By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi,(IANS) The last six decades have been a quest for new metaphors for India's leading contemporary artist Anjolie Ela Menon who says she intends to devote more time to murals and installations in public spaces. She will turn 70 on July 17.
The artist, who has been influenced by the likes of Van Gogh, Modigliani, M.F. Husain, Amrita Sher-Gil, early Christian and Byzantine art and the Expressionists, is liberating her work with "flying figures and levitating forms inspired by leaping Naga sadhus at the Ardha Kumbha Mela" that she visited two years ago.
On July 16 filmmaker Shyam Benegal will inaugurate an exhibition, "Anjolie Ela Menon: Through the Patina", at the India Habitat Centre. An eponymous volume compiled by art critic Isana Murti, exploring her genres and evolution as an artist and published by the Vadehra Art Gallery, will be unveiled at the show.
"It is the first documentation, archiving of my work. We started working on the book three years ago. I had to choose from thousands of slides to digitise them in CDs. I also helped the gallery and the anthologist track my work.
"Documentation of the early years of my work is non-existent. The fact that private collectors are reluctant to donate their art made the process of collating more difficult," Menon told IANS in an interview.
Menon said her "book has separate chapters of nudes" - a genre that the artist is known for.
"The earliest portraits date back to 1957 to the present day with each chapter capturing my evolution, style and context. An overview tries to connect the decades touching on my work in public spaces, the whole decade of experimentation in the 1990s, the Morano glass works and kitsch art. That was the time I turned my back on my signature style and techniques because I felt I could get trapped in the cliches," she said.
The artist said she painted "objects retrieved from the junk heap" during her experimental years.
"My art became retrieval. I was a compulsive painter and had to paint every day. So, I painted chairs, cupboards, suitcases and all objects that would be discarded. Thirty such discarded objects were exhibited at Mumbai at the Jahangir Art Gallery," Menon said.
Around this time, Menon began to indigenise her art with popular mediums such as Bollywood and circus posters and calendar art.
"I started to work with kitsch because I needed to be indigenous. We always fall back on traditional art and refuse to look at the visual matrix of our own time. I wanted to bridge the divide between high art and low art," she said.
Simultaneously, the artist also started working in Morano glass with master Antonio De Ros in Morano in Italy. "I created 50-60 glass works," she said.
The artist, who loves to work on hard masonite boards with oil paints, "paints on paper while travelling".
Menon started young. She sold her first painting at her boarding school in Lovedale in the Nilgiri Hills.
"I sold my first painting, a portrait of a boat, to Zakir Husain (at that time the vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and who later became the Indian president) who came to our school, at 14.
"Now, I am more inclined to work in public spaces because thousands of my paintings have disappeared into private collections than in museums. Public space is more satisfying because it is more permanent. Art in public spaces also reaches out to more people unlike my paintings which are niche - and seen by few," said Menon, who is a also an acclaimed muralist.
In 1993, Menon gifted Kolkata "a fibre glass mural that is one of her big works". It was installed at the underground metro railway station at Esplanade. Two other works adorn the international airports at New Delhi and Mumbai.
Menon feels that this is time for "contemplation".
"I am trying to find a direction and trying to see which path my life will take. The year before last I visited the Ardh Kumbh Mela and it was a mind-blowing experience. There were these huge bands of Naga sadhus with the six yards of dreadlocks trailing behind them - leaping from their chariots. The Ardh Kumbh was a defining moment - I took a dip in the river and felt a wall that had existed before crumble. Everything suddenly became real," Menon said.
Two years later, Menon finds "Ardh Kumbh creeping into her work".
"I am doing a lot of these flying and leaping figures, inspired by the Naga sadhus. Earlier my works were rounded and had a stillness about them - but now they exhibit a sense of liberation and more movement," she said.