Ten-year-old Manisha Nair (name changed) looked at the egg in Mauritian artist Arvin Ombika’s hand and said, “Yuck, how will I break it?” Arvin smiled and said, “I will help you.” He gently broke the egg inside a container so that Manisha could see the yolk floating about. “The yolk is inside a sac. Now, I will give you a needle. And you should prick it,” instructed Arvin.
Manisha poked the egg and the runny yellow yolk oozed out. Arvin quickly mixed it with paint pigments and added distilled water, to get rid of dust particles. The result is what is known as egg tempera. All the participants carefully followed what the artist was doing at the workshop that was held at the Kerala History Museum, Kochi.
Egg tempera paintings were seen in the first century when the Egyptians would draw portraits on mummies. “The rest of the tomb was decorated in encaustic paint, which is composed of beeswax, resin and pigment,” says Arvin, adding, “The popularity of egg tempera reached its peak during the early Renaissance period (14th to 16th century).”
Some of the most famous works in style of paintings are that of Italian artist Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Giotto Di Bondone’s Madonna in Maesta and The Doni Tondo by Michelangelo.
In Kochi, Arvin showcased two of his previous works—30X20 cm portraits of two men looking at each other. It’s not hard to tell that one is the artist’s self-portrait with thick black beard, curly shoulder-length hair and hairy chest. The other is a painting of his bespectacled friend Santanu Dutta—a Rabindra Sangeet musician from Kolkata. Both the potraits have a golden halo around the head. The duo had met when Arvin was studying at Viswa Bharati University in Shantiniketan, while Santanu worked as an associate professor at the nearby Labpur College in West Bengal. “We are in a quest to know our identity. That’s what I wanted to convey through the work,” comments the artist.
When asked about the advantages of using egg tempera, the 33-year-old is quick to say, “If it is used properly, there is a shine on the painting, a sort of a satin finish. One does not then need to use varnish.” Earlier, insects and cockroaches would attack the paintings. But now when cloves are put in the yolk, which lessens the smell of eggs, it keeps the insects away, says Arvin.
The disadvantage of using egg tempera is that the yolk dries quickly, so one has to work fast. Also, for large paintings, one needs a lot of eggs. These factors led to the decline of the style. When oil was discovered in the 15th century, artists naturally opted for it.
Arvin, who is based in Mauritius, is a fifth-generation Indian in the island nation. In the 18th century, his forefathers had migrated as indentured labourers from Arrah, Bihar. “Today, of a population of 12 lakh, 70 per cent are of Indian origin,” he says. The rest comprise the French (Mauritius was a colonial outpost from 1715-1810), some Britishers, again because of colonialism (1810-1968), a few Chinese, who came as labourers, and Africans, who also came from Madagascar and Mozambique as slaves.
While studying at the Adolphe De Plevitz State Secondary School, Arvin opted for art and fell in love with the subject. Later, he secured an Indian Council for Cultural Relations scholarship to do his master’s at Viswa Bharati University, Shantiniketan, from 2015-2017.
Today, Arvin is a full-time artist. He has showcased his works—egg tempera, oil and acrylic—at exhibitions in Mauritius, Italy and Canada. But he does admit that being an artist in Mauritius is not easy. “Artists need to have a job so that they can finance their art. But, I guess the case is perhaps similar in many parts of the world,” he laments.