Artist Anjolie Ela Menon is a true maverick. She has created an artistic language of her own— whether it is her non-conformist views on arts education (she quit her arts course at the Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai, believing that she was ahead of the curriculum offered to first-year students); her unusual choice of medium (she is a rare Indian artist who paints with oil on Masonite, a hardboard); her unapologetic interpretation of sensitive subjects (evident in her depiction of mythological figures, which challenge norms); or the fact that over a 65-year-long career as an artist, she has practiced her craft daily, while many of her contemporaries gave up.
An ongoing solo exhibition of her works titled, Nostalgia, at Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, summarises this unique language by showcasing select works—22 of which are recent while 12 are from older collections—from her vast repertoire. Together, these pieces define Menon’s art and bear her unmistakable stamp. Though she has dabbled in sculpture, in the past, favouring the use of Murano glass, has made many large-scale murals, as well as digital art works, she is best known for her oil on Masonite works, which she paints in thin layers, slowly building a multi-hued vibrancy that lends her work an almost ethereal effect.
“The biggest challenge for any artist is to create a signature. Once you create a signature, you have established yourself as someone doing original work. Many youngsters just coming out of college are happy to copy other pre-existing genres, as it’s very difficult to establish a signature. Often, it’s a combination of many factors. The paintings on display at Nostalgia are my signature,” says Menon, walking us through the exhibit.
The strongest evidence of this is in the showstopper piece displayed front and centre at the gallery. It is a triptych, called Divine Mothers, painted within an ornate jharokha-style window, and shows Parvati, Mariam and Yashoda, mothers to Ganesh, Jesus and Krishna respectively. Two of the strong matriarchal figures—with the exception of Mary—are depicted with untied hair and in modern clothing, in an attempt to establish their individual personalities. They are, therefore, recognisable mainly through their children, who have been painted as they are often shown in popular mythology. Menon has always been influenced by European iconography. This is evident in her depiction of Mary, with the exception of the colour of her skin and hair, whose darkness is a nod to the biblical character’s Arab origins. Framing these striking figures is the intricately carved jharokha, which Menon found in a junkyard in Ahmedabad. Its curlicued edges are mimicked by the artist’s prominent checkerboard pattern, which connects the three divine figures.
“I’ve always found the goats, goatherds and life in the basti very fascinating. It’s like constant street theatre. People are fighting or celebrating, and I celebrate with them,” says Anjolie Ela Menon, artist
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The artist explains the intent behind this work, “I believe my divine mothers are the product of a feminist discussion. I’ve always felt they should be honoured along with their children. To a certain extent, Mary is worshipped but why leave out the others? Practically speaking, the painting was influenced by the jharokha, whose three equal sections had to be filled in. As for the modern interpretation of their garments, it’s because I never want any of my paintings to be fixed in time or geography. I prefer for them to have a mythical quality.”
The divine mothers, as the bearers of ‘shakti’ or the power of creation endowed in Indian goddesses, as well as other Indian mythological figures have been a fixture in Menon’s work over the years. Her most recent exhibition in New York too focussed on this theme, and the images persist in Nostalgia. A semi-clad Yashoda holds on to her innocent Balagopala, a melancholic Madonna with Child is crowned by flying cherubs, and a striking blue Ganapathi are some prominent works. These iconic religious symbols, however, only bear an aesthetic appeal for Menon.
She asserts, “I was raised as a Brahmo Samaji and we don’t believe in idol worship, but I find both western and Indian mythology a great source of aesthetics. Look at the greatest sculptures of our country in Mahabalipuram, Ajanta, Ellora, etc. These form the basis of all our art, which has been inspired by mythology, and we must honour that. One of the greatest things that religion has done is to promote the arts. Take the example of music, Hindustani classical or Carnatic music is all based on mythology.”
Religion—both Indian and Western—has greatly influenced Menon’s practice. The fascination began when she attended a course on fresco painting at the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1959-61 on a scholarship. During this time, she travelled through Europe to see the great art of the western world. She vividly recalls lying on the floor of obscure churches and cathedrals to admire the intricately painted ceilings.
It is no surprise therefore, that her early work was influenced by Christian art, especially of the Renaissance period. And it was only after her return to India and marriage into a family from Kerala that she began to be influenced by the Indian elements of art. This is the reason she is often compared with Amrita Sher- Gil whose art trajectory was similar to hers. Even though Menon was born in 1940 in Bengal, her mixed American parentage ensured a distinctly western upbringing, further cementing the influence of the west on her art.
