| Artist B.R. Panesar checks out Somneel’s portraits at Academy of Fine Arts. Picture by Aranya Sen
A brush with Bill Clinton is his most treasured encounter with the rich and famous, while “sweet, encouraging” Sachin Tendulkar sits atop the most valued cricketer chart.
Thirty-five celebrity portraits, 24 of them autographed by the subjects themselves. Somneel Saha, who was thrust into the public eye during Clinton’s 2001 visit to India, when he managed to meet the the then US President to have his portrait autographed, had his first exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, ending on Tuesday.
But the skill with which this 16-year-old captures the subtle nuances in expression shines as bright as the stars. It all started with Mother Teresa, in 1996. “Hers was the first portrait I painted and I was going to present it to her. But then my parents suggested that I have it autographed instead,” explains the boy who picked up the brush when he was two-and-a-half years old.
The 20-minute chat with Clinton caught Somneel off guard. “At the beginning I was too stunned to hear what he was saying. Before I knew it, our time was up and I was telling him that I wanted to go to the US to study,” he recalls. It was Clinton’s earnest reply, handing him a visiting card, saying he would do everything he could to help him out, “even offering to receive Somneel at the airport”, that the student of Narmada School remembers.
The collection also includes politicians Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee; sportsmen Ajay Jadeja, Javagal Srinath, Virendra Sehwag and Mohd Azharuddin; actors Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan and Aishwarya Rai.
Most of the displayed works were in watercolour, with the exception of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. The latter is autographed, though the singer first refused to meet him. The stunning Utpal Dutt — finished when the boy was only 10 — is the only one in black and white. “I sat through Othello to watch the expressions on his face,” he recounts. The end result is remarkable, Dutt’s face half illuminated by a candle to represent the “Put out the light” speech.
Somneel’s work has been selling for years. One of his most recent projects is a border for a poem by Robin Lindsay. “The theme is Sachin, with small illustrations of his bat, other gear, Wankhede stadium and tiny portraits.”
For parents Milan and Swapna, their sons feats are “extraordinary”. They are as committed to Somneel’s calling as he is. “This means everything to us. We have to overcome our fears to help him become a professional, though it is a line of great uncertainty,” they smile proudly.