By Madhusree Chatterjee
The foremost among the experimental group of contemporary Indian artists Anjolie Ela Menon has not changed much as an expressionist from her 1970s heydays of “liberation through colours” – when her bold styles often raised eyebrows of the conservative Indian viewers bred on conventional figures, landscapes and colourful abstractions. She had evolved the genre of nude to a rare artistic finesse and beauty like mentor and inspiration Amrita Shergil. Nudes as a subject had haunted Menon’s psyche since 1957.
The initial boldness has matured into meditation and depth in the last five decades. They are reflected in the serenity on the canvas, the enhanced layers of emotions and textures in her human figures and in the larger scale of works in public spaces — an oeuvre of art that has earned her formidable fan following across the world. One of the largest public art works hangs at the T3 (terminal 3) of the Indira Gandhi International Airport.
Menon is a name to reckon with in kitsch art and Murano (Italian) glass art as well — having perfected her skill in the glass salons of Italy (and elsewhere in Europe). Her glass works combine techniques from the east and the west.
“I don’t think I have changed much as an artist. May be, I am jollier. But the meditative quality in my work still remains. There is also a certain melancholy – partly because I am a Bengali. Bengalis tend to be melancholic. The response to the environment is not always a happy one,” Anjolie Ela Menon told this writer in an interview after receiving the prestigious Dayawati Modi Foundation award for a lifetime’s contribution to arts in New Delhi on Nov 18. She joined the league of recipients like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Amitabh Bachchan.
Menon was overwhelmed in her trademark modest and down-to-earth manner. “I have too many recognition for my work. I don’t know what an award does to a young artist, but when you are above 80, it is an acknowledgement. I can’t stop here… I have to move on,” the 73-year-old artist mused.
Born in West Bengal in 1940 to Bengali and American parents, Menon straddles multiple cultures— the eastern sonority of Bengal, the cutting edge new wave of America, the classicism of Europe and the exotic Southern India from where she often draws her inspiration for figures. The artist is married to strategic analyst and former Navy admiral Raja Menon, a Malayali from Kerala— her window to the culturally ancient southern states of the country.
Women is central to Menon’s expression and artistic campaign. “The role of women in society touches me. I have a studio at Nizamuddin Basti – a Muslim dominated historical neighbourhood in the heart of New Delhi. I have seen around me to what extent women in India have to suffer – how they nurture their families. Many Indian women tend to sacrifice,” Menon said. Several of her artistic expositions are juxtaposed between this “sacrifice and the joy of living”, the artist pointed out.
Menon represents a coterie of women artists of the 1970s, who broke away from the conventional artistic meters to chart a new course of freedom and empowerment in arts. Critics often describe it as the first phase of feminism in Indian modern art – after Amrita Shergil – when the woman at home took up the paintbrush, painted “between the kitchen and children”, portraying a woman’s innermost longing for freedom on canvas. Menon was part of a bandwagon of artists like Nilima Sheikh, Arpana Caur, Arpita Das, Nalini Malani and Zarina Hashmi, who stamped their signatures on the artistic canvas – on par with their male counterparts – with avant garde contemporary art practices.
“It was that between Amrita Shergil and our generation of artists, the intervening wave of women painters were a little amateurish and tended to give up early. We were more dedicated artists. We were the first lot who took our art much more professionally,” Menon said.
The artist traces her professionalism about the calling to the fact that “her generation of painters was trained in good art schools”. Menon’s tryst with art as a commercial vocation dates back to her school days at The Lawrence School at Lovedale in Otacamund. By the time, she left school, she had sold 15 paintings.
Menon recalled that she “sold her first paintings, a portrait of a boat, to Zakir Husain (at that time the vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and later became the President of India)”. Zakir visited the artist’s school at Lovedale when Menon was 14.
Menon then moved to the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai and later studied English literature in Delhi University. At this point, the French government offered her a scholarship to the Ecole De Beaux Arts in Paris where she opted for fresco. Menon travelled extensively around Europe and West Asia while in Paris to study Romanesque and Byzantine art- a genre that influenced her figures and mood studies. Later, Menon lived at Russia, US and Germany with her husband — the places and cultures seeped in her work.
Menon has been a trendsetter in contemporary art by introducing new waves in her practice. The artist says she has had the luxury of “being somewhat sef-indulgent” in her creative expression. “I have never been didactic. I don’t believe in art as a medium of message. We have more ubiquitous and powerful media today in the television and print which address many more people. I have never keen on spreading any message in my art… The young contemporary artists are full of message like society, environment and gender,” Menon said.
The artist still cannot figure out the sources of inspiration – there are no specific wellsprings. “It is very personal. Issues do not inspire me. Everyday, there is some kind of inspiration, sometime, the crow sitting outside my window inspires me and sometime from a moving train… I am open to events, situations and inspirations,” she said.
This unexpected nature of inspiration lends an element of shock value to her paintings— like the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 which was a “drenched in blood” on Menon’s canvas and the “Naga sadhus” of the Himalayas, who became icons of freedom, power and expressionist movement in her art. Throughout the 1990s, windows, nudes, chairs and junk recurred on her canvas with icons of women— discarded objects thrown in with humans in a strange mélange of regeneration, life, decay and contrasts of form, texture and mediums.
“My figures are transmuted from reality and photographic figures,” the artist said. “I conducted a 10-year experiment which ended in new wave and my engagement with kitsch that gave me a global following. It became a new school of art. I was the first to use junk in my work — today lot of artists work with junk,” Menon said.
Menon says “she has been first to experiment with computer enabled art”. “My computer-enabled art show, ‘Mutations’, in New York City was not out of sync there at the turn of the last century — all the young artists were using photographs and photoshops there to create new images,” Menon said. But the show was not received well in India — she was charged with tampering artistic icons on her canvas.
“I have stopped using kitsch in my art, along with many other things. That was a phase,” Menon said.
The artists regretted that “as an avant garde, her work gets appropriated as she moves on”. “I hate looking back but I would like to reconnect to Murano glass. I wonder who would guide me to the glass blowers now that the Italian master Antonio De Ros, with whom I worked, is not around to help me. Language is a problem,” she said.
Menon is one of the highest price–pullers in the Indian contemporary art market— with the likes of M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta and Ram Kumar, but she remains ambivalent about the commerce of art. “Art does not have to be commercial all the time. Unfortunately, the presence of countless galleries and dealers has commodified art. It has helped artists during the boom. But after the boom, there was the crash. The boom was fuelled by fake promises by dealers to investors. Investors are different from collectors – they ramp up the market,” Menon said.
The artist is seeking more public space for her works— and is eager to connect to younger generation of viewers. “I had two major retrospective exhibitions and one mini retrospective show. Collectors have been generous in lending my art. In Mumbai, collectors came up with my works from the 1970s that I had forgotten about. There are whole generations who don’t know my work, I want more of my work in public spaces. But the only worry is whether they will be taken care of,” Menon said.
Two of her large murals in pubic spaces — one gifted to the Kolkata Metro and a mural on the LIC Building — were vandalized. “Only when someone pays a huge sum, only then a work of art is in demand. In Shantiniketan, I have seen boys parking their bikes against a sculpture by Benode Bihari Mukherjee,” Menon said on a sad note. “Public art requires care and promotion in India”.
The artist at the moment is working on a series of spiritual paintings for an exhibition at the Vadehra Art Gallery.