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Art of Struggle or Struggle for Art
The celebrated painting wizard Toofan Rafai, has redefined the Progressive Art Movement with his simplicity towards life and unfathomable quest for art. He is a natural genius and a true inspiration across generations. Even at the age of 92, he has willingness and hopefulness for learning the art and its varied genres. Despite his early teetered days, which kept him abandoned of so many necessities, he was certain of his conviction and love for art. His exuberance for life is noteworthy and that life is at all times beautiful and can always be made more meaningful with one’s acts.
Artist Toofan Rafai is as gracious as his reserved persona in the field of art. A disciple of legend M.F. Husain, Rafai is a senior artist and possesses a distinguished style of painting. Like his unique art techniques, it is aptly clear whatever he did or took up willingly he simply excelled. Tracing the remnants of his early life and his narratives, it leaves one contemplating, whether he has imbibed in him the art of struggle into his life or it is the struggle for art persistently, that makes him stand tall and upright. Probably, Rafai himself doesn’t have the answer, because he is too humble, a man to think of himself. Only a selfless soul like him could have let go of an opportunity for studying in Paris that was offered to him by respected literary Jivraj Mehta, for he had to be there for his family and sustain it by staying back in India.
Rafai is an expert in vegetable dyeing and owns the credit of discovering about 300 different shades at a very young age. Then rewarded by Gandhiji for his unearthing skills, he was inspired by his philosophy for life too - ‘Be simple in living and high in thinking.’ Rafai is rather the best example of simplicity in modern times as he sits down dressed in plain cotton pant shirt, and converses softly and luminously summing up his life’s shades and experiences. His account of meagre resources and the tough days in his early life only leaves him with a sparkle of joy in his eyes and his smile. What keeps him so energetic and up for the conversation at the age of 92, probably it would take longer to understand after knowing that his fight back and great efforts were plentiful.
Toofan Rafai was born in 1921 in the small town of Amreli, Gujarat. He attained his diploma in drawing and painting from Sir J. J. School of Arts, Bombay in 1955. Later, he pursued a postgraduate study in Mural Decoration in 1956, with the help of a scholarship from the government of India. From 1960-1979, Rafai served as the Assistant Director at Weavers Service Centre. From 1979 onwards his work experience speaks of several research and development projects as well as innumerable workshops being conducted by him in dyeing and printing using natural dyes at various national and international academic institutions and art centres. Apart from these, Rafai is known for his position as a consultant in natural dyes and printing at National Institute of Design (N.I.D.) and Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India. He has also been a founder member of the Art Council of Indian Artists, New Delhi and has held significant positions in many other art-based organisations across the country.
The decision of staying back for his family in India was an outcome of the tremendous respect, Rafai nurtured in his heart for his parents right from his childhood. Talking about his father, Rafai describes how great a man he was, who always had a vision of starting a three-year session school, where every student is atleast taught basic chores of life, if not more. With hardly any penny in his pocket, Rafai’s father had the courage to foresee events of significance and change in the lives of his countrymen after the British rule ended. Rafai narrates exhilaratingly how his mother used to wash Rafai’s Gandhi topi with ‘soda khar’ (extracted from river water), as detergents were not affordable by the family. It is close to unbelievable, when Rafai recalls, having remembered those harsh days when the family couldn’t even buy milk, “Doodh male to cha su kam pivi pade (If we could procure milk, why would we drink tea?). It was then that they would indeed attend every prabhat fer’, a religious procession where they would buy some tea and snacks for one paisa! Not only did they strive for food, but even for money, which forced him to manage both schooling and working simultaneously. At that age, the only work he could get himself was of a cleaner in nearby houses or as he puts it, “Ramla nu kaam karto to!”
Even while he speaks much gleefully and shares his childhood days, one can easily find him still dwelling on that time endlessly. But his undefined struggle for did not end there for life surely did have more in store for Rafai. Mulaji family for which he worked in Gujarat, shifted to the city of Mumbai and took him along. The family there opened their own saw-mill and Rafai became a carpenter from a household cleaner. Rafai’s relation with Hussain was established in those earlier days (1953-54), when they both were employed by the Wada Mulaji (Bohraji) in Mumbai. Rafai worked at the saw-mill while Hussain painted the cinema posters with wages of nearly 300-350 rupees. Together they had seen and lived days of immense struggle, Rafai quips sharply remembering those times, when meals cost not more than 50 paisa and cheap rooms could be availed only in the red-light area.
Occasionally, when Rafai travelled in the local trains of Mumbai for work, he often got disheartened on seeing a group of youth almost his age – celebrating and enjoying life with no limitations. Seeing all this filled him with sadness and pain, and he often broke down while walking back from the station. A soft spoken person, Rafai accounts sadly, “I used to cry and complain to God....for this disparity”, and while at the same he also tried to find his own meaning out of it. Lost in such gloomy thoughts of his life and inequality within the society, one day while working on the machines, Rafai’s hand slipped accidentally into the machines and he lost his fingers. He was rushed to J. J. Hospital for treatment where another streak of light ushered into his life.
Lying on the bed in the hospital, Rafai had nothing else to do and so, shared his life and stories with the nurse-in-charge there. Slowly, they became really close friends and one day she came to know about Rafai’s most passionate hobby - painting. She brought him all the stationery and materials, which he probably needed the most at that time, and it was at this time, Rafai invested the act with his own passion and came up with numerous art works in those forty days. This boosted up his confidence and as soon as he was discharged from the hospital, Rafai ran barefoot to J. J. College of Arts, Mumbai. Prof. Fernandes, the nurse’s bother who already knew about him by then, introduced him and his works to Mr. Gerard, the dean of the School. But, owing to lack of any formal certification of completing his previous studies, he was appointed at the toy-making workshop. In later years, Rafai was transferred to Fine Arts Department on account of his works and experience. Rafai, embalmed over the life’s hidden treasures and of trodden paths he walked away, pauses before narrating more about his life to share something more inevitable. He was reminded of travelling in train again, but this time he was with his group of friends having a good time and he exclaims before admitting, “I felt amazed at God’s game!”
Since then life for Rafai has always been about moving ahead and no looking back or there has been no space for any regret. Finally later in his life, he travelled to Paris and even to USA, but this time for teaching young students. He has always exhibited keen interest in researching, drawing, painting and teaching students, a way to continue to hone his skills and art activities. Here, Rafai subtly adds, “apde koi birla k tata thavu nathi” (I am not interested in attaining the stature of any Birla or Tata).
Rafai often engages himself in making art works for children, for he connects well with the children and understands their psychology with a great depth. With his modest endeavours, he has contentedly conducted workshops on various subjects across the globe. He has also held solo exhibitions of paper collages, wall-hangings, drawings and paintings in all the major art centres of India, Bangladesh and USA. Even today at this age, he still presents study papers on natural dyes in important forums. Being well-commended for his tall walk, he has been awarded the highest award in folk art presented by the Government of Gujarat – the Mahanubhava Award. He has also been conferred upon the Lalit Kala Academy Award for paper collage and the Mumbai Art Society Award, amongst many others.
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