THIS CAN be dubbed as ‘vintage Menon’ at its best. With a strong use of iconography, layered surfaces and the metaphorical use of motifs, leading contemporary artist Anjolie Ela Menon has returned to the country’s art circuit after a gap of nearly five years. What is clearly noticeable in this new lot of 20 paintings, now on view at Vadehra Art Gallery in the national capital, is a greater maturity coupled with the dynamism that has defined her work.
“I have had solo shows in London and Hong Kong, but this is the first one I’m having in the country after a gap of nearly five years,” says the 75-year-old artist who was awarded the Padmashree in 2000. Elaborating on the reasons for her long absence, she says: “Well, if you see my work, it’s all very detailed and hand-painted. I don’t use Photoshop or any new technology, so it takes a long time to first conceive a great work of art and then paint it. For instance, in between, I did a big mural at T3 (of the Indira Gandhi International) airport in Delhi, which took me over six months to complete.”
The ongoing exhibition is a result of almost three years of work. “About 12 of them are recent, the rest are early works,” she adds. Interestingly, Menon has come back to her unique and inimitable technique and style—especially her luminous oils on masonite—which makes her work stand apart from so many of her contemporaries. “This is what I like to do, my first love—to paint with oils. A lot of people paint with acrylic now. Acrylic is a fast medium—it dries fast, but it’s a little harsher. To get the subtle tones, which I like to get in my paintings, oils are the chosen medium. Oils have more gravitas and are capable of creating an atmosphere of depth and profundity, which is not possible with acrylic,” she adds.
Among the masonites in the recent show is Upanayanam, a large triptych, which shows a family celebrating the thread ceremony of a little boy, with half-nude women figures—an enigmatic combination of fantasy and reality. Menon’s latest show also has a few works that are a continuation of her Divine Mother series. “There is Parvati and Ganesh, there is Jesus and Mary, then I’ve also painted Yashoda and Krishna. I feel that the great deities and their mothers are equally worshiped and are important to Indian mythology. I celebrate the divine mother, as I am baffled by the dichotomy of current Indian attitudes towards the woman,” she explains.
Another large painting depicts the birth of Ganesha, the young elephant-headed boy seeking his mother’s love, while the severed head of Parvati’s child lies in a corner. The severed head of the child is never shown in mythology, but Menon has depicted it graphically “as a symbol of the mother’s anguish and endurance in the face of terrible suffering”.
Talking about her inspiration, Menon says she’s constantly inspired by things she sees around her, for instance, outside her studio in Nizamuddin basti. “It is a small village surrounded by the city. I have had my studio in front of Nizamuddin basti for close to 20 years now. I’m very close to the people living there. My inspiration comes from them—the women, the old men, the beggars and even the dargah, which is visited by people from different nationalities,” she says.
Menon’s preferred medium is oil on masonite, but she has also worked in other media, including glass and water colour in the past. “For about 10 years, I did many experiments that led to many movements in Indian art. I did engage with kitsch and calendar art, then I did painted objects and Murano glass structures, among others,” she adds. She was one of the first artists in the country to morph several paintings on a computer and then print them out as a way of creating a new image—an alteration technique that is widely known as ‘pentimento’. “That had a huge following. Many artists are doing it now, but I was the first one to do it in 1999. Pentimento means that you look below the surface—one painting is laid over another one and so on. Sometimes there are about three paintings that are morphed and laid over each other to create a new image,” she explains.
Art is all about the creation of imagery and one can employ many means, says Menon. “Today, people can use Photoshop or cover one’s body with paint and roll over a canvas. I think the barriers have all but broken down,” she adds.
Talking about the contemporary art scene in India, Menon says: “There was a great boom in Indian art a few years ago—the boom was not fuelled by collectors, but by investors. The investors would sometimes get together in syndicates. These syndicates buy up a whole lot of art, but nobody hung them or cherished them. They were just stacked. On the other hand, when the crash took place during the recession, lots of works were unable to be sold even at the prices they were bought at. There were also many unscrupulous dealers in between. But now, there has been a big shakeout, where a lot of things that were taken up to high prices have been brought down to levels, which are more realistic.”
About the Indian art market, Menon says people are now back to liking ‘actual’ paintings. “There was a time when people would say
paintings are out and new media like video installations are in. For the time being, that isn’t the case any more,” she adds.