Born: 16 April 1914
Died: 30 June 1985

K.H. Ara - Artworks


Still life as a genre of painting in India was to come into its own with Krishnaji Howlaji Ara. While artists like Souza and Raza had made forays into this form, it was only with Ara that there was a consistent preoccupation with its meter and substance. The most intuitive of the modernists, he, at the same time, used classical devices to extend the language of paint. Ara’s ceaseless experiments with bowls, fruits and vases with flowers were to develop a compositional syntax to which he lent a rugged buoyancy and an unremitting compassion. His singular achievement lay in coalescing these elements into a distinctive style, which made quite an impact on the period. Ara’s early works were based on human situations, which he turned into compositions much in the manner of textbook life studies. These were generic studies of fishing trawlers, men and women at wedding receptions, and horse-riders, akin to the academic style taught in art schools and reminiscent of turn-of-the-century painters like Dhurandhar and Abalal Rahiman. In many ways, Ara’s lack of formal training could be seen as an advantage, for in his struggle for articulation there were no academic impositions. As eclectic and raw as his painterly forms were, they were at the same time authentic to his inner striving and were later to be turned to a stunning advantage. Even at this stage, however, what could be evidenced was a penchant for compositions that drew from the quick of life, the raw edge as it were.

Ara made an astonishing entry into the art world, something that could only have been achieved by his individual personality and in the formative period of Indian art in the 1940s. The son of a bus driver in Bolarum near Secunderabad, Ara was born in 1914. He lost his mother at the age of three, and when his father remarried he had to go through many unhappy days. In 1921, when he was seven, he ran away to Bombay and was engaged as a domestic servant by a European woman. On discovering that he could paint, she bought him water-colours and encouraged him. He still continued to serve as a domestic help and in 1930, while working for an Englishman C.C. Gullielan, he took part in Gandhi’s salt satyagraha. He was arrested and jailed for five months, but Gullielan had him released. Free but jobless, he was taken in by a friend - a chauffeur with a Japanese firm, the Yokohama Corporation. There he would wash cars for Rs 18 a month, and then would paint in his spare time. In the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Japanese owner of the firm disappeared overnight. Ara took over the responsibility of looking after the house and guarded his employer’s interests for years. Meanwhile, he continued to live in the servants’ quarters, a 10 x 10 ft. room at Walkeshwar, which was to double as his studio for the rest of his life. It was Rudi von Leyden, however, who not only detected the earliest signs of talent in the young artist, but was also to become his staunchest supporter. As Ara was jobless, Leyden offered him a small stipend and took care of all his expenses so that he could devote himself entirely to painting. In 1942, Ara had his first one-man show at the Chetana Restaurant at Rampart Row, organized by Kekoo Gandhi and inaugurated by Raja Rao, then a struggling writer. The show was a sell-out at a profit of Rs. 2,000, a princely sum of him, and he took the money to Leyden to pay off his debt. Leyden promptly refused to accept it and told Ara that he was now on his own as a painter.

It cannot be said with certainty when Ara turned towards painting still life, but it was around the late 1940s and all through the 1950s that he continued to make varied substantive studies of objects. It is possible that his association with the Progressive Artists Group heightened his innate modernism and stimulated him into turning towards the classic preoccupations of the painterly image. A deliberate roughness in both drawing and applying paint is the most striking aspect of his still life paintings. The hallmark of Ara’s still life works was the astonishing effect he created in white. The colour which in itself is artificial as it is not found in nature, was used by him to mould form. In a composition with a jug, a bowl of grapes, and a plate of apples, the white—thickly-layered and with the colours showing through—overflows one from the other making them part of the canvas and yet distinct from it. Ara’s achievement lay in fusing a raw sensuality with a calculated structuring, thereby revitalizing the entire still life genre. He constantly experimented with paint to acquire what he describes as the ‘honest expression of form’. There is a rough, uneven, jagged look to all his still life paintings, with minimal attention to details, which distinguishes his work from others. He painted mostly in water-colour but he evolved his own technique by which he made it it look like an oil painting. This he achieved by applying his colours straight from the tube and then spreading it in a dry impasto method. Essentially a colourist, his device of using white was entirely original and full-bodied, allowing him to mould his surface into infinite recesses.

Having experienced life from the underside, Ara was an innate humanist and was known to help many young artists in need of organizing their shows, sending out invitations, and visiting newspaper offices. The most enduring quality that remained with him was his compassion for others, which manifested itself in small acts of kindness. On his fiftieth birthday in 1965, paintings from all periods of his life were exhibited and Ara insisted in their price being a uniform Rs 100. This was at a time when his work could be sold at almost ten times the value. Needless to say, all the paintings were sold. Towards his later years, Ara had begun to make paintings that repeated themselves, emulating his earlier work. A considerable amount of his time was spent looking after the activities of the Artist’s Centre, of which he was the secretary. He also devoted himself to bringing up his adopted daughter Ruksana. At the time when Ara was climbing the ladder of success in the 1950s, he consulted a lawyer, Hyder Pathan, to help him with some documents before leaving for Europe. Somewhat in awe of the well-known artist, Pathan persuaded him to teach his wife, Zainab, an aspiring painter. As the friendship deepened, Ara became a frequent visitor to the house. A few years later, when their daughter Ruksana was born, she was brought up more by Ara than by her own parents.

Ara’s death on June 30, 1985 was as poignant as his life. Since Ruksana was born, he would visit the Pathans every evening and have dinner with them, after which he would leave for his tiny room in Walkeshwar. No matter how late it would get, he would go by bus even if he could get a lift, he would refuse it. But in his final week, he started staying overnight with the Pathans without any persuasion. On his last night, he slept on the floor to straighten his back. He rose early, dressed himself, and died on the chair, quietly.

Text Reference:
Excerpts from the book The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives by Yashodara Dalmia published by Oxford University Press, New Delhi in 2001


  • Governor’s Award for Painting, India, 1944
  • Gold Medal, Bombay Art Society, 1952
  • Windsor & Newton Prize, Bombay


  • Krishnaji Howlaji Ara: The Still Meaning of Life, Kishore Singh, Delhi Art Gallery, 2011
  • The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, Yashodara Dalmia, Oxford University Press, 2001


Top 10 Auction Records

Title Price Realized
Untitled USD 105,231
Untitled (Still Life Against Landscape) USD 55,645
The Day After USD 46,000
Untitled USD 38,824
Untitled (Village Scene) USD 37,884
Untitled USD 34, 650
Seated Female Nude USD 30,475
Untitled USD 30,000
Untitled USD 28,125
Untitled (Landscape) USD 27,500