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Spectrum » Arts

Posted at: Mar 19, 2017, 12:57 AM; last updated: Mar 19, 2017, 2:34 AM (IST)

Man who paints Presidents

Of the 13 portraits of Presidents at Rashtrapati Bhawan, the latest two are by Chandigarh-based artist RM Singh

Sarika Sharma

There was still an hour and a half for the train to arrive. The young boy took out his sketch book and began to wield his pencil. A man noticed him, asked him if he could make his portrait. The little boy nodded and handed him the sketch in a short time. The man gave him a rupee as reward. Two more men on the train told him to make their portraits the next day. It soon became a routine. The 11-year-old was RM Singh, now known for painting official portraits of two Presidents of India, a rare achievement, an even greater honour.

Pathankot born RM Singh is a Chandigarh-based artist. He takes pride in the fact that he hasn’t ever moved out of the city to promote himself. However, his work wasn’t new to the corridors of power in Delhi when the chance to paint the President of India came up in 2012. Parliament House already had a portrait by him, that of former Punjab chief minister Gurmukh Singh Musafir. 

“Parliament House had since always housed portraits of prominent politicians and wanted to add some more. One of them was to be Musafir Sahib’s. His family approached me to make one. This was unveiled by Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister, in 2009-10,” Singh says. Former President Pratibha Patil is said to have seen it and liked it. Later, when Rashtrapati Bhawan invited artists to paint her portrait, his name cropped up too.

The selected artists had submitted their works, which were displayed in a room. Singh felt a little nervous. Around him were people who were bigger names, Vijender Sharma and Sanjay Bhattacharya among others. “They were all big names and here was I,” he says. However, deep down in his heart, he was also confident of his work. “I felt that if this would be a fair selection, I stood a fair chance,” he now tells. He was right. Three months later, when he had lost all hope of being invited to paint the outgoing President, he got a call from her office one day. “I assumed they had called me to pick the work I had submitted, but they told me that madam wanted me to paint her portrait,” he recalls.

Before his first meeting with President Patil, he had sent her way a message to wear a cream saree with golden border. But there she was, dressed in green. Singh was disappointed. As he expressed his dissatisfaction with the staff, President Patil noticed his discomfort and asked him what the matter was. Apprised about it, she had some sarees sent to Singh to select. 

RM Singh retells all incidents in great detail and with a childlike innocence and sincerity. He says that is how he is. That is why when the President’s staff felt scandalised at his touching her saree to give it a proper fall, he told them that she wanted her portrait to be the best and he would do whatever it would take to ensure that.

Present President Pranab Mukherjee’s portrait was made by Singh last year. He says that when this work was first commissioned, two-three artists, all big names again, are said to have been invited for the job. However, portraits by them were not accepted. “They were big names. I too read books by them. But they couldn’t do portraits. That is why I call this a very difficult genre. It requires extreme realism,” he says.

His portraits are life size. While the body and proportion are easy to get right, faces are a challenge. Of the two he has done for Rashtrapati Bhawan, President Patil’s was tougher. “At her age, there is a lot at play. Sometimes you are unwell... And that is where my expertise is required. You may not be feeling your best that day, but people want to look for the President of India in your portrait,” he says. Pointing at a painting of a village adorning his living room, he says landscapes are very easy and so are several other genres. But every portrait is a challenge. “The reason is that if you make a portrait and it looks ‘like’ someone, but not someone, you fail. ‘Almost’ like someone too doesn’t work with portraits. People who do contemporary might say we have had enough of portraits, but there are big names that can’t do realistic portraits.”

He says he doesn’t boast of his achievements and insists this is part of a learning process. “Aadhi umr nikal jaati hai and you begin to learn.” He says he is learning too, and how!

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