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‘It is very important to have public art’: Paresh Maity

Amid two ongoing shows in Kolkata, artist Paresh Maity, 58, speaks about drawing from childhood memories, and how the pandemic has taught him the importance of taking things slow

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: January 4, 2022 12:59:01 pm
Paresh Maity"COVID-19 has reasserted the importance of taking it slow and contemplating over things... my colours have become purer. I’ve been focusing more on expression," Paresh Maity said.

Your exhibition at Kolkata’s CIMA gallery, “Noise of Many Waters”, captures your fascination with water, both as a subject and a medium (watercolour). Could you talk about that?

Water is the source of life. I grew up in Tamluk village in West Bengal, surrounded by canals and rivers. It is difficult to pull me away from water, it is my heart and soul. Nature is the ultimate source of my art. When I see anything, I am visualising its reflection on water, the colours change every moment. Since the very beginning, I have been painting water, and the medium, too, is primarily watercolours. It’s a challenging medium and you can’t really change much if you falter. Either you succeed or you are a failure, which is why very few artists work with it.

At age seven, you’d decided you wanted to be an artist, and, later, travelled miles to pursue that dream. Could you share about that journey?

As a child, I was very inspired by miniature and tribal art and clay modelling. I remember making my first painting at the age of seven. I tore a piece of paper from my notebook and made a landscape.

My father’s colleagues insisted that I gave joint entrance exams for medical and engineering, but I wanted to study art. So, I ran away to Delhi, and that’s when my family agreed to let me take admission into Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata. For six years, I travelled for four hours and 200 km each way to reach my college from Tamluk, since I did not have the money to stay in Kolkata.

Your landscapes transformed to include more figures and the colour palette became brighter after you came to Delhi, for your post-graduation from College of Art. What brought about that change?

In 1990, I travelled to Rajasthan and that was the opening of a new world for me. The sights and colours of the desert influenced my style and the figures I saw began entering my work. In fact, Bengal and Rajasthan share a long history and you see a reflection of that in Rajasthani court paintings and havelis.

paresh maity ‘After the Rain’ (1995), watercolour on paper

Over the years, wherever I travelled, I’ve tried to explore and introduce different elements from the place into my work. I study the history, culture and the energy of each city. I am painting even when I am travelling, my materials go with me everywhere — from Kolkata to Varanasi to Venice.

Motifs like ants (Procession, 2010) and bells recur in your work. Some of these reflect in the installations at your ongoing solo “Cast”, presented by Gallery Art Exposure. What’s their significance?

The memories of my childhood have stayed with me and also reflect in my work. In Tamluk, I saw ants everywhere. I would admire the discipline with which they would move in line. Some years ago, when I saw a Royal Enfield motorbike, I felt I wanted to do something with it. I sourced more than 100 bikes, dismantled them and created a huge installation, Procession, with ants crawling around. The ongoing exhibition at the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Kolkata, has an installation titled Motion, where I’ve used junk material, including Royal Enfield
bikes and ceiling fans, to design grasshoppers.

The exhibition also has an installation titled Power, where hundreds of bells come together to form a bull. These bells also go back to my childhood, I saw them in temples and around the necks of animals. Another installation, Birth of the Golden Egg (2018), had antique metal cages that I saw in Rajasthan. I was prompted to create something as they reminded me of the hens we had when I was growing up. When they gave eggs, I would sell them and use the money to buy art material, make toys and sell them in the village.

You’ve worked with a range of mediums (watercolours to acrylics) and forms (installations, photography, films). How important is it to experiment?

As an artist, it is extremely important to explore. I like experimenting and transforming; that poses challenges and allows one to fantasise. I’ve made two short films till now, and am working on some more. The Magic of Monsoons: Montage, Moments, Memories (2011) captured the natural sounds around monsoon across India — from Kolkata, Goa, to Mumbai and Kanyakumari. The Mystic Melody: A Day in the Golden Desert (2010) was shot in Rajasthan. These films are related to my art, I have been to these places hundreds of times. The intention is to bring in the richness of the places, the mysticism, in the works. At present, I am working on a film on Varanasi, about the city’s sights and sounds, what you observe from the water.

Paresh Maity ‘The Power’ (2018), brass and copper sculpture

Your 7×800 ft monumental painting Indian Odyssey is at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. How important is it to reach out to the masses with art?

It is very important to have public art. Look at the cave paintings of prehistoric times. In India, we are gradually working towards art education. Indian Odyssey is one of the longest paintings in the world. It took almost a year to paint, and from the very beginning, I knew I wanted it to represent different facets of India, from its diversity to colour, richness, beauty and its different states.

How did you react when, earlier this year, your portrait of Subhas Chandra Bose was compared with Bengali actor Prosenjit Chatterjee, who plays Bose in the 2019 biopic Gumnaami.

I don’t get bothered by all this, or else I will not be able to paint. The portrait came from the family and I know what I have done. I have grown up listening about him and admiring him. For me, Bose was a great hero to paint.

Why do you work only during the day? Has COVID-19 altered the way you work?

Light plays a vital role in my painting. Understanding light is important and I always paint next to the source of light as it helps me analyse a colour’s intensity. To me, COVID has reasserted the importance of taking it slow and contemplating over things. I also feel my colours have become purer. I’ve been focusing more on expression.

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