Closing the circle

Georgina Maddox | Updated on January 23, 2018
Anjolie Ela Menon has always been known for her bold portraits. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Anjolie Ela Menon has always been known for her bold portraits. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat   -  The Hindu

‘Upanayanam’.   -  Vadhera Art Gallery

‘Divine Mothers Series'   -  Vadhera Art Gallery

A walkabout with Anjolie Ela Menon during her first solo show in five years proves why she remains a leading artist of the country

As workmen on ladders and gallery attendants scurry around, putting last-minute touches to Anjolie Ela Menon’s solo show at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, she remains the picture of composure and continues with her daily crossword. With her signature red bindi, impeccably draped sari and warm smile, she abandons her crossword only to discuss her art. “This exhibition goes back to my first love: Oil on masonite board — a medium that I have loved since the ’70s. It was while I was experimenting with glass negatives, which I found in my husband’s ancestral home in Kollengode Palace (Thrissur, Kerala), that I discovered that the masonite surface reacted well to oil paint,” recalls Menon.

We are surrounded by her creations with their warm oranges and lunar greens. Menon’s work has always been immediately recognisable because of its bold palette and figures who seem to harbour secrets. This show has fans and collectors thrilled, as it is her first solo in five years. Each canvas seems to tell its own story, whether it is gods in distress or people at the cusp of change. Her paintings have a distinct quality of this world and otherworldliness. These could be characters you have met on the street or those you have glimpsed in your nightmares.

But what strikes one first is the Divine Mothers series. Parvati is depicted as a supine beauty playing with a little dancing Ganesh, while the forlorn head of the boy that Shiva had decapitated in fury lies at her feet. Parvati seems lost in her own world and impervious to Ganesh, who seems to be pleading for attention. What are her thoughts? Has her husband’s fury troubled her?

In another corner hangs the black Virgin Mary, inspired by the Russian painters. Her face is stoic, even regal, though her eyes are shut in grief at the impending sacrifice of her son Jesus Christ. Titled ‘Madonna & Child Divine Mothers Series’, the painting grabs attention because this is a black Mary, attired in a sari. In these works, Menon celebrates womanhood and the multiplicity of her culture at a time when both appear under threat.

“I was born of Bengali-American parentage and my extended family has Muslims, Parsis and Druids. I have always stayed true to my multicultural lineage no matter which political party is in power. My female nudes counter the misogynistic gaze of male painters like FN Souza — a friend whom I often argued with — and this prevailing wave of hate crimes towards women,” says the 74-year-old artist.

Menon’s powerful mothers are surrounded by dervishes, striking nudes and wise men. These subjects recur in her work and she has revisited them here with fresh vigour after experimenting with kitsch and public murals.

“In 2007 a man, whose name I’d rather not mention, said to a group of us painters — ‘Easel painting is dead. Installation art and photography will rule the Indian art scene.’ Then the market crashed in 2008 and now, seven years later, painting is back! It has stood rock solid through all of this. I feel so vindicated,” says Menon with a warm chuckle.

Certainly, the re-emergence of painting is most evident in Menon’s mammoth 96.5’ x 97’ triptych of an upanayanam, or a boy’s thread ceremony. The parents and grandparents surround the child, bearing offerings under a patterned canopy. Their expressions are thoughtful, but also caring. “My works have often depicted rites of passage for I have always found the transition from childhood to puberty an interesting period in human life,” she says, scanning the large work.

In the gallery upstairs is another work, taken from her private collection and not for sale, which also speaks of the transition of a young girl to puberty as her mother looks on. Both mother and daughter are nude, emerging from their bath and sunning themselves on the terrace. “There is an intimacy and warmth of the mother-daughter bond that I have tried to capture. The work is inspired by Amrita Sher-Gil’s ‘Two Girls’. I like the tableaux-like quality of Sher-Gil’s work and the themes she dealt with,” says Menon.

Making these works proved to be a challenge, not just because of the detailing but also the size. “At my age it is harder to work as quickly as I used to. I still consider myself prolific, but it did take me three years to produce this body of work,” says the artist, who is also working on a large mural for the Mumbai airport. “I gave everyone a scare when I climbed onto the scaffolding without a hard hat and a harness, but frankly I have always painted large works without these trappings,” she says. She is also pleased that her public art mural at the Kolkata metro station, which had been vandalised, has finally been restored after five years of chasing the authorities concerned.

We end the tour with a set of small works of the Madonna, “It is an experimental work that combines bazaar kitsch with Indian miniatures. I like their size since they are meant to be held and viewed intimately, just as the folios of the miniatures were. With this show, you could say, I have come full circle.” We could not agree more.

(‘Recent Works by Anjolie Ela Menon’ runs at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi, till April 27)

Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based art writer

Published on April 03, 2015

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