Anjolie Ela Menon and exhibitions are about experimental karma. Currently showcasing a new work at the Art Now group exhibition of various maestros in Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi, the 78-year-old doyenne of Indian art reminisces, “I had done a series of window paintings, which quite unexpectedly became popular. A gallery had requested me to send a painting for an exhibition. When their people came to collect the painting, I realised it was unframed and there was no frame at hand to mount it on. I looked around and found an old window frame in the garage. I simply pinned the painting to its back. It started a new genre. I continued to frame my work like that for almost eight years,” she chuckles.
Menon’s depiction of the female form, very emphatically Indian with its stylised nuances seen in muted translucence, is very much in evidence in her recent work at Art Now. “Long back I had done a series on divine mothers. As I continued working on it, what emerged was just the mother and child. I’ve returned to that old theme,” she says about the artwork that will be later published as part of a book.
The semi-erotic yearning of the women who occupy her canvases combine mystery and loss. Menon’s tryst with art was at the age of 15. Inspired by Modigliani, and Indian greats such as M F Hussain and Amrita Shergill, she hosted her first solo exhibition at 18. It won her a French Government scholarship to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where Shergill was a student three decades ago. “I could understood her impulses deeply,” Menon remembers.
From the 1990s, Menon went through a decade of experimentation that started with kitsch. “I wanted to bridge the gap between what artists consider low art and what they believe is high art. This led to a movement in Indian art, which started soon afterwards with a large group show called ‘Kitsch Kitsch Hota Hai’. It’s an established genre now.”
She experimented with computer art, long before computers were common in India. Sometime in 1999, a pioneering show of digital ‘mutations’ was held in New York. “Now almost all young artists are using machines,” she says. Her confident curiosity led to painting furniture, perhaps a subconscious connect with the abandoned window in the garage. She appropriated images from her own paintings on furniture. In 1992, decades before Subodh Gupta staged his bucket installations, Menon held an exhibition of household chairs, trunks and cupboards painted with images from her own works.
The diminutive kohl-eyed Menon who is a regular at exclusive salon parties accompanied by her husband and first love Admiral Raja Menon radiates a serenity born out of exploring oeuvres and is now comfortable in the space of her own genius—Indianised medieval church art on Murano glass, paint on hardboard, folk jewellery, et al.
The artist was an itinerant after marriage, travelling around the globe with her husband during his different naval postings. At some of these locations, canvases and other art supplies were not available, or their house was too small to accommodate a studio. She says, “I learnt from Hussain that artists should be able to paint anywhere, all they need is a box of paints and a brush. Prop your canvas against a wall and sit on the floor and paint. Hussain was my mentor. In Russia, I painted on board because I could not find canvas.”
Like most artists, Menon’s studio in Nizamuddin Basti is her refuge. The unglamorous place shocked P Chidambaram who had dropped in. “Why here?” he asked. “This is where my inspiration is,” she answered.A lifetime of honours, accolades and prestigious shows later, inspiration finds her without having to look for it.
At Lalit Kala Akademi,
Feroz Shah Road, New Delhi
Till October 4;11 am to 7 pm
(The show will move to Art Alive gallery from October 8 and will continue till October 31)