Anjolie Ela Menon spoke to this writer in an interview after receiving the prestigious Dayawati Modi Foundation award for a lifetime’s contribution to arts in New Delhi on Nov 18 when she joined the league of recipients like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Amitabh Bachchan. Menon was overwhelmed in her trademark modest and down-to-earth manner. “I have too much recognition for my work. I don’t know what an award does to a young artist, but when you are above 70, it is an acknowledgement of a life time of hard work! But I can’t stop here… I have to move on,” the 73-year-old artist mused, “the journey is far from over”.
“I don’t think I have changed much as an artist. May be, I am jollier. But the meditative quality in my work still remains. There is also a certain melancholy – partly because we Bengalis tend to be melancholic. The response to the environment is not always a happy one”.
Born in West Bengal in 1940 to Bengali and American parents, Menon straddles multiple cultures— the eastern sonority of Bengal, the cutting edge of America, the classicism of Europe and the exotic Southern Indian subjects from where she often draws her inspiration for figures. The artist is married to strategic analyst and former Navy admiral Raja Menon, a Malayali from Kerala— her window to the culturally ancient southern states of the country.
The foremost among the experimental group of contemporary Indian artists Anjolie Ela Menon has not changed much as an expressionist from her 1970s heydays of “liberation through colours” - when her bold style often raised eyebrows among conservative Indian viewers bred on conventional figures, landscapes and colourful abstractions. She had transformed the genre of nude to a rare artistic finesse and beauty like her idol Amrita Shergil. The nude as a subject has haunted Menon’s psyche since 1957.
The boldness of the early years has matured into meditation and depth in the last five decades. Gravitas is reflected in the serenity on the canvas, the enhanced layers of existence in her human figures and in the larger scale works in public spaces — an oeuvre of art that has earned her a formidable fan following across the world. One of the largest public art works hangs in Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi.
Menon is a name to reckon with in bridging the gap between high and low art with her engagement with kitsch, street art and calendar art. This has led to a vast following and a new school in Indian art. Having perfected her skill in the ancient glassworks of Murano Italy her sculptures in art glass broke new ground, combining techniques from the west with sacred Indian iconography.
Women are central to Menon’s expression and artistic journey. “The role of women in society touches me. I have a studio at Nizamuddin Basti – a Muslim dominated historical neighbourhood in the heart of New Delhi. I have witnessed at close quarters to what extent women in India have to suffer – how they nurture their families against all odds. Many Indian women lead a life of sacrifice,” Menon said. Several of her paintings are juxtaposed between this habit of sacrifice and the joy of living.
Menon belongs a generation of women artists of the 1970s, who broke away from convention to chart a new course of freedom and empowerment in the arts. Critics often describe it as the first phase of feminism in modern Indian art – after Amrita Shergil – when the woman at home took up the paintbrush and painted “between the kitchen and the kids”, portraying a woman’s innermost longing for freedom on canvas. Menon was part of a coterie of artists like Nilima Sheikh, Arpana Caur, Arpita Singh, Nalini Malani and Zarina Hashmi and others, who established their signatures on the art scene - on par with their male counterparts – with avant garde contemporary art practices. “Between Amrita Shergil and our generation of artists, the intervening wave of women painters were a little amateurish and tended to give up early. We were the first generation to approach art professionally,” Menon said. The artist ascribes this professionalism to the fact that her generation of painters was trained in good art schools.
Menon’s tryst with art as a commercial vocation dates back to her school days at The Lawrence School at Lovedale in Otacamund. By the time, she left school, she had sold 15 paintings. Menon recalled that she sold her first painting, a boat, to Dr. Zakir Husain, the Vice President of India. He had visited the artist’s school at Lovedale when Menon was 14.
Menon then moved to the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai and later studied English literature in Delhi University. At this point, the French government offered her a scholarship to the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris where she opted for fresco. Menon travelled extensively around Europe and West Asia while in Paris, to study Romanesque and Byzantine art- a genre that influenced her throughout her career. Later, Menon lived in Russia, UK and Germany with her husband — the diverse cultural influences seeped into her work gradually.
Menon has been a trendsetter in contemporary art by introducing new innovations in her practice. The artist says she has had the luxury of “being somewhat self-indulgent” in her creative processes. “My work is purely expressionist and I don’t believe in art as a medium of message. We have more ubiquitous and powerful media today in television and print which addresses many more people. I have never been keen on didacticism but young contemporary artists today progressively incorporate didactic messages in their artistic endeavours on social, political or gender related issues,” Menon said.
The artist still cannot predict the future sources of inspiration. “There are no specific wellsprings. It is very personal. Each day, inspiration awaits, sometime it is the crow sitting outside my window or at other times, perhaps, the vision from a moving train… I am open to events, situations and other stimuli ” she mused. This unexpected nature of inspiration lends an element of shock value to her paintings — like the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 which was a “drenched in blood” on Menon’s canvas or the Naga sadhus who leapt from their chariots at the last Kumbh Mela trailing their dreadlocks behind them. Throughout the 1990s, windows, nudes, chairs and junk recurred on her canvas with icons of women, discarded objects, juxtaposed with humans in a strange mélange of regeneration, life, decay.
“My figures are transmuted from reality and the dream state,” the artist said, “I conducted a 10-year experiment which led many new trends in Indian art. My engagement with kitsch gave me a global following. It became a new school of art. I was the first to use junk in my work — today a lot of artists work with junk,”. Menon says she was the first in India to experiment with computer art. “My computer-enabled art show, ‘Mutations’, in New York City was in sync there at the turn of the last century but the show was not understood in India as it was far ahead of its times. But now many young Indian artists are using photographs, Photoshop and technology to create new images,” Menon said.
The artist regretted that as an avant garde, her work gets appropriated as she moves on. “I hate looking back but I would like to go back to making Murano glass sculpture. But I wonder who would guide me at the glass blowers now that the Italian meister Antonio De Ros, with whom I worked, is not around to help me anymore. Language is also a problem,” she said.
Menon is one of the highest price–pullers in the Indian contemporary art market— with the likes of M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta and Ram Kumar, but she remains ambivalent about the commerce of art. “Art does not have to be commercial. Unfortunately, the presence of countless galleries , dealers and auction houses has commodified art, which helped artists during the boom. But after the boom, there has been the crash. The boom was fuelled by fake promises by dealers to investors. Investors are different from collectors – they ramp up the market, but do not hang or cherish the work” Menon said.
The artist is seeking more public space for her works— and is eager to connect to a younger generation of viewers. Two of her large murals in pubic spaces — one gifted to the Kolkata Metro and a mural on the LIC Building — were vandalized. “Only when someone pays a huge sum of money a work of art is valued. In Shantiniketan, I have seen students parking their bikes against a great mural by the late Benode Bihari Mukherjee,” Menon said on a sad note. “I want to do more work in public spaces but public art requires care and promotion in India, which is at the moment sadly lacking”.
“I have had two major retrospective exhibitions and one mini retrospective show. Collectors have been generous in lending their paintings. Recently in Mumbai, my old collectors came up with works from the 1970s that I had forgotten about. There is a whole generation who does not know my work.” Menon said.
The artist at the moment is working on a series of large paintings for an exhibition at the Vadehra Art Gallery in early 2014.