Come next month and a street from the Walled City will be up at a wall at Delhi airports Terminal 3 for tourists to admire. At 73,Anjolie Ela Menon doesnt cease to perch atop scaffoldings to paint humungous works. She talks about her works,influences and religious fundamentalism.
You have made a conscious effort to create works for public spaces.
As artists become older,it becomes as important for them to be seen by the aam admi as to be owned by the extremely rich. After my retrospective in 2010,I decided to do some work in public spaces for the next few years. I recently finished large works at the Neemrana fort in Tijara and the Hyatt in Chennai.
Your mural for the airport brings together different aspects of India,from Bollywood and architectural representations to kite-flying and animals.
It took over six months to paint. I tried to encapsulate features of an Indian street with particular reference to Delhi,where tradition and modernity exist side by side in chaotic cohesion. This street in the Walled City is a microcosm of the Indian street. This is where people live,work,travel,ply their trades,interact,romance and play. The palette used is far brighter than my usual paintings,as I wish to convey an air of happiness and optimism.
Some years back your mural at the Esplanade station in Kolkata was found vandalised. There was a plea for restoration,has there been any progress?
The mural at the station virtually disappeared for a couple of years. Governor Gopal Gandhi was instrumental in tracking down the 20×8 ft fibreglass work. It had been vandalised and had posters and other paintings hammered on to it. There was some move to restore it,but inspite of letters to the Railways and Mamata Banerjee,nothing has been done. There is also a 14-panel mural at the LIC building in Delhi that has gone missing.
You recently had a show in Mumbai after a gap of eight years. How was the experience?
The show comprised 45 works culled from private collections in Mumbai,covering 43 years of my work. My early period in Mumbai was very important for me as an artist. It was wonderful to see the old works I could not recognise some of them from the 70s.
Your first collector was Dr Zakir Hussain,who bought your work while you were still in school.
Yes,it was an oil on canvas with boats. I was 13-14 years old then. He was the chief guest at a school exhibition. He just stopped at the corridor and said he wanted to buy the work. The headmaster did not know what price to quote but later Hussain sent me a cheque of Rs 100,to my utter amazement.
You went to Paris to study art,but unlike others who looked at the masters,you were influenced by the old Christian imagery.
The early Christian imagery and Byzantine art with its strong colours and rich ornamentation seemed closer to my Indian experience. I was always a maverick and have usually bucked the current trends to do the opposite of what everyone was doing. When everyone was turning to abstraction,I remained figurative,and have always created my own genre.
You also did a lot of nudes. Were there any reactions at that time?
It was perfectly well-received. Its only now that there is a hungama about nudity and religious symbolism. Its the uninformed public that is being allowed to exert too much pressure on artists and these are people who know nothing about art or art history. Its not just Khajuraho. No one flinches at the idea of the ubiquitous Shivlingam,which we worship with milk and honey. I went to the Ardha Kumbh in 2010 and there were hundreds of Naga sadhus there; the saris of women doing visarjan would float off and they were practically unclothed but nobody minded. Peoples protests are not spontaneous,but politically incited by various hues of fundamentalists.
I believe the experience of visiting the Kumbh is now affecting your work.
It was an epiphany. Even amongst the crores of people present,a feeling of joy and peace prevailed. An ethereal and luminous light pervades the morning visarjan that takes place at five. There were huge groups of Naga sadhus with six yards of dreadlocks trailing behind them. Im painting a work on the visarjan now,after three years.
Are you also planning to write?
I am writing a cookery travelogue. It talks about the different geographical influences in my cooking,starting with my American grandmothers amazing food. I lived in France,travelled to Russia,my sister lived in the Far East,so there are Oriental influences in my cooking. There will be some secret family recipes and some illustrations perhaps.