Anjolie Ela Menon is an artist who has come a long way since dabbling in oils at school. Her paintings are on show in Madras.
My father wanted me to be a doctor and my mother hoped I would write, my art teacher at Lovedale, Sushi! Mukherjee first thought I should paint. He introduced me to oils at a very young age and had a very adult approach to his teaching. My earliest work, which I did then in school, is with Mr. Thomas, the ex-principal of Lovedale, and is going to be shown too.”
Anjolie Ela Menon is an artist who has come a long way since dabbling in oils at school. She joined the J.J. School of Arts, where she found she was much ahead of the class, and dropped out to study English literature, but painting all along. She had her first exhibition 10 days before the B.A. finals. It was a collection of over 50 paintings. M. F. Husain, the grand old man of Indian art, took half the show and presented it in Bombay. Since then Ela Menon has risen to the top echeleons of contemporary Indian art.
The first show was followed by a scholarship to the Ecole Beaux Art in Paris for a course in fresco technique. On completion, she hitch-hiked her way back through southern Europe with a friend. There and later in the Soviet Union, where her husband was posted, came the strong influences of the Renaissance and Byzantine art. The tradition of cathedral icon painting, where thin layers of translucent paint are applied and then heavily varnished, influenced her.
The subject matter in a sense change. It metamorphoses. The technique I use is the same, but it is not taught. I have developed it to my liking.”
In contrast to her early nudes and portraits, the Romanesque influences and the Soviet phase produced many works with a central Christ-like male figure, set off in counterpoint to the “Madonna and Child- series. These in turn came at intersection of motherhood in the artist’s life.
The nudes came back again — paintings of empty-eyed women in idyllic settings with goats, monkeys, lizards and crows. “I found the crow regularly visiting me in Bombay when I painted. It is a very human creature with a lot of personality, and it seems to have moved in and established its presence in my work.”
Then came chairs. Of all sorts, shapes and sizes. With wisps of diaphanous fabric draped over them. They were a move away from the figure. As Isana Murti says of this phase, the solitary chairs and empty landscapes ricochet -from forgotten sepia photographs, leaving a t deal unspoken and unarticulated even in the furthest reaches of the mind.”
This was followed by the famous window series. Painting windows and then on to using on to using real windows and frames. This is the ultimate “Object Trouve” of Ela Menon’s art, which she found in abundance at the kabadiwalas.
“It all starts with the artist’s eye to see it. In the junk heap or elsewhere, there are many marvelous things that make a statement worth making. It needs an artist to take the quantum leap, to make a conscious effort, to break down one’s own clichés.
The windows rise above being gimmicky, and allow Ela Menon to look out, look in, break up the spaces and see the framework as a grid. Some of her most brilliant compositions are done in this manner, creating multiple images in the fractured spaces, but with the tight control that coheses the work together firmly and beautifully.
Her career has spanned nearly 40 years now and she is at its middle age, so to say. What of the future? Will she paint in the same Menon-esque manner to satisfy the strong demand for her work, especially from the upper urban class?
“My friend, the artist Krishen Khanna, gave me the advice, ‘Never out price yourself.’ I feel I have been catapulted into a situation not of my own making. Sometimes I don’t feel it merits my work, but I can’t retreat. It’s suicidal to reduce your prices. However, at my last exhibition in January, I didn’t sell the show. I didn’t want the audience to dictate terms. I didn’t have my own corpus of work and so I am going to have my own collection. But, of course, it had quite the reverse effect! I feel all artists must stay a step ahead of the audience. Stop giving them what they want. Resist the pressure. The independence of the artist gets sapped with a boom.
“I’ve been travelling lately and attended the Sao Paolo Biennale recently. I did a huge triptych in fiberglass for the show. I find it is a medium that holds promise for me in future work, because it has the added dimension of letting translucent light through. Also, there is a whole new world of multimedia work that can be done. Installations, for example. It’s all here, available in India. Nobody pushes you and so there are limits to your creativity. I too am guilty of that, but I can see it changing in the future.”
As an important artist, Ela Menon also has very strong views on the role of aesthetics in society. Says she: “Nylon saris are the scourge of this country. Even the colors of the silk saris are dictated by what the market wants. Films seem to have become the great arbiters of culture and the results are positively hideous. Visual aesthetics are the first casualty of this new culture. I suppose it’s too widespread to effect immediate change, but there will be a small band of us eccentrics who will keep fighting the tide!”
What are her views on the contemporary art boom and the emerging generation of new artists?
“The young artists are highly competent and professional. Gone are-the diletante days of the Fifties when art was known to a select circle of artists; and there is no more amateurishness. The only danger is of falling into trends. There are many different genres working side by side in the contemporary Indian art world, as good as the West. but yet there are the distinct schools that have been the major influences — the Ornate Decorative South, the Narrative Baroda and the Bengal Dukhi School. If there was some cross-pollination, some catalysts, then the resulting work would be very interesting. I think art camps and workshops where artists interact will go a long way in achieving this.
” Ela Menon plays housewife and mother and still manages a painting career. As a woman artist, her greatest feedback and joy has been that at many exhibitions’ women of all sorts, from successful urban executives to housewives, have come in, seen a painting and said, “That’s me!”
Her new work at the exhibition in Madras from March 29 to April 4 is the result of experiences in Thanjavur and at the Tiruvaiyaru music festival. “I fell in love with a handsome mridangam player who looked like a Roman Senator,” she jokes. The work is different, yet has her stamp, a distinctive genre that she has created for herself. The show, on at The Gallery and at the Grindlays Art Gallery, has work spanning her four decade-long careers. Her paintings, famous for their jewel-like surfaces, the perfectly layered patinas of the translucent browns and madders that allow her enigmatic, mysterious and often melancholic subjects to blend, one with the other, prove that Anjolie Ela Menon’s journey that started from the untrammeled energy of the maverick has reached its goal of the perfectly honed touch of the master.