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Faith in football
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At a time when most artists discretely distance themselves from their religious beliefs, if any, Riyas Komu comes as an exception and something of a riddle.

Being from Kerala he inherited a legacy of left politics almost naturally from his father, a communist before the split. And thanks to the same source, Riyas is also a believer. Politics is the public face, religion is a private matter. So the two don’t clash — not for him and his father. Riyas’s faith in Islam has been an important component of his work.

And being one of the Bombay Boys, the media has eaten out of his hands, lovingly recording the millions his works have already fetched, and his projects that have made waves not only on home ground, but in galleries (mostly run by NRIs) in the West as well. To top it all, his installation, Petroangel, has been shown at the Venice Biennale.

Riyas, a soft-spoken and dreamy-eyed man of 37, was here last week for the opening of his exhibition based on his project on the sorry state of Indian football titled Mark Him (Second Half). The walls of Galerie 88, where this show is being held, are lined with giant poster-like photographs (prints on archival paper) of football players from all over the country.

The artist trained at the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai had himself taken these straightforward, artless shots, which were backlit at the exhibition. The soccer players stood out, larger-than-life figures who still looked vulnerable, at least occasionally. Individually, the photographs are not exceptional. You can get a kick when you see them together.

Riyas used the same format in his project on migrant workers, where he painted their portraits using photographs of individuals as a reference. He has also participated in a Bombay police campaign to unite the different communities, when his work was used on a billboard. This, says Riyas, is “closer to the heroics of the Bollywood poster,” and perhaps it is this in-your-face quality (quite literally, in this case) that catches the Western eye. His football project is an extension of his interest in portraiture.

The football players turned up in full force at the opening of the exhibition on Friday evening, along with fellow artists from Kerala — Jyothi Basu and Bose Krishnamachari — who have made it big in Mumbai. Riyas feels that football has the possibility of being a “unifying factor” as, unlike cricket, a number of players from the Northeast are stars. But football is “caught in bureaucracy” although the number of people watching it is quite high.

An ego booster is what the doctor recommended, he feels, and the solution is “buying the best players… Why buy second-rate players instead,” wonders Riyas.

When he did his work on Iraqi football it was an anti-imperialist statement. “In Iraq football is so political. It is like fighting in the field. When the Iraqis wrested the Asian Cup from the Arabs, football united the nation. They did not have a hero and they found one in Younis Mahmoud, the captain of the Iraq national football team.” Like Petroangel, with its series of anguished faces of a woman wearing a head scarf, it was work based on the situation of Islam.

Riyas, who funds his own projects, believes that young artists deserve their current success. “I stand among young people working hard,” he says. He also stresses that there are fewer “NRI buyers in comparison with serious Western buyers”. And institutional interest in contemporary Indian art is also growing in the West, he claims.

Ten artists are holding an exhibition titled Faces of Feminine Expressions from Bangladesh at Akar Prakar in collaboration with Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, Dhaka.

These Bangladeshi artists, some trained in India, belong to different age groups but they have one thing in common. Their works are in response to the condition of women in Bangladesh, the veil, marriage, environmental issues, right to bearing children and similar predictable issues.

The only notable exception is Kanak Chanpa Chakma, who, as her name suggests, is a Buddhist, and her paintings are about her faith. There is nothing new about what she paints but her works have a certain dignity and sense of calm.

All the participating artists are skilled although the romanticism of two of them — Farida Zaman and Nasreen Begum — is too sweet to swallow. Otherwise, the anxiety of Nazlee Laila Mansur comes across strong. Dilara Begum Jolly seems to have borrowed her style from tribal artists of Madhya Pradesh.

Murshida Arzu Alpana has a physical presence and uses brush strokes imaginatively. Colours are Rokeya Sultana’s strongpoint but Tayeba Begum Lipi’s “cow” and flowering plant sprouting from a woman’s navel are rather crude.

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