"I want to do some painting," said the small voice underneath the dining table. "But first I want to shoot someone." Kapow! A green foam ball pinged out from beneath the tablecloth, shortly followed by Shorya Mahanot, wielding a luminous pumpgun. Clearly pleased that he had hit one of his big sisters, Asia's youngest abstract painter ran off to get changed
Dubbed a "child Picasso" by the Indian media, five-year-old Shorya hit the headlines last month when India's most famous cartoonist took him under his wing. RK Laxman, 90, welcomed the budding artist into his home in Pune, Maharashtra. He was so impressed, his father, Aditya Singh says, that he suggested the pair put on a joint exhibition in Mumbai next month.
Neemuch, a dusty town in central India is best known, if at all, for its opium production and the unusually high number of locals who donate their eyes after death.
But if Aditya Singh's dream comes true, Neemuch may soon be famed as the birthplace and workplace of India's greatest contemporary artist; a south Asian Giverny; a place as synonymous with 21st-century abstraction as New York is for pop art.
Dressed in his painting clothes of splattered pajama bottoms, cartoon-themed sandals and the sort of maroon collarless shirt favored by the Indian independence leader Nehru, Shorya set to work.
Like all the greats, he has assistants to do the boring bits – in this case his obliging older sisters, Shruti, 18, and Shreya, 20, and one of his dad's servants. Crouched down on a plastic mat, he surveyed his acrylic collection and told his minions which paints to open. "His hands are too little to handle the lids," explained his proud father, 47, who organized his first exhibition last year at Mumbai's Taj hotel.
After choosing an autumn palette of browns and oranges, Shorya set to work. Like a surgeon requesting a scalpel mid-operation, he demanded the biggest paintbrush be passed to him, and swept the bristles in wide strokes over the canvas. Each movement appeared deliberate but exaggerated, as if his painting were an unruly orchestra under his conduction.
He reached for his goggles, which lent him the air of a shrunken Biggles. Before long he was scooping his tiny hands into the paint pots and lobbing color at the easel, overarm, as if bowling for India.
"You have seen Jackson Pollock's art?" said his father, filming the scene on one of the family's two iPads. "Jackson Pollock said that abstract art requires a lot of force."
Shorya's teachers agree he has a special talent, but add that it is the zeal with which Aditya was encouraging his son's creativity that they found particularly startling. "The other parents want their child to become an engineer or a doctors and do not see the value of creative fields," said sports teacher Sanjay Dikshit. "The education system in India is changing but for so long, all the emphasis has been on academic work," said Anju Salim, who teaches English. Aditya said he would love Shorya to become a successful artist, raising India's profile in the global art world. "But we don't pressure him. He only paints when he wants to. As well as school subjects, he is also very good at yoga and cricket and basketball – he is dribbling very nicely. Sometimes he just wants to play on the Wii," said Aditya, gesturing towards a truly colossal TV set in the family's living room, where Shorya was lying down on the sofa watching cartoons.
It didn't matter if Shorya remained a penniless artist for years, Aditya insisted. "I will support him for as long as I can." He says his next task is to get Shorya gallery representation, giving him a channel through which to sell his works and gain further exposure.
Aditya, a successful property developer, disagrees that five is too young to be exposing his son to the media glare. "Harry Potter is very young! There are a lot of young actors, so why not artists too? Of course five is incredibly young, but if what Shorya is doing is good, it should be shown to the people."
Aditya puts an enormous effort into promoting his son's talents, to the extent that he had a heart attack following Shorya's first solo show.
Of course, there is no shortage of competition in the crowded child prodigy field, and Aditya keeps an eye on rivals. There's Aelita Andre, a Russian-Australian girl living in Melbourne who is nine months younger than Shorya and who, unlike him, has sold her work. Maria Olmstead was featured in the New York Times after making $40,000 by the time she was four.
Shorya's first inspiration were his two artistic sisters, but now the family often show him famous artwork on the iPad, as well as taking him to galleries.
Back at his easel in the afternoon sunlight, Shorya finished his autumnal canvas by chucking water over it, making the colors run into each other like a rainbow in an oily puddle. "That's part one complete. Don't you think he balances the colors perfectly?" asked Aditya, rhetorically.
After ordering his goggles to be cleaned, Shorya announced himself ready for the second stage. All of his current works are produced in two parts. When the colors have dried, he instructs his sisters to stick strips of Sellotape over carefully selected portions of the canvas. He then proceeds to whitewash the lot. When that is dry, the tape is removed, with the colorful chaos protected by the tape revealed, contrasting starkly with the geometric white patterns created over the top. "Only five and already he has a signature style," said Aditya. "Don't you think that's amazing?"