Con-accountant, chartered artist
Adil Abedi has travelled from London to New York to Mumbai to Dubai juggling many careers to find his metier as a calligraphy artist. These days, the 27-year-olds works are much in demand in celebrity circuits.
ART DECOR: Some of Adil's intricate works hanging on people's walls and adorning their homes
“I’m 27-years-old now. I know, I’m getting old…” says Adil Abedi, but I’m not quite sure if that nonchalance betrays modesty, a genuine feeling of aging or if it’s just one of those cool things you say when you’re in your 20s. There is one thing that he has absolutely no need to hide behind a veil of modesty — the fact that in the last six years of his life, he has ‘lived’. From a degree he never really wanted, to a 9-5 job he hated, to an acting career that fizzled before it could pop, to being a celebrated calligraphy artist on the road, Adil hasn’t merely survived. If you’ve ever sat staring at the luminous glow of that 17” monitor in front of you and wondered ‘what the heck am I doing with my life’, then Adil’s saga might just nudge you in the right direction. (Of course, these things are situational, and as a disclaimer I should state that my working theory is that we’re all victims of circumstance: where you grow up, what your parents are like, what kind of friends you hung out with… and so on.)
This ‘fortunate’ circumstance, for Adil, was getting fired from his 9-5 job, which allowed him to do what he was meant to — paint. Today, his brushstrokes give life not just to inspirational words, quotes from the Holy Quran or lines from poems, but also give life to the interiors of homes with his bold colours and Swarovski crystal embedded artwork. “My selling point is probably that every painting is customised. I usually go to houses, and customise the colours based on the interiors and I put crystals in them — I guess the whole bling factor is in vogue in Dubai,” he laughs. But becoming a painter, selling art and being commissioned to paint for Bollywood celebs was not what Adil thought he would be doing a year ago. Painting, to Adil, was like a grip on a movie set — in the peripheral background, but never centre stage.
In six years, Adil went from accountancy to acting to art — “At least I’ve kept it all in the ‘A’s,” jokes the London-based artist. The youngest of three siblings, and with a doctor already in the family, his dad ‘nudged’ him into finance so he could be a chartered accountant. So Adil spent three years studying finance in London and got a 9-5 job in 2008. “Yeah, I got fired from that job,” he laughs, “mostly because I really hated it and did it for three years just because I had to.” Then, Adil landed a marketing job at the BBC, a short stint he says he enjoyed because it tapped into his creative side, “organising campaigns, doing ads, working with minor British celebrities and all that.”
But then Adil began to fall into a lull he just couldn’t shake — an early onset of quarter-life crisis perhaps. He always wanted to be an actor, which was categorically rubbished by the ’rents. Nevertheless, he got accepted into Anupam Kher’s acting school in Mumbai, paid half the fees and got ready to go when an offer for a production assistant for a new show at the BBC presented itself. “I thought it would be a great opportunity, so I decided to skip the acting school. A month into the job they got rid of the position. They basically said ‘we don’t need you anymore’ and that was that. But, on the sly, I had applied to The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York, did the auditions and got accepted. When the job fell through, I just told my dad ‘I’m going, I already paid for it, shush, don’t say anything to me now!’ and left for New York in August 2011.”
For the next seven months Adil spent what he says were some of the best days in his life, meeting interesting people from all walks of life, particularly in the acting business. “It’s where I met Shakira’s cousin Valerie Dominguez” — a connection we’ll come to in just a bit — “It was an awesome experience.” From NYC it was off to another metropolitan movie hub — Mumbai, although that’s about where the similarities end. “It was the toughest thing I’ve done in my life, but I wouldn’t take any of it back.”
Adil spent about 10 months in Mumbai, doing everything from soap commercials to a role in Mere Haule Dost, an indie movie. All the while painting was going on, on the sidelines, with a few friends and acquaintances requesting some of his calligraphy paintings for themselves. But it played second fiddle to the highly-strung manic lifestyle that Adil was rapidly trying to get himself accustomed to. “Painting has always been there in the background, throughout my life. I guess some would call it innate ‘talent’ but it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed, but never really actively pursued. I’ve always painted on the side, despite this list of things that I was doing with my life.”
