India’s legendary maverick returns in style with a new show. Anjolie Ela Menon in conversation
There is a thrill to recalling the first work you saw by Anjolie Ela Menon, whether it was one of her haunting, empty chairs, delicious nudes or smoky portraits, swelling within the confines of a gallery; that searing depiction of Indira Gandhi, hung in a museum; one of the murals given us in public spaces. Perhaps part of the thrill is knowing that this legendary Indian artist has not been an easy fit within the canon. “My work has always been maverick. I don’t belong to any school, to any particular chronology,” she reminds me, meeting me a few days before the opening of her new show at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, in Defence Colony. “I do the wrong things at the wrong time. When everybody went to abstract, I was still figurative. When everyone was looking to the didactic, my works didn’t. When people were getting down to earth, my work was still a little escapist.”
‘Clairvoyance’ (Isana Murti/ Uday Bhaskar); ‘wanton fabulist’ (Gayatri Sinha); possessed of ‘peculiarly awkward grace’ (writer Manjula Padmanabhan). Viewers saw all this and a prophetic melancholy in Menon’s soulful, sensuous works. She walks me through a room full of her paintings, mostly rendered in her favourite medium, oil on masonite. Regal yet warm in person, Menon does not look 75; as timeless as her work. She took the risks and sustained the traditions which helped lay the foundation of contemporary Indian art. And with six decades of work behind her, she has travelled far and wide since that long-ago first exhibition MF Husain organised for her in a Delhi garden, crowned as an artistic beacon by the critics and curators who believed in her early. Over 48 solo shows later—at venues such as the Blackheath Gallery, London; Gallery Radicke, Bonn; Winston Gallery, Washington, and including retrospectives at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi and National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, she is back after a five-year break, with ‘Recent Works’.
“I think artists tend to move back, into something they’ve done before. Everything moves in waves and phases, and I think I’m back to what I’m classically known for, a particular patina, the sombreness of the colours,” says Menon. “Back to those iconic figures, influenced by the icons. That influence is very much there in the three large works, full frontal standing figures.”
Indeed, Parvati, part of the Divine Mothers series, returns us to her early use of symbolism through her rendition of the mythical tale of the goddess’ son Ganesha, whose head is severed by his father Shiva. “The head of the severed baby is never seen, usually, but in this I produce the head of the severed baby being attacked by swords and knives and arrows, and that is a symbol of her grief, her anguish. Mythologically, it’s never seen, but here I take the risk of showing it. I wanted to show it. How terrible. How terrible.” Then, there are the less spectacular modern portraits of women; The Birthday, and The Seven Faces of ‘M’, a beautiful if less conspicuous series of smaller collages which rework women’s faces, sometimes overlaid with print. And in Upanayanam, featuring a crowd of traditional figures around a young boy, her early images of Namboodiri and Marwari priests come to mind (Thread Ceremony, 1990, particularly)—as Uday Bhaskar (writing as Isana Murti) has remarked, “[T]here was a hint of irony in these paintings, a touch of mockery that eluded all but the most discerning… often parodies of themselves placed in pseudo-Victorian settings”. This careful consciousness is particularly Menon’s, even as the soul of her work speaks to the work of Amrita Sher-Gil, her oft-recognised kindred soul. “There was a parallel with Sher-Gil. It was only when she went to the south, as I did—or I would say I did as she did— that the influence of that figuration came into one’s work,” says Menon. “My Namboodiri figures, the family portraits from the Kollengode Palace collection. That influence came much later, halfway.” She adds later, “There’s a portrait of my mother which could have been a Sher-Gil. People who came from mixed marriages all over India tended to know each other in those days.”
Like Sher-Gil, the Padma Shri-awardee (born Anjolie Ela Deva) has diverse sources of inspiration. “My early work was so influenced by early Christian art, that there were critics who, when I came back from Paris, said what is this Western influence in your work? I had a very Western upbringing, I have an American grandmother and my mother had died early, so our grandmother brought us up. My aunts were also French. My grandfather was Bengali. We always had European food on the table, wherever we were in India; my father was also in the army so we moved a lot.” And so, this very Indian artist was also capable of radical departures, as seen in Unsuccessful Portrait, wherein the top of her subject’s head is partially erased.
