When we drop by, Anjolie Ela Menon’s paintings are going up on the walls of the Colaba gallery. We catch glimpses of a Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns, and Gautama sitting on his mother Maya’s lap. Menon (76), in a salwar kameez, complains that she’s not dressed for a shoot. “I’ve just borrowed a dupatta and a jacket for this,” she laughs.
She’s just back from Goa, and heading to Alibaug in a couple of hours, she says. In fact, she’s been travelling without a break for the last few months. But that hasn’t kept her away from painting. The result of her latest creations is a solo exhibition simply titled Anjolie Ela Menon, Recent Works. But what makes it significant is that this is her first Mumbai exhibition in nine years, a gap Menon attributes to the rigours of putting a large body of work together.
While some of the recent work is in continuation of the Divine Mother series, depicting mothers of deities like Krishna, Jesus and Gautama, others include portraits of family members, or people Menon meets daily. “My grandchildren now appear in the portraits. Most of my models, though, are from the basti (village),” she adds. This is the Nizamuddin Basti in Delhi that Menon refers to, where her studio has been located for 21 years now. “In the paintings of the divine mothers, the faces are often of the women in the basti. I’m a part of the community there; the children call me ‘dadi’. All the people there are my friends and natural models,” she explains.
Around the world in a canvas
Travelling to different countries has significantly influenced Menon’s art. In fact, the Madonna and Child leitmotif she’s most associated with, were inspired by visits to Romanesque cathedrals and churches in France, and visits to Greece and Russia, which reinforced the Byzantine influence: “I like the technique and the gravitas of Byzantine works. There is a certain solemnity, and the works are richly embellished.”
Her present collection has images depicting Vrindavan, a place she visited to immerse the ashes of a friend. There she spotted a young girl in a threadbare sari contemplating renunciation. “The contradiction excited me; in a materialistic world, you have people who, at least for a short time, give it all up. Why would a young woman renounce the world? It seemed unnatural, yet I could see the beauty of it,” she says.
There is also a painting of pilgrims embarking on the Sabarimala yatra in Kerala. “Earlier, the pilgrims would walk 500 miles carrying nothing with them. Now, they are going in trucks and carrying luggage,” she says.
But though religion figures prominently in her art, Menon isn’t particularly religious. “The idea of pilgrimage has always been moving to me. I am not particularly religious but the feeling of collective devotion is powerful,” she says.
The power within
And while most of Menon’s oeuvre depicts women, she doesn’t term herself a feminist either. “I am not a feminist in the western sense, but I have been empowered through being a woman. All the gods were men but their mothers were considered divine and worshipped,” she says. The Indian concept of shakti, feels Menon, considers women as inherently powerful; they don’t have to assume men’s power.
Menon might be back here after a long time, but she’s far from done with the city. Her next project is for the Mumbai Airport, and is expected to be unveiled over the next few weeks.
Over the years, Menon has veered towards painting for public spaces: “Once paintings disappear