“Painting should not be a profession. It should be a lifetime of dedication,” observed Maqbool Fida Husain in an episode of Al Jazeera’s One on One programme, aired in 2010.
Husain’s countryman, Dr Sreekumar Padmanabhan — known as Dr Sree to his friends and patients — seems to have taken that advice to heart. A resident of Qatar, the physician spends every spare minute outside his job doing what he loves: painting.
Since his arrival in Qatar in 2007, Dr Sree has held 36 exhibitions, a dozen of which were solo. He is a regular at Katara’s international and local painting exhibits, and he’s taken part in Qatar Foundation’s popular Art Atelier workshop and exhibition — all the while practising medicine.
The physician says that, as an artist and an Indian, the launch of Husain’s Seero fi al Ardh art installation at Qatar Foundation’s (QF) Education City — taking the artist’s vision to its conclusion — makes him proud. But he would also expect nothing less in Qatar.
“One thing about Qatar that is unique, and sticks out a mile, is the generosity, respect and acceptance the country shows to artists,” says Dr Sree. “It doesn’t surprise me that Qatar Foundation would take an unfinished work of Husain, complete it and then share it with the public — it’s a part of the personality of this country.”
Though the physician never met Husain, he was captivated by his style of painting, especially the use of certain colour combinations in his artwork.
“I believe that where artists are concerned, the choice of colours reflect the times they live in, and the experiences they have,” he explains.
“If you compare the manner in which Renaissance artists and Husain used combinations of red, gold and amber, you’ll notice that the European palette was far more subtle and restrained than Husain’s. Husain’s bold colour choices mirror his life — and India.”
Dr Sree notes how first-time visitors to India are generally struck by three things – noise, colour, and movement. Husain captured these attributes in his paintings. They can be seen in the bold colours he chose, and in the manner in which figures of people and animals were positioned in a frame, portraying a sense of contained energy.
The physician – who is a family medicine and occupational health specialist – can’t remember a time when he was not painting or doodling on a piece of a paper.
“Art was a part of my existence,” he says. “The only time when I had to consciously make an effort not to paint was during my studies in medical school.
“After qualifying as a doctor, I lived in another country in the region prior to coming to Qatar – I never got the chance to explore art as much as I wanted, there. So I admit I was doubtful of what I could do in Doha, especially while practising as a doctor.”
Today, Dr Sree says that his artistic experience in Qatar has surpassed all his expectations — the last 12 years have seen him produce more than 200 paintings, conduct exhibitions at Katara and venues run by Qatar Museums, lead art events supported by various embassies, and set up art groups within the community.
A visit to his home in the Salata Jadeed neighbourhood of Doha gives a better insight into the sheer number of painting he’s completed since his arrival in Qatar. Every nook and cranny is filled with framed paintings of all sizes.
In his studio on the third floor, cardboard cartons are stacked against each other, bulging with portraits, and paintings that depict animals to Arabian landscapes – and everything in between.
“It wasn’t just my art that progressed since I came to Doha. I did all this while studying further,” he explains. “I acquired three medical degrees and certifications while in Qatar. And I teach courses at Hamad Medical Corporation, too.
When asked about the influence that painting has had on his profession, he says, “I’ve noticed that my art background has continuously sharpened my observational skills. It has made me more sensitive, and taught me to be more empathetic towards my patients.”
Dr Sree says that Husain’s final art installation is more than the culmination of the artist’s life and work. He feels it is an acknowledgement of one culture by another – and reflects the artistic opportunities that are opened up to residents of Qatar.
“The magnanimity of Qataris when it comes to providing artists with an outlet for their creativity has to be experienced to be believed,” he notes. “I doubt if there is any other country in the world where I would have experienced the level of respect and recognition that I have been given here.
“The people of Qatar embrace art; it’s in their blood. I see proof of it every day; in the way the eyes of my patients light up when they learn I’m an artist; in the manner in which I am constantly invited to paint or display at exhibitions.”
“Where else would artists like me get a chance to work and exhibit artwork alongside those of renowned local artists such as Yousif al-Homaid? And which other country would choose to preserve the legacy of artists — like Husain — irrespective of nationality and culture?”
The installation comprises a suspended sculpture of Abbas Ibn Firnas, a replica of the flying machine of Leonardo da Vince, five Murano glass horses, and five vintage cars, all of which move to music selected by Husain, with a giant mosaic of horses — paying tribute to Qatar’s equine heritage and Husain’s love of the animals — forming the backdrop.
The Seeroo fi al Ardh’s main show chronicles how first nature, then machines, advanced the ambitions of people throughout the Arab region, allowing them to shape the world around them; and how — even before the European Renaissance was born — the Arab world was home to an age of enlightenment, experimentation, and innovation.
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