Training early, at The Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Ooty with Sushil Mukherjee, Menon had already learnt her basics by the age of 15, leaving the JJ School of Art for a degree in English literature at Delhi University’s Miranda House. She won a French government scholarship to the École des Beaux-Arts to study fresco in Paris, at 18. Travelling widely around Europe and in India, she found her early influences— Modigliani, Van Gogh, Jamini Roy— and adventures—a flea-ridden pension in Florence, a Greek cattle-hold en route to Piraeus and much more. Books and films have memorialised Menon’s life and works, which are among India’s most expensive investments, and she has received the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Are there figures which repeat themselves, just as themes do, at this stage? “Through the ages there has been someone, whether it was my mother or my daughters-in-law or my very close friends; there’s often a face that has been repeated over a period of time, then perhaps another face takes over. There is continuity there, yes.”
Raja Menon, her husband, was in the navy so they always moved around, and when they finally settled in Delhi, Menon finally found herself with a proper room of her own. (He enters the room we have settled in at one point, here to see the work early.) “I was so grateful to have a final, permanent place. It was only after he [Raja] retired that I actually had a studio to myself,” she recalls. “Earlier, I just painted in a corner of the house, sometimes on the verandah. Sometimes in my bedroom which then always smelt of turpentine. I had to paint wherever I could, and that I learnt from [MF] Husain. He taught me how to be mobile, with just a little bag of paints. You go anywhere, you sit on the floor, prop the canvas against the wall, any wall. You didn’t need an easel, a studio, lighting—you just painted wherever you were. He taught me that very early in life. And it stood me in good stead because quite often we were in places where there was no studio. We were two years in Vladivastov, and I painted in a broom cupboard which had a tiny little window. I could look out the window, had a baby strapped on my back. I was happy to have that studio.”
These two experiences, of being shut away inside and going out with your brushes, were they both necessary? “I had both of them. I had a very complicated family life with lots of children and grandchildren and people coming and going and the moves, and those onerous duties as a naval wife, I tried to keep it all in the air. As I get older I’m finding it a bit harder. But those are the joys of family life. I enjoy that. I love to cook. But when I go to my studio I need complete solitude. Part of me does remain in focus, otherwise it would have been difficult to go on painting.” Some of that conjoinment of the domestic and the artistic persists in her family; one of her two sons is an architect, and she has a granddaughter at the National Institute of Design (NID), at design school. “Everyone is always designing and painting, it’s a mad household of creative minds.”
Her own practice is consistent; she has to spend six hours at work daily. “You go to the studio in the morning, sit in front of a canvas. To a great extent the canvas makes itself. It obviously is an accumulation of your own dreams, ideas, the accumulation of your past work. You fall into a kind of pattern, a rut, a way of approaching a canvas. But the inspiration for that day, you never know where it is going to come from. Like the long painting we looked at [Nizamuddin- Basti-I, featuring a prophet-like goatherd bearing a goat]; the goats don’t leave me, as I live in the Nizamuddin basti. The people who inhabit it, those bearded figures, in a way hark back to the bearded figures of Byzantine art, but they are also there, incredibly, in the 21st century right outside my door, carrying their goats. It’s amazing that in the midst of this huge metropolis, this little villages exist almost in their original form, both in terms of chronology and the style of the way that people live there. The women sitting on their khatiyas , the old men with their goats, the kids running around, the temples and the mosque cheek-by-jowl. Life goes on, spanning several centuries right outside my window. There is much grist for the mill, there is so much inspiration you never know where it is coming from. Yesterday there was a funeral, right in my way, at least a 100 women sat there with their dupattas over their heads in wonderful, bright colours, and their sad, mourning faces reminded me so much of many of Sher-Gil’s works. I could see where she got her inspiration, and that situation incredibly, nearly a hundred years later, still exists. Which makes India to me the most exciting place to be in the world today, because we exist at all these different levels. I think the McDonald-isation of India is coming, but mercifully it has not come yet.”
