Why did Laxman Shreshtha, one of India’s greatest contemporary artists, choose a reclusive existence? At 79, he opens the doors to his bungalow. Here’s what he has to say about the family that never accepted his profession, friends Husain and Gaitonde, learning about wine from Raza
Laxman Shreshtha’s bungalow in Khar is an unassuming, two-storeyed structure. Inside is a simple living room with white walls, a coffee table, and white couches. A TV in the corner has DVDs stacked below it, from Die Hard to Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata; and there are shelves of well-thumbed books (Herman Hesse’s Demian to Leo Tolstoy’s stories). The walls are lined with Shreshtha’s early figurative work, as well as abstract art by wife Sunita.
Dressed in a striped blue shirt and black trousers, the artist looks younger than his 79 years. He is easy to recognise from the jet black, long hair that has been a constant. But age is catching up, he says. Just a day before, he had to visit the doctor for an ache in his hand, caused by a lifetime of lifting heavy canvases.
The better half
Shreshtha continues to paint daily, but has cut down on the hours — from six to three, he says. The painting sessions are interspersed with coffee and juice breaks with his wife. Laxman and Sunita met at the Sir JJ School of Art where she was his junior; they have been together for more than five decades now.
“She is the only one allowed in my studio. She can look at what I paint but can’t comment,” he laughs, admitting that their different natures helped sustain their relationship. “Many of our painter friends separated. If both the partners are intense, it’s tough. My wife paints for herself; few know about her work,” he says.
Alone by choice
His friend, the late MF Husain, was always in the public eye. In contrast, little is known about the Nepal-born Shreshtha. In fact, after 2008, the artist has not had a single solo show. Shreshtha says the onus lies on others: “Museums or curators should show my paintings. Let them organise my exhibition. I have done my work,” he says.
The Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation has stepped up to the task. Their upcoming retrospective, Laxman Shreshtha: The Infinite Project, features 49 works from their collection. Divided in two parts, the exhibition showcases his early figurative works (from 1963) and the various phases of his abstract work up to 2008.
While he is famed for his large, abstract canvases, Shreshtha started as a figurative artist. “I went to abstract art through landscapes. Maybe I missed the mountains of Nepal or the expanse of the Himalayas. I thought that could be captured only on a bigger space, and that’s why I started painting large canvases,” he explains.
Shreshtha is known to be reclusive, something he attributes to the discipline required to be an abstract artist: “Abstract is the end result of painting. The tendency of an abstract artist is to be reticent. Reading, listening to music, silence are the main ingredients. In silence, you find what you have been searching for,” he says.
But Shreshtha used to be a lot more social till the ’80s. “At the peak of my career, I would attend dinners and cocktails almost every day. But the deeper meaning of life eluded me. It used to make me restless,” he says. He shared his crisis with his friend, abstract artist (late) VS Gaitonde, who gave him Nisargadatta Maharaj’s book, I Am That. He met the seer and seemed to have found the answers he wanted. “I was born boisterous and colourful, but [afterwards] I became quiet and withdrawn. My paintings, and my lifestyle, changed,” he says.
Friends, old and new
While many of his artist friends have passed away — MF Husain, SH Raza, Gaitonde — Shreshtha remains pragmatic. “I never go for condolence meetings, but I remember them with affection,” he says. The memories he retains are of happier times, of when Raza taught him and Sunita to enjoy wine in France, or times spent with artist Prabhakar Barwe, chatting on the lawns of Sir JJ School of Art.
He has friends among today’s popular artists as well: the likes of Jitish Kallat and Bose Krishnamachari. “They sort of grew up here, and they would pack my paintings when I had an exhibition,” he recalls.
“There is music playing all the time, from the time I am awake,” says Shreshtha, who listens to classical (western and Indian) and jazz. When he needs quiet, he spends five to six hours reading. “I am curious, and want to find myself. When I was younger, I would read the Upanishads and Buddhist philosophy,” he adds.
His choice of movies range from art house, by Francois Truffaut, to popular Rocky and Rambo films. When confronted with questions while painting, he turns to movies: “I do something serious upstairs. When I struggle to get the answers, I feel like I will tear the canvas. So I watch a film and go back a different man,” he says.
B ack in time
While his works now sell for lakhs of rupees at auctions, Shreshtha struggled early in his career. He recounts how he survived on scholarships as a student and, after his education, found few takers for his art: “Artists like Husain and Raza were stars. When I returned from Paris, nobody wanted my paintings. Identity was a concern: how to ascertain that we are Indian painters without painting exotic imagery or copying Western artists.”
Shreshtha may be a legend now, but he feels his family “tolerates” him. “When I told them I wanted to paint, no one spoke to me. In 1959, a painter in Nepal was like an untouchable. So I ran away and came to Bombay. Even now, I visit them, but stay in a hotel. They think I’m useless,” he says.
At 79, Shreshtha’s plans still involve travelling (he’s lived in New York, Paris, Berlin, among other cities) and, of course, painting: “As an artist, there is no retirement. If your fingers are running, you can paint,” he says.
Wall of fame
>1957-62 Completes his Diploma in Painting at Sir JJ School of Arts
> 1964-67 Wins the French Government Scholarship to Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts and the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, Paris
>1966 Wins the Prix d’ Honneur, International Art Exchange Exhibition, New York
> 1970 Studies at Central School of Art & Craft, London with the British Council Grant
> 1971 Given the IVP Grant by the US government to visit Baltimore and San Francisco
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