After a Decade Painting Signs on Delhi’s Streets, Akhlaq Ahmed Is Breaking into the Art World
In early February, when the Delhi-based painter Akhlaq Ahmed unveiled a giant mural at the entrance to India Art Fair, the country’s largest contemporary art event, few among the crowd of international attendees could have guessed what the artist had been through to get there.
On Delhi’s streets, Ahmed—who goes by the name Sabbu—is something of a local phenomenon. Since 2004, the artist has painted thousands of signs for food stands and juice sellers around the Indian capital, making him one of the city’s best-known artists—and one of only very few sign painters still practicing the trade.
Raised as one of seven children in a humble agrarian family, he had no particular artistic aspirations growing up; his first drawings were incidental. “My brother opted for science as a subject in school and bullied me into finishing his diagrams!” Ahmed tells me.
One day, having fallen asleep under a tree instead of watering a field on the family farm, Ahmed was badly scolded by his father. Afraid of his father’s wrath and weighed down with guilt, he ran away from his village, Bahraich, in Uttar Pradesh, that same day. At age 16, he arrived alone, with no money, in the megalopolis of Mumbai.
Ahmed enrolled in a Mumbai high school in order to finish his studies, but he needed a job to sustain himself. He found work as a tea boy in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s insalubrious red light district. Close by was the iconic Alfred Cinema—one of the city’s oldest soft porn movie theatres—and a studio where billboards and advertisements for Bollywood films were painted. Ahmed soon found work as an assistant in the studio, at first painting subtitles for film posters on burlap sacks for 25 rupees (around $0.37) per day. Before long—recognizing his natural skill—Ahmed’s superiors promoted him.
Ahmed’s talent with a brush led him to work in the studio of the legendary Bollywood film director and special effects master Babubhai Mistry. During this time, he met Mistry’s daughter, who introduced him to the Sir J.J.School of Art. With the encouragement of another student at J.J., Ahmed decided to enroll in art school, though he would need to earn the money for tuition first.
In 2004, fed up with his struggling existence in Mumbai, Ahmed moved to Delhi. When he got there, he found that all the sign painters there had been replaced by digital vinyl printing done by machines. Forced to start over again, he set up a street stand selling omelettes. “I managed to meet ends somehow by doing odd jobs, cutting corners on my food, my clothing, and somehow managing to get by,” he recalls.
Still keen to study art, he applied to the prestigious Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi, but was rejected due to his poor English. He studied hard to improve, and reapplied the following year. Finally, in 2008, he was accepted and enrolled. Though tuition was still a challenge.
Ahmed was earning barely enough money to get by with his omelettes, so when a juice seller asked him to paint a sign, he jumped at the offer. The sign was a hit among the local street sellers, and soon others were requesting signs of their own.
Each night after closing his own stand at 10 p.m., Ahmed would paint until the early hours of the following morning, before returning to school at 8 a.m. for class. For a 6-by-3-foot sign, he earned around $50. Ahmed says he’s lost count, though estimates he’s made over a thousand of these signs, earning enough to cover his schooling at Jamia Millia Islamia.
After finishing school, Ahmed’s street signs would help him again. An advertising executive from a Delhi-based firm, Hanif Kureshi, had spotted one of Ahmed’s signs, and contacted the artist (who includes his phone number alongside his signature on all of his works). Kureshi became a mentor and patron to Ahmed and helped him get his first public commissions and inclusions in festivals. In 2014, Ahmed made his international debut at London’s Southbank Centre with a mural for the annual Alchemy festival.
Galleries are now beginning to take interest in the 32-year-old artist as well. For India Art Fair, Ahmed was commissioned to create a mural for the entrance to the fair, which was presented with Delhi’s Gallery Ragini. The mural, titled Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (2017), spelled out “Progression,” in the artist’s signature, striking style, a symbol of his own journey of succeeding against all odds. Though it also speaks to the role of tradition among a rapidly modernizing city.
“His journey, where he came from to his current art practice is highly commendable,” says Rajnish J Jain, director of Gallery Ragini, which began to represent Ahmed in 2016. He adds that they plan to show Ahmed’s work in other international venues, and have begun to introduce him to curators.
Ahmed’s work still retains many aspects of sign painting, like assertive colours, block letters, graphic lines, and visual puns, though his somewhat kitschy, pop aesthetic draws more heavily on contemporary culture than historic tradition. And while Ahmed has begun to establish himself in the art world, he’s nostalgic about his past. “Sometimes I feel that the digital fleeces have come in the way of the fabulous painted film posters and billboards,” he says, acknowledging the vanishing art of sign painting in Delhi. “I loved painting those. I miss those times—I wish I could still do that.”