Suji Narikal Velayuthan is a multi-talented artist and a dedicated art teacher. Behind his smiling face and generous heart is a story waiting to be told. Alvin Thomas delves deeper
Waiting for Suji at the entrance of his school, I was preparing for a brisk interview. I knew I had to grab him during his break because he had already alerted me that he wouldn’t be available for long. He was going to be teaching his class all evening.
A few minutes later, an enthusiastic Suji comes out of his class, grabs my hand and takes me inside. “We will be fine here,” he exclaims. “I need to keep an eye on my students today. We have a few newbies who will need me here.”
To avoid being distracted by numerous paintings inside, I quickly settle down on one of the backbenches, and finally get set for our interview.
One of his works, depicting a woman being attacked by eagles, catches my eye. I ask him to describe the story behind it.
“A bit disturbing, isn’t it?” he asks. “This picture draws the emotions of a woman being chained down by our society.”
He further explains how the eagle symbolises the various trials and tribulations faced by women on a daily basis.
Digging into his past, I learn he inherited his awareness of women’s issues from his mother, Rajamma. Born in Perumbavoor, a municipality in the district of Ernakulam, Kerala, Suji says when he was six, the family was devastated by a medical error that paralysed his father’s legs. This meant his mother had to work odd hours through the night to support the family.
When he was 15, Suji had to take on some responsibility for the needs of his parents. It meant putting aside his passion for arts and crafts to work as a metal worker, making idols for his temple, alongside his studies.
In the following years, he joined Chitralaya, an institute of fine arts in Kerala, in 1992.
He continued to support his family by acting and singing in dramas and musicals, joining local companies as an amateur and playing support characters to earn some money.
Suji then went to Mumbai in 1996 to learn metal design. His expertise in metal work was put into practice when he was asked to inject some of his artistry into the Lion Capital of Ashoka (the official emblem of India) at the High Court of Kerala in Kochi.
Suji had to lay the metal plate on fine sand and use trial-and-error methods with a hammer to create the statue because he couldn’t afford the appropriate tools.
His passion to pursue teaching came to life when he joined Greets Public School, an American management school in Kerala, as an instructor. The drive and skill he showed there inspired many of his students to pursue art as a major in the coming years, he says.
His enthusiasm as a teacher also led to him being invited by friends to teach students in Oman.
Obliging, he made his way to Oman in 2008. Since then, he worked briefly at an Omani school in Ghala, before taking a full-time position as an art teacher at Kalamandalam, an art institute in Ghubra (it also has a branch in Ruwi). Currently, he has more than 100 students, from whom he says there is always something to learn.
Suji, 38, teaches students everything from charcoal painting, coffee painting, solar-wood artistry and scalpel painting to more traditional art forms such as sketching and colouring.
In addition, Suji creates chocolate models in malls across Oman, such as the camel pictured above left. Sponsored by Tiffany & Co, he creates structures using more than 200kg of chocolate. Omani houses, the Burj Khalifa and other Islamic structures are some of the works that he has exhibited over the years.
The artist has also put on more than five exhibitions in Oman featuring his students’ work. He says his most recent exhibition, entitled Magic Fingers, had around 50 participants and welcomed up to 500 visitors. He is now drawing up plans for an exhibition later this year.
But before I can ask him anything about it, his work sidetracks him. The buzzing class needs him now so I decide to cut the interview short by asking him if he has anything to say about the recent shift in the interests of youngsters across the country.
“Today’s youth is very talented,” he says. “The advent of smartphones and other electronics may have crippled the minds of youngsters but I believe creativity will always find a way to inspire the youth, be it through canvas, or the screen of a smartphone. You just have to find a way for it to take shape.”
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