After his first movie, he began work on his second project, which was a role he was rather chuffed about. “I beat out some 40 applicants for the role of Shabana Azmi’s son — but the film got canned. After a while I realised it was time to pack up and leave.”
When Adil got back to London in February last year, he was back at that familiar dead-end.
This time, however, there was a twist.
Adil came to Dubai for a friend’s engagement and one of his closest friends coaxed him into showing off some of his paintings. He had always reckoned that there were plenty of local artists in the UAE that did arabesque paintings and calligraphy for him to make any solid headway. Besides, he was still painting on the sidelines for a creative outlet and thinking about acting. “We had an informal dinner, people came over, saw the paintings and really liked them. It’s funny because even though I knew Arabic calligraphy, I never really thought I would be doing it in Dubai. I guess I didn’t even think it was viable because there are probably hundreds of artists here who already do it.”
One lady was so impressed that she offered to host an exhibition of his work at her house. All he had to do was bring 30 paintings to Dubai by February. “I left for London in October, and the next three months, I cooped myself up in my studio and churned out 30 paintings. I flew them over in February for the exhibition, managed to sell 24 of the 30 I brought along, got orders for more, and basically that’s what I do now,” he says.
The ‘customisable’ factor has brought Adil back, well, not really full circle — more like three quarters — to Bollywood. Now he’s on the radars of Arjun Rampal, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Suzanne Roshan to paint customised creations that will adorn their homes in Mumbai. He’s got another exhibition lined up this September in Dubai and then another in Mumbai and one in New York. “Art has literally become full time in the past year and it was completely unplanned.” And that Shakira connection: he’s doing one for the singer as well, all thanks to a certain cousin he met in NYC.
For someone who studied finance, became an accountant, an actor, and then an artist, Adil is certain of one thing. “I know I’m not a 9-5 person. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. For the first time in a long time I’m happy. I look at my friends with 9-5 jobs and wonder sometimes if that’s what I should do. They can plan their lives, go on holiday knowing that they can earn that expenditure the next month, and all of that. Whereas me, I’m dependant on getting orders, fulfilling them and delivering,” says Adil. “All my friends with 9-5 jobs hate them, but they’re stuck. They say, ‘Adil, you’ve lived’, while they’ve merely gone through the grind.”
It’s worth noting in all this that Adil’s self-taught. And despite his vagrancy, is still a bit of a momma’s boy, referring to elders by the customary ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’. He draws inspiration from so many influential figures like M F Husain, Jackson Pollock, and even his mom’s saris. “My great granddad was Iranian, so we have Arabic roots in my family. My mom is originally from Karachi and my dad’s Indian. So I try to draw inspiration from both sides.”
His mom, he says, is the emotional and creative one in the family and greatly influences his works. “If I’m working on a canvas and she walks in and goes ‘meh’, then it’s probably rubbish and I’ll just start over.
“My grandmother taught me Arabic calligraphy, to read the Quran and write. She passed away the year I started doing all this — before she could actually see my stuff. I still don’t call myself a calligrapher because I paint instead of writing script in one fluid motion. But I hope that I get there.”
As far as acting goes, he still hasn’t quite given up on it. “I think acting will always be there, and if the right opportunity comes along, I might even consider it” — a role-reversal of sorts with painting.
But he owes to his stint in Mumbai for making him a better-rounded person. There was a time when he was auditioning like a crazy person, washing his clothes in a bucket, waking up at five in the morning, having trouble getting a place to stay — and he was complaining constantly to his parents. But in the end, the experience turned out to be a life lesson: “It was amazing. I have to give credit to the ingenuity of Indians. The chaos breeds innovation, because if something went wrong, they had to think of a solution quickly.”
Dealing hands-on with the Indian ‘mentality’ also changed Adil’s outlook on things. “I realised I became much more flexible and I kind of just went with the flow. Before, I think I was just more worried about controlling everything. Now, I’m excited to go back to Mumbai on my own terms.” He’s glad that instead of grovelling for roles, he can now invite people to his exhibition and get to meet the celebs that he didn’t get to when he was living there and doing the acting thing. “Now I get to meet them through my art and say, ‘hey, I’m not a failure.’”
From a dead-end ‘surviving’, Adil’s now painting his way to a ‘living’.