Lalu Prasad Shaw is a master at juggling mediums and styles. His lithographs express abstract forms while his paintings are a figurative oeuvre. The 74-year-old is now showing a retrospective of 50 years of his works. He talks about his journey.
Medium has never been a constraint for you. Watercolours, pastels, tempera, lithographs and etchings — you have dabbled in all.
It has been a conscious attempt. I never wanted to restrict myself to a particular style or medium. Learning new techniques involves an inherent challenge and that has always excited me. Whenever I would get bored with one medium, I would switch to another. I would put behind the previous work and start the new one afresh.
Your ongoing retrospective in Delhi has creations dating back to your student days. Your piece Soul Mate II was sold for over Rs 10 lakh at the recent Emami Chisel auction. Another price of yours was sold for a similar amount at last winter’s Saffronart auction. Isn’t forgetting the old works difficult?
I neither take auctions seriously, nor do I keep a tab on them. As a principle, I don’t give my creations directly to an auction house. The prices are often unrealistic and can easily be fabricated. Someone with vested interests can manipulate the price by investing in the works of a particular artist. Once the price shoots up, the works are sold.
Do you think the art boom is a sham?
No. Indian art is doing well and that is good news for all of us. Art awareness in the country is increasing. So is international attention. And artists are finally getting their due. But a lot of is driven by commercialisation and marketing. Galleries too seem to be playing an important role in promoting artists.
The boom doesn’t seem to have affected you. You are neither seen at art exhibitions, nor do you like to talk about your works.
I let my works do the talking. Artists should make statements through their creations.
Was your decision to pursue printmaking a statement of sorts—an indicator that you did not want to be part of the mainstream? Not many artists opted for making prints which fetched lower prices than paintings.
Market acceptability was never a concern for me. Of course, artists do want to sell their work, but creative satisfaction is also important. As a student, I experimented a lot with the wash-in-miniature format and pastels. Printmaking first inspired me when I visited an exhibition of contemporary prints by Czechoslovakian artists in Kolkata in 1966. Then, I attended a printmaking workshop organised by Smithsonian University in Delhi in 1970. I took to the medium after that.
Some Bengal artists were experimental the way you were during the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Sanat Kar and Suhas Roy, for instance, were doing etchings. All of you later joined the Society of Contemporary Artists. The group, established in 1967, is one of the oldest in the country. Is it still active?
Yes. We hold regular meetings. Initially, our aim was to raise awareness about art and promote artists. Holding exhibitions was an expensive proposition back then, so we would organise group shows and hold discussions on Indian art. We still plan exhibitions and last year we had a printmaking workshop in Kolkata, which was well-attended. Hopefully things will improve for printmaking.
Did the academic curriculum at the Government College of Arts and Craft, Kolkata, where you studied, also leave a lasting impression on your work? You were pursuing applied art initially, but in the third year, you left it for painting.
I opted for applied art as I felt that it would help me get a decent income but in the third year I realised that it wasn’t meant for me. Formal education in art was very different then from what it is now. Deviation from the curriculum was not encouraged and one had to abide by the rules. We were discouraged from experimentation.
How different were you as a teacher at the graphic art department in Kala Bhavan, where you joined in 1979 and continued for another 20 years?
My students were independent to depict what they desired. My lessons were based on interaction and I was learning with them. I became acquainted with certain techniques only during my teaching days. Lithography, for instance, was new to me when it was introduced at Kala Bhavan. I had to learn and teach.
It is impractical to follow the old rules any longer. The art world has changed radically. The students aren’t naïve. They know how to promote themselves and sell their creations. In the ‘60s, you sold a print for a song at an open art fair in Kolkata…
I don’t remember the incident, but it might be true. At that time, we would be happy to sell our work for even Rs 100. I remember a Ganesh Pyne painting being sold for Rs 125. Now its price is in lakhs. We had to struggle a lot. The younger generation is luckier.
Do you think Kolkata has lost out to Delhi and Mumbai, which are now the centers of art in India?
That is more to do with politics in the art world. Until recently, Kolkata did not have many art galleries. Now there are many and are doing good work. Tie-ups between galleries across the country is also a healthy trend. It would help artists in Bengal reach the connoisseurs.