In the walled city of Dilli 6, down a maze of streets brimming with heady spices, Kafeel Ahmed Ansari welcomes us into his two by two metre sized room with plastic cups of fizzy orange Mirinda, introducing us proudly to family members like his son. Surrounded by life size canvases and piles of poster rolls, we huddle together and talk in Hindi, the only language aside from painting that he knows.
Originally from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, Kafeel recounts his story. “My father was a shopkeeper but he was also dharmic – an imam in the mosque. He was educated, cultured and cooperative with my dreams. My teacher was an ustad [highly skilled person], he used to teach me calligraphy, so my classmates would get me to write in their notebooks for them. Then there was an artist that used to paint on boards outside his house in the gully. I used to come from school and stand behind him for hours, watching him work.” Kafeel kickstarted his own career by investing in some improvised self-promotion. “I bought a bicycle in 1980 and bolted a signboard on the front and back. That’s how I started to get work when I moved to Delhi.”
Today, Painter Kafeel’s folksy truck-art type can be seen on the book cover of Akash Kapur’s India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, raved about by NYC critics as the New Republic’s Editors’ and Writers’ Pick, 2012. It’s also graced the sleeve of Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City. If the job comes to the artist via handpaintedtype.com, fifty per cent of profits go to the painters, the other half goes back to the cause.
“I get more orders from outside,” explains Kafeel. “Foreigners want more in depth work. Hanif gets me orders off the internet, and calls me every two weeks to pass them on to me. My wife complains I haven’t painted her yet, but I am just inundated with work.”
As he rummages through the mass of paintings, brushes and art equipment in the tight space, we discuss the industrialised factories wiping out his craft. “Even a machine needs an artistic operator. If they don’t have a creative brain, they won’t produce the results,” says Kafeel, who’s taught himself to be computer literate through experimental button bashing. Adjusting his glasses, he explains why he believes his work will still always have a place.