“I never want any of my paintings to be fixed in time or geography. I prefer for them to have a mythical quality,” says Anjolie Ela Menon
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“My grandmother brought us up and she was an American from Boston. She infused us with a knowledge of western culture. And my grandfather’s family were from the Brahmo Samaj, so I only learnt about Hindu culture after I got married. My husband, Rear Admiral Raja Menon, was posted around India and the world, and I’ve moved 30 houses after marriage. Each of the places we lived in, and these life changes and influences play out in my paintings. Nostalgia is a combination of these early and later influences. I believe all artists metamorphose very slowly from one exhibition to another and this is my 58th one or maybe even more, so a lot of ground has been covered,” she says.
This exhibition in particular, was conceptualised to showcase the signature heads, which are synonymous with Menon’s practice. Yet, after painting 8-10 of these, she felt the need to expand the offerings and painted a few larger pieces too. Each of the larger works evokes a strong personal memory.
Haveli, like a few of Menon’s earlier works, shows the vibrant street life the artist witnesses every day from her studio’s window, which looks onto a busy thoroughfare in Delhi’s Nizamuddin basti. In it, a striking green window is the threshold to a busy world where a female goatherd pauses with her charges for a minute, amidst the chaos of daily life. Menon says, “I’ve always found the goats, goatherds and life in the basti very fascinating. It’s like constant street theatre. People are fighting or celebrating, and I celebrate with them.”
Another interesting larger work that catches the eye is Laxmi Sadan, where a man performs the quotidian act of reading his newspaper and sipping tea, framed by an open window—made in a style characteristic of Mumbai’s early 20th century architecture with its liberal use of painted-glass. A pensive parrot looks on to the scene as a voyeur might. Menon likens herself to this parrot, which incidentally is modelled on her own pet bird.
“Laxmi Sadan was our house in Bombay. We were posted there for nine years and that building really influenced me. This was also the period I became fascinated by junk; I would visit the Lakkar Bazaar and Bhendi Bazaar and often saw a similar scene to the one in this painting. These dark interiors would intrigue me and made me wonder what’s going on within those walls. I did a whole series on the women of Kamathipura, the famed red-light district of Mumbai, and it showed women leaning out of their windows, hanging their clothes, living their lives in these dark interiors. That curiosity is encapsulated in this painting. I’m a bit of a voyeur who wants to know what’s happening within those interiors,” she says.
Menon’s detailed explanations of her works are akin to stories and the exhibition is a paean to her memories of a creatively satisfying life. She delves into her rich memory bank for the numerous unnamed portraits she creates. These ‘heads’, as she refers to them, encapsulate a variety of moods, emotions, and personal characteristics that sometimes bear the reflection of people close to her. Though widely distinct in the use of colour, markings and backdrops, a common thread amongst them is the solemnity and dignified bearing of each person. One sees it especially in works like, Ayesha, Namboodiri, Vir and Dream.
It is clear that Menon’s surroundings continue to influence her work. Solitude is a recurrent theme in many pieces and is often characterised by empty, even though vividly painted, furniture set in pretty landscapes or decadent living rooms. These empty seats signify loss or abandonment, with their sole occupant being one or many of her favoured animals including crows, parrots and other birds, as well as cats, dogs, goats and lizards.
Animals have long featured in her work. An older iconic painting, The Frenchman’s House, perhaps started this trend, which in this exhibition is seen in Red Chair and Khattia. In the former, an empty emerald-green armchair is placed amidst opulent surroundings, flanked by a statue of the bovine goddess Kamadhenu. A crow looks on as a lizard creeps up a side table placed nearby. Similarly, the two recent works depict a red chair and an Indian rope bed placed in a garden with the same crow perched on them. The only addition is that of a lively kite flying overhead.
Speaking of her love of animals, Menon says, “Our house is like a zoo! We have a cat, dog, parrot, lizards, squirrels, and so much more. The black crow that is a recurring symbol first came into my life in Bombay. It would come to my flat every day and one day he entered my painting and has stayed ever since.”
These vivid creatures aren’t the only recurring symbols in Menon’s work. Another oft-repeated theme is that of mother and child, as well as religious figures like Batushka—the Russian Orthodox priest she observed while visiting a church during her years at Moscow in the 1960s—or Brahmin Boy, the solemn young boy being prepared for a religious ceremony.
The artist ends our chat by summarising her practice: “I have always tried to be a karma yogi by making the work most important to me, not the result. Many artists have their eye on the money, that is the enemy of creativity. One requires patience to succeed. Young artists want instant success and that just isn’t possible, if it is to be long lasting.”
This mantra does explain her success. In 1958 during her first solo exhibition in Delhi under the mentorship of MF Husain, art critic Richard Bartholomew saw into the future, when he said, “I have no doubt that before long this gifted young woman will be joining the ranks of our very best painters.”
(Nostalgia, by Anjolie Ela Menon, runs at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi till January)