A Brief Hour of Beauty

(Images: Edmund Thomas Clint/ "A Brief Hour of Beauty" by Ammu Nair)
Clint was one of the greatest painters to come out of Kerala. He was only seven when he died.

Edmund Thomas Clint painted colours with the skill of Van Gogh, sketched wildlife with a skill that seasoned painters struggle to achieve, and depicted Hindu temples, rituals and Gods with a flair that for some, was not only supernatural but fatal.

In a lifetime of work, Clint made 25,000 paintings, most of them from his parent’s flat in a suburban apartment in the city of Kochi. When he passed away in 1983, from renal kidney disease, Clint was seven years of age.

In that short life, he created 25,000 pictures in 2,300 days.

Kochi in watercolours

Ammu Nair’s book “A Brief Hour of Beauty,” tells the story of an artistic genius, who died far before his time. Reading through the book, in a way, takes you through those 2,300 days and countless more moments that encompass the brief entirety of Clint’s life.

Clint’s parents, M.T. Joseph and Chinnama Joseph, have long suffered from the pain of Clint’s loss. In what could not have been an easy process, Ammu interviews them in great depth and tells the story of Clint’s first painting, his first inspiration and the many small anecdotes that make him much more than just a child prodigy.

We learn that Clint, though born a Christian, was fascinated by Hindu mythology – and had a level of understanding of it that eludes many fully-grown adults. Ganapathi was his favourite deity, and he painted countless impressions of the Hindu pantheon. These are not mere replications of the deity – for many of them, he had yet to even see an image. The world that Clint painted was one that was narrated to him by his loving parents. 1970s-era Kochi was not a place of the internet nor one of televised imagery. Clint’s visual imagination was very much his own – aided in part by comic books like Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle.

Consider his painting of Ravan – depicting the eponymous ‘villain’ of the Ramayana the day before his final, fatal battle with Ram.

This is no simple view of a character, who for most children, would be much more easily villain-ified. Clint knew that Ravan, in the story, is also an accomplished scholar and yogic practitioner. He just happened to play his cards wrong, and this painting captures the moment of realization.

It can be easy to think of Clint as a prodigy. But giving us the context and nuance of Clint’s thoughts and upbringing, Ammu proves the argument that he is better remembered as an Artist – with a capital A.

What science makes this possible? How does a child learn to draw in such fine, sure strokes (Clint never erased a single line of his work) before he has even learned to speak? Those who have dabbled in the art will know the struggle that comes with drawing a perfect circle. In many art schools, this is one of the most common exercises – to draw circle after circle until perfection is achieved. Clint achieved perfection when he was two-years-old.

Ammu takes us through the gallery of Clint’s work through the ages. Every painting has a beautiful anecdote to it – narrated by parents who remembered every word and expression. It is difficult to read through these when you know the outcome – a life that ended far too soon. And perhaps the most heartbreaking portrait comes when Clint is a few months from turning three – and bedridden in a hospital. It was the first time that doctors diagnosed something wrong with him, but without knowing what it was. Clint lay in a hospital, miserable and sick; his parents beside him haggard and weary. They never separated him from his drawing tools, and he made an impromptu sketch of his father sitting in worry beside his bed.

Joseph has kept this drawing in his Bible, ever since.

By and large, Clint’s paintings speak for themselves. Ironically, the young artist lost his first ever drawing contest – where a team of judges from the contemporary art world awarded him a consolatory prize. This, for an artist who could draw an anatomically-correct skeleton – and who was asked to draw on the children’s theme “your house”.

Not that Clint was incapable of simplicity in theme. Nature was his biggest inspiration. If in one drawing, you can see a herd of elephants racing each other (a large, masterpiece of complexity and joint placement), in another, you will see just a single, solitary bird, flapping its wings and soaring into the unknown.

By the time the book reaches Clint’s stint with watercolours, it’s difficult not to view the results with disbelief.

Clint’s first watercolour painting
A painting Clint made as a gift

Towards the end of his life, Clint demonstrated many styles in his work – perhaps today we would call them modernist, impressionist, expressionist, temple art, and so on. His ability to depict emotions in animals is spectacular. As always, the pictures speak for themselves.

Clint’s journey ended shortly after turning seven, on the day of the Kerala New Year – Vishu. Many years after his passing, his parents met a troupe of temple Theyyam artists and showed them a famous picture of Clint’s depiction of the Theyyam of Mochilotu Bhagavathy. It was Clint’s last painting.

The makeup artists, then, did not know who the parents were. In a hushed voice, they asked if they could urgently meet with the painter. Joseph asked them why, and the make-up artist explained – that Theyyam make-up is deliberately left incomplete, for its completion is said to bring death. Clint, in his final work, has completed the work in a cacophony of colour.

Theyyam of Muchilottu Bhagavathy, the universal mother

A book like this leaves you musing on the meaning of life. Throughout the narration of Clint’s life, you can see loving parents who made sure that they never denied their child’s curiosity. Ammu’s book ends masterfully with a recognition of this. They are the survivors who bear the heavy legacy of the boy who is now, one of Kerala’s greatest painters.

Many parents hope, dream and cajole their children to become prodigies. But Clint’s life shows us that art sometimes comes with a terrible price. The brevity of Clint’s life is among the greatest tragedies of contemporary Indian art. But, every last one of his 25,000 paintings carries a potent message of art, inspiration and reflection. No artist dies whose art survives.

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