pieces of art, which brought him due recognition and praise.

A brief look at some of his major works would undoubtedly leave one spellbound. The extra gene in Hiro Hingorani has certainly led him to an artistic stroke of genius. And his works would vouch for that. Hiro Hingorani while taking you through his paintings, recalls, “One of my first paintings which put me across the local newspapers, was a sketch portrait of Pandit Nehru in the year 1946. Pandit Nehru had come to our college to address the students on the Indian Independence struggle. I had this burning desire to meet the great leader, whom I so much revered and idolized. I decided to sketch a portrait of his, but soon the extra gene prompted me to do the same in blood. This gave me the opportunity to meet Panditji and was my first recognition in art.”

In great reverence of the Nehru family, Hiro is the only artist to have done rare portraits of all the five generations of this family. In the year 1961, He drew a portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru in his much-loved pensive mood. This according to the artist is one of his most cherished works. He recalls with a smile, “I remember when I met Nehruji with the portrait for his autograph, he liked it so much that he was almost going to ask for it. But, since he had already signed it, there was no way I was going to give it away.” His second portrait of Nehru was also in blood and made in response to the late Prime Minister’s call for blood, money and manpower during the Chinese aggression. After making a line sketch of Nehru, he pricked the finger of his left hand and dipped his brush to start painting the portrait. But he soon realized, the blood from his fingers wouldn’t suffice and immediately rushed to the nearest blood bank and had another 30 cc of blood removed for this purpose. He then decided to donate the 18” x 18” portrait to the National Defence Fund, which was later auctioned and the huge returns that it fetched went to the war funds. The news was covered by TIME magazine in its editorial in its 1963 July edition making him the first Indian artist to be covered by the international magazine.

Subsequently in the year 1964, while still in Allahabad, he decided to do something special for Panditji’s 75th Birth Celebrations. The artist decided to present Nehru with two portraits, one the largest and the other the smallest ever made. The latter was done on a grain of rice and the largest was made on a 256 Sq. ft. canvas. Recalling his experience of making the painting, he says, “I purchased the canvass and got it stitched from a tailor. Then I got it stretched. Since, I could not paint at home, I received special permission from my boss and placed it in my office garden at Allahabad. It took me one whole month to make that portrait.” Unfortunately for the artist, Jawaharlal Nehru expired in May that year and he could not present him with the portraits. Hiro Hingorani later donated the smallest portrait on the grain of rice to the Teenmurti Bhavan museum in Delhi and the largest portrait to the Allahabad museum’s Nehru wing.

Later on, in the early 70’s, subsequently to the liberation of East Pakistan, the artist ventured to make a rare portrait of Indira Gandhi. Hingorani painted a portrait of Mrs. Gandhi in pure gold. He had to use brushes made of fuse wire, with different brushes for different strokes. “I was painting with molten gold and any other brush would have got burnt as the gold was extremely hot. It also had to be kept at a particular temperature, else it would have solidified,” he explains. Then during Motilal Nehru’s centenary celebrations in the year 1984, the artist decided to make a portrait entirely on Khadi threads without the use of any paint. He adds, “I modeled this portrait over a beautiful photograph of Motilal Nehru that I found during one of my visits to Anand Bhavan, Nehru’s house as at Allahabad.”

On the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, he says, “I was shocked. It was almost like a personal loss to me. As a tribute, I decided to make a portrait of his by using only gold, diamonds and platinum. This portrait shows only three quarters of Rajiv’s face, because three fourth of the world was saddened by this great man’s death, that three fourths of the Nehru family died with him and because three fourths of his face was damaged.” Then in the year 1996, his creative juices urged him to paint the other members of Rajiv’s family, Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul in a single frame. An amazing piece of artistic work, this one is called ‘The Trio’ by the artist, and when seen from the front one can see Sonia, a few steps to the left one can see Rahul and a few steps to the right one would be amazed to see Priyanka.

Another of his rare works is the portrait of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi at his deathbed. Hingorani rembers, “I was not far away from Birla house, when we heard the dreadful news that put an entire nation into mourning. I went to Birla house to pay my last respects to the Mahatma and then made a sketch of Gandhiji’s bloodied body. But, his portrait of Gandhiji made out of 14 scripts of Indian languages, certainly stands out as one of his better creations. The artist as a tribute to the father of the nation on his  centenary year in 1972, decided to make portrait of the Mahatma using the scripts of 14 different languages without suing a single stroke or line. Despite the handicap of not using a single line, the artist has succeeded in recreating some fine expressions with great precision. The artist also came into limelight when he gifted a paiting to Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding. The specialty of this painting was that the artist portrayed the couple in traditional Indian wedding gear. This particular painting was a cover photo for a few leading dailies when it was released to the press. Apart from these rare portraits, the artist has also excelled in various other forms of painting and has particular penchant for enlarging folk and traditional miniatures, i.e. Mughal, Rajasthani Kalamkari, Pichhari form of paintings. He has also made a couple of thermacol sculptures, which from a distance almost convince you they are carved of stone.

Apart from his paintings and portraits, Hiro is also widely known for transforming the art of painting into performing art. Running successfully for over 35 years, the artist has titled the show, ‘Caricatures in Art.’ Explaining the genesis of this novel concept, he says, “I used to sometimes get bored at these various art exhibitions. The thought of standing in front of portraits for lengths of time didn’t particularly impress me much. I remember during the early 60’s, Nehru and his family were once visiting Anand Bhavan. Due to an early end to their meetings, they wanted someone to quickly organize some entertainment for the family. In less than an hour, I dug out some rare photographs, mementoes and other insignia belonging to Motilal Nehru from the Anand Bhavan store rooms, which even the Nehrus were not aware of, and pieced together a magnificent slide show with music and commentary in the background.” The show was highly appreciated and Pandit Nehru personally lauded Hiro for his efforts. Thus, were borne the seeds for the show that would soon transform painting into a performing art. Soon thereafter, in the mid-60’s the artist started his early shows with a couple of items to a select audience. He used to place an empty canvass and invited people to write any alphabet or letter and within a matter of few seconds he would have sketched a cartoon face around it. In his shows he also does portraits of people in real quick time. Apart from these, he displays his paintings accompanied to background music and interacts with his audience as he wields the brush on the canvas, and his humour and wit tends to only add more colour to the proceedings of the show.

Considering the community’s predicament of being on the very of losing out on its history, the artist put together an audio-visual show to highlight the glory of the community and to help keep the language alive. The show was aptly titled, “Reminisces of Sindh, our present status” and has received wide accolades. Over the years, the artist has been giving regular performances of his caricatures in art shows for local, national and international audiences. A favourite at many of the top 5-star hotels in the city, Hiro Hingorani continues to give performances despite his age. He says, “Art has given me fulfillment as well as a purpose in life. It has also given me honour, money, appreciation and health.” Even to date his shows run to packed housed as he performs in various parts of the city, making up for every tick of time that he had lost out as an artist during the prime. Not surprisingly, Hiro’s last wish is to die with his boots on, to breathe his last on stage. A perfectionist, Hiro Hingorani is truly another feather in the cap of Sindhi community. “The work of art must seize you, wrap you up in itself and carry you away. It is the means by which the artist conveys his passion. It is the current which he puts forth which sweeps you along in his passion” – A great saying in art by the eighteenth century French Impressionist painter, Auguste Renoir very much exemplifies the painter, the persona – Hiro Hingorani.