Portrait of an Artist: ‘The painting has to cook well’

This exhibition in Delhi, “Portraits: Artists and Friends” brings together 50 years of your portraits (including that of artists Krishen Khanna, Vivan Sundaram, Bhupen Khakhar, film personalities Dilip Kumar, Shyam Benegal and poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra).

Written by Vandana Kalra | Updated: November 22, 2017 11:37 am
Jatin Das at the exhibition in Delhi. Express photo by Renuka Puri

You are showcasing your work in Delhi after more than a decade. Recently, you also had a solo in Mumbai after seven years. Why do you prefer such long intervals? I work everyday. In my studio, I have at least 10 series of works that can be exhibited. There are several portfolios and graphics but I don’t have the time to show them. Mounting a show is a tiring affair, not only involving money, time and energy, but also things like how to hang the work, framing and transportation. I don’t leave anything to others; how you look after your child, no one else can.

A lot of artists of this generation want to win the world overnight. I see second-year students selling works. What people don’t realise is that they are killing talent. There is a fantastic expression among the old masters: ‘The painting has to cook well’. It has to mature. An artist has to mature. In my earlier brochures, I used to mention, ‘I am a painter. I want to be an artist’. You need to work for at least 40 years before you start becoming an artist. I am still in the process of becoming an artist. Moreover, a creative person should not be in the public domain for too long. They need to withdraw from laurels, awards and money, to concentrate on work.

This exhibition in Delhi, “Portraits: Artists and Friends” brings together 50 years of your portraits (including that of artists Krishen Khanna, Vivan Sundaram, Bhupen Khakhar, film personalities Dilip Kumar, Shyam Benegal and poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra). Human form has always been central to your work. What about it do you find fascinating as an artist?

I have also done landscapes and birds, not just the human form. Three years ago, when I was shifting my studio to Mehrauli (Delhi), I found hundreds of portraits and decided to exhibit them. I found a portrait of Ramkinkar Baij that I did in 1962, signed by him. There are portraits of several artists, friends. I only make a portrait of someone if I have a connection with the person. Now things have changed, people have no time. Some people I have invited to make portraits ask me,

‘Can I send a photograph?’

You also have several portraits of family — your grandchildren, daughter Nandita and son Siddhartha. I believe you were a very hands-on father when they were growing up. Did you discuss a lot of art at home?

I was completely involved. We did not especially sit to discuss art, but we did talk about a lot of things. I used to have friends — artists and poets — come over, and my children would hear us talk and listen to the poetry-reading sessions we had at home.

You recently exhibited in Mumbai. You had your first solo in the city in 1962. What are your early memories of the place?

I went to study at Sir JJ School of Art when I was 17. I first enrolled for architecture, and then the dean of art saw my sketches and gave me admission in art. We were fortunate to have very good teachers, and then one went out and explored. I used to have a studio at Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, where there were several stalwarts such as MF Husain, VS Gaitonde and Ravi Shankar. I did portraits of FN Souza and Laxma Pai there. When someone sold a work, we would call friends over for dinner and drinks. We all used to go together for concerts and performances. I used to go and listen to Bade Ghulam Ali Khan at his rehearsal space.

A former Air India official has been booked for stealing your painting commissioned by the airline in the ’90s. Do you think that reflects the state of art collections in public enterprises?

I came to know about the work in the Air India collection when someone contacted me to authenticate it. It’s not just Air India; some years ago, I was invited by the Lalit Kala Akademi, and discovered works of some artists from its collection were also missing. What we really need is vision for art in the country. We don’t have a proper cultural policy. All the public museums were set up by the British, also they have stopped buying contemporary works since the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) was established. Look at Bihar, they have now set up a state-of-the-art museum. We need one such museum in every state. Institutions such as the NGMA, Crafts Museum, Lalit Kala and National Museum should talk to each other.

Are you trying to do your bit through the JD Centre of Art in Bhubaneswar, which will house your collection of antiquities?

The centre will have more than 20 galleries. Architect BV Doshi’s plan has already been approved. I have the largest collection of handfans in the world, which the museum will exhibit. It will also showcase my collection of antiquities, miniatures. We are in the process of building it.

The exhibition is on display today at Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi

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