Menon still does not use a computer, preferring to work with her hands. “In between, I think for a whole decade or maybe a decade and a half, I did all these new experiments with kitsch, with computers, with Murano glass, went into sculpture, painted objects. There was my whole engagement with kitsch with created a movement in Indian art. In this exhibition, I come back to my first love: oils. I don’t like acrylic. I’ve done some mixed- media work in this show too, two works are displayed here: print and paint together to create a different effect, pentimento [an alteration evidenced by traces of previous work].”
She speaks admiringly of new artists she admires, like Atul Dodiya and Jitish Kallat. “There’s a new generation of intellectual, thinking artists, who are bringing another element to their practice. An intellectual element which was perhaps missing in the past. The other very nice thing that I am seeing is that a lot of the early painters were classified by Western critics as being derivative of what was already going on in the West, whereas what the new young artists are doing, which is so spectacular, is that they are getting their inspiration from their own experience, which is purely Indian.” Someone like Subodh Gupta embodies this, she says. “Funk is the new world. He combined that in a sort of monumentality, which is superb. Many people have harked back to our old traditions, there’s been a bit too much of that. It was there because we were very self conscious after the British left, to create our own idiom. Of course Shanti Niketan was there, but it had borrowed a great deal from China. Many of the artists practising in Bombay when I was a student at the JJ, were using fish eyes and the symbolism from the early miniatures and so on. But this, what these youngsters are doing, is of today. That’s what I tried to do also, when I was engaging with kitsch; take the kitsch of the streets, our calendars. Use the visual matrix of our own times.”
Menon has mentored some of this younger generation through a Spic Macay program, including Naina Karodia, Rimi Hojanpatra and Binoy Varghese, who she lent her studio. Is this new generation more competitive? “For new young artists and certainly that older generation, who I call the ‘big dads’, there was always very particular criticism; ‘Why have you put that red spot in that corner?’ not, ‘Your work is terrible’. But of late—and for this I really blame the market—artists have become competitive in a not always nice manner. Look at the Baroda school, at one time they were one big group, but once they started to do very well, the group as such stopped interacting. Each one took off on their individual paths. That camaraderie between artists is lacking to some extent, I think. Being friends with one another leads to movements in art.”
Of course that was a different moment. “When I was a young artist, we were not more than 200 or 300 practising artists in India, some became art teachers. Today there are lakhs and lakhs. When the boom was there, they all wanted to take art, maybe for the wrong reasons.” We discuss the fact that many artists live in poverty.
Menon still enjoys each show. “I love talking to people at an exhibition and seeing what they think of my work. Some people identify with my work, it’s amazing, and that’s very rewarding. I remember two people fighting over a painting of a chair; one person said that’s our chair, lying in my grandmother’s attic; the other chap said no, that’s my chair. There was a portrait of a woman sitting very still on a large chair—and someone came, very successful, and said that’s me. She saw it as herself.”
Indeed, Menon’s work continues to make its way into the world in large, expansive ways; the coffee table book Vadehra published, Anjolie Ela Menon: Through the Patina, is going to be translated into an affordable, hand-held Hindi version, and she plans for Bengali and Malayalam as well. She donated a 20-foot work to her metro project in Calcutta, and her work also decorates the LIC building there. “I’ve been doing a lot of work for public places. T3 airport has a huge work which took me six months. I’m now engaged in a big project for the new Bombay airport. These take a long time but I like doing them because it’s nice to have work in public spaces, when most of one’s life work has disappeared into private collections and you never see it again.”
She has spoken in the past about the six digressions in her work. “I hope we’ll get another one. The new project I’m doing is actually a collaboration with an Australian photographer, Robyn Beeche. She and I share very much the same kind of visual language. Her forte is to make photographs that create illusion, and I love the fact of illusion. In my work too, there is a very thin line between the dream and reality. Robyn does that. The exciting thing about it is the scale—10 feet, 8 feet. This will be in Bombay; a series of panels. They’ve given us a deadline of June. I do think this is something entirely new, hasn’t been done before.”
When I leave her, she is standing before one of her panoramas, admirers around her: a kind of magic in the air.
(‘Anjolie Ela Menon: Recent Works’ is on view at Vadehra Art Gallery till 27 April)