Life can be one blank canvas where we are called upon to paint the way we want. This is what exactly one odd couple has been doing since they came together overcoming odds of frailty, pessimism, distance and even culture. For Kozhikode-based mouth-painter Jesfer Kottakkunnu and poet-writer Fathima Dhofar, their spectacular love story is the best artwork they have pieced together.
Paralyzed neck-down at the age of 13 following a rare genetic disease, Jesfer's rise to an internationally acclaimed mouth-painter is inspiring. Meanwhile, his partner Fathima, with her unswerving persistence as a poet, stood the winds of geographical and social challenges in her decision to unite with her unseen, unheard lover living in another country. After all, the art of love is the art of persistence. Their successful union is testimony to the saying, "Where there is great love, there are miracles".
Thirty-two-year-old Jesfer, a native of Malappuram, is one among the 20 Indian contributors to the International Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Association (IMPFA), a welfare body that takes over the works of selected talents from all over the world and markets them globally. Fathima, having published her first book, a collection of 20 Malayalam poems at the age of 21, has several other publications in her kitty. The couple opens up to Onmanorama, about their art, love and the journey together.
How did you meet and fall in love?
Jesfer: I had been hopeless and hesitant about marriage after a series of physical and emotional setbacks. I was barely 10 years old when the doctors of Sree Chithra Medical Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, revealed that there is no cure for my degenerating health. Though I couldn't fathom the intensity of that statement then, I later realised that I would be stuck to wheelchair within some time and couldn't ever be rescued from my fate. It took me more than three years to finally accept the fact that I wasn't going to swim or play or run around like my elder brother. Once I accepted it, I lost my hope in life and started approaching everything with indifference.
I had met Fathima on Facebook almost one-and-a-half years before we tied the knot in November, 2015. I had several friends on and out of social media, who passionately criticised, appreciated and encouraged my art. Many engage in personal conversations with me and become good friends who stay for short whiles. Fathima, however, persistently chatted with me, asked about my health, artworks and family, and gave me good company. I noticed that she wasn't getting bored even after hours of a chat session.
Fathima is a free soul who believes in independence and self-reliance. She strongly criticised my works in a way that I was forced to introspect. She recited meaningful poems to me in voice messages and stirred my imagination. I grew so passionate about her that I wanted her company in real life also.
Fathima: I started teaching in a UAE school after my graduation in English Literature. I was born and raised there in our progressive family consisting of father, mother and two younger sisters. We weren't raised in orthodox religious manner like many other girls in our community. My father taught us to stand on our own, and take decisions by ourselves. I fell in love with literature as a teenager and started writing stories, poems and essays in Malayalam along with my studies. I decided not to get married until I found someone who I could relate to ideologically. There were pressure on my parents from other family members to marry me off soon. I was 25 when I incidentally met Jesfer on the web.
Jesfer's paintings have a subtle theme of hope, liberation and enthusiasm. I came to know about his physical condition only after we started to converse intimately. His views about life, passion for travelling and caring for others impressed me. He was truthful in his words and had revealed all the setbacks he had faced in his life. I felt I can't leave him alone in his life. Moreover, both of us have a common platform to relate with: art. We interacted through poems, pictures and stories. I moved my pen for him and he moved his brushes for me. Slowly, I realised that I was falling in love with him.
What made you to choose a life together? What were the challenges you faced in coming together?
Jesfer: I was nervous to propose Fathima. I have had worse experiences of rejection in life. I felt timid and pessimistic, but then I remembered one of the most cherished meetings in my life, with Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. I was an ordinary youngster with zero exposure to my art, when some of my friends decided to send the then president of India, a digital copy of his portrait I had painted with my mouth. They mentioned my physical condition in the mail and captioned the picture 'a mouth portrait'. I was elated when I saw his reply. Later, when he visited Kozhikode, I got a phone call from the district collector to inform that I was in the handpicked list of people he wanted to meet in Kerala. That was the first time my photo and works appeared in mainstream newspapers. In a much-awaited meeting he told me, “You have to work all by yourselves to achieve your dreams. Do not regret. Your effort shall be rewarded in the form of success.”
I decided that I was going to put all my efforts in achieving this dream. I shall not regret because I was being sincere to my conscience. I revealed my heart to Fathima. To my surprise, she had settled down with her decision a long ago.
Fathima: It was not that simple in my case. It was Jesfer's elder brother who formally put forward a proposal at my home. All were shocked to hear about his physical condition. I stood strong by my decision. Though I could convince my mother and sisters, father and a few other family members stood unshaken. Many called Jesfer up and spoke to him in long sessions. Finally, when I felt things are getting out of my hands, I booked an air ticket, packed my dress and books, and left for Kerala.
Jesfer and his friends had made arrangements for our wedding at a local mosque. Acclaimed writer and orator PMA Gafoor acted as bride's father in the ceremony. I knew I could convince my family later but marrying someone you have never met in your life involves a level of uncertainty. Both of us met each other at Cochin International Airport on the day of our marriage.
How do you strike a work-life balance?
Fathima: I had to quit my well-paid job as a teacher at Dhofar to unite with Jesfer. I had to take a break from reading and writing to cope with our new life. All what I wanted was to support Jesfer and keep him actively engaged in his profession. He has to be consistently backed and assisted. Once I get used to our life together, I can revive my passion and gather back my profession. When one speaks of work-life balance, it includes compromises and adjustments. I am performing my part first. I am sure Jesfer will render back the same level of support when I demand.
Jesfer: I haven't taken a break from my profession because it is the passion which keeps me alive through all the adverse times. Though I used to draw pencil sketches as a child, I felt the degeneration of my muscles, as pencils started slipping out of my hands and I collapsed while walking. My adolescence lost its colours. When I finally accepted my fate, I stopped attempting to do things like others did. I held ball-point pens between my lips and wrote big letters in books. Through frequent trials, the size of letters reduced and I developed a 'mouth-writing'. I tried to draw mouth-sketches and succeeded. Slowly, by the age of fifteen or sixteen, I migrated to brushes, canvas and expert painting tools with the help of some friends. It was Dayanandan master, a famed artist and a good human being, who informed me about others who practise mouth-painting. He told me that there is an international association for mouth and foot painters in which only two other Keralites were members. Now there are five, including me.
Fathima said she would take a break initially and I supported her decision as I knew she could rebuild her profession whenever she wanted to. Yet, I frequently motivate her to write down her mind, just to keep her active in her realm. I got surprised when she gave me 15 poems to read and said that she wrote all of them after we got married!
Have you faced any situation where your personal and professional commitments came into conflict?
Fathima: No. Because I quit my profession when personal commitments became my priority. Now, after getting pregnant, I am getting enough time to practise reading and writing. I am planning to release a second collection of my poems soon. Acclaimed Malayalam poet Madhusoodanan Nair has written its preface.
Jesfer: I have always held my profession close to my heart. Perhaps, painting keeps me happy and occupied, both personally and professionally. My commitments have never caused a conflict so far. Fathima has never allowed it to happen.
As a couple, what's the best thing you have done for the society?
Jesfer: It is yet to happen. We plan to set up a combined art venture and we are already half-way through it. It is called 'Varayum Variyum' (Sentences and Strokes) and I portray Fathima's poems through it. I have taken her latest collection of poems as subjects for my paintings. We will soon organise an audiovisual installation of our combined project as an exclusive exhibition. Artists should reinvent their art so as to benefit both the artist and his art form as painting is never a static art form, like many believe. It can encompass several hues of life and other art forms and flow freely like a river. I wish to rediscover its prospects and explore its ways with Fathima's help.
Fathima: There are differences between our approaches and themes. When Jesfer is easily moved by nature, static scenery and portraits, I deal with emotions, anguish, pain and rage in my poems. I seldom write descriptive poems. So when Jesfer visualises my lines, there are myriad aspects I disagree with in them. But then I realise that painting is his art – his way of manifestation. Just because he is taken up my concepts, I can't ask him to adopt my approach also. He loves bright colours, while I like subtle shades. Our new venture is also about finding a middle-point of our contrasting views.
What is the core of your life together?
Jesfer: I think it is truthfulness and compassion. I am a very short-tempered person. Fathima deals with my changing moods and calms me down as I often get irritated when things go wrong. She is a straight forward person who throws opinions at your face – no matter good or bad. I have been disappointed with her blunt opinions many a time. Then I think of the risk and pain she took in uniting with me. To be sincere, I would stare at her in a room full of paintings. She is a perfect artwork!
What is the one thing that hooked you the most in your partner?
Fathima: It is Jesfer's innocence. As he has spent most of his life inside his house, he is devoid of the world's crookedness and complexities. I love him for his baby-like innocence.
Jesfer: Fathima's determination and sincerity have always surprised me. She is most sincere to herself. Once she settles down upon a decision, even she herself can't change her mind!
A word for the youngsters?
Fathima: Be responsible for your own life. Do not regret your past. Mould your future in such a way that you wouldn't have to regret in future. Listen to your own heart and follow your call. At the end of the day, you have to satisfy yourselves more than anyone else. (Jesfer nods in support)