IT seemed most befitting for Bina Ramani to hold her first art exhibition in the Capital in the very neighbourhood that she is credited with discovering and developing: Hauz Khas village. Over three decades ago, just back from the US and post a messy divorce, this is where she had opened her store, Twice Upon a Time. On Thursday evening she was a few blocks away from that space, at Art Konsult gallery, welcoming those who walked the narrow alleys to congratulate the artist and her Canadian husband George Mailhot on their exhibition.
On the walls were 60 artworks — Ramani’s photographs of the bovine and Mailhot’s mixed media paintings. It was art that had turned their acquaintance into a relationship more than 20 years ago. Introduced by an Israeli diplomat, back then, Ramani was a leading fashion designer and Mailhot was a consultant with the Government of Canada, posted in India, and ran an art space in Golf Links, where he would invite acquaintances — including politicians, designers and the royalty — to experiment with art.
Ramani was one of them. Soon, the two started sharing thoughts, and in 1994 exhibited together in New York, a year before they got married. Though Mailhot had several subsequent exhibitions in India, this is the couple’s debut joint showcase in the country. “This came through discussions with the gallery,” says Mailhot, with Ramani adding, “We will discuss more.”
The influences are myriad — from Chinese art traditions to the spiritual mandala that had first attracted Mailhot’s attention in the 1980s. We see his recent scrolls painted in China and works from the ’90s where Mailhot uses a knife to create layers on paper, combining several large paintings in contrasting colours. “It creates a kind of randomness and an effect that would be difficult to attain otherwise,” says Mailhot.
Ramani’s exhibits put cows in the spotlight. The fascination for the animal, she recalls, developed after Mailhot returned home from a stroll with the photograph of a bull in 2005. “It was a head with these incredible black and white spottings. We just take cows for granted and don’t notice the details. Each one of them is different. I started noticing their beauty then on,” says Ramani, who has photographed cows across the country from Maharashtra to Karnataka to Goa and in Bali, outside India. The digitally manipulated photographs have them in varied settings.
The frames are a far cry from her fashion creations, where she used vintage textiles in contemporary clothing, but she finds a connection between the two pursuits. At the opening of her first outlet at the Qutub Complex in 1986, she used stands with antique cow heads as mannequins and Pichwai paintings as blinds, she recalls.
Dressed in a self-designed green jacket, she discussed her work with everyone who walked in for the opening, from curious passers-by to artists Jatin Das and Kanchan Chander to entrepreneur Ramola Bachchan. She still laments how several friends distanced themselves from her when in 1999, model Jessica Lal was shot in her restro-bar Tamarind Court by Manu Sharma, the son of an influential politician. In 2006, the High Court sentenced Sharma to life imprisonment (a verdict upheld by the Supreme Court in 2010), but by then Ramani had been through the worst.
“Those were testing times. It was a lesson, the superficiality,” she recalls. In 2013, she shared episodes from her life in her autobiography, Bird in a Banyan Tree, which sketched her journey, from her account of the murder to personal details from childhood in Mumbai, to being groomed by her wealthy and conservative family to be a good wife, and her difficult marriage and divorce to Andy Ramani, an Air India executive based in the US. She also wrote extensively about her affair with actor Shammi Kapoor. “I feel bad that I broke and shattered his heart,” says Ramani.
She calls the current phase of her life as most contented. “I have been through it all. Now I am part of nature,” she adds. Being at Hauz Khas, meanwhile, is “homecoming”. “I am so emotionally charged. It’s looking much better than it has in the recent past. It had become an embarrassment,” she states, stepping out for a photo shoot, reminiscing the time when she had accidentally driven to the neighbourhood in the late ’80s. The exhibition is on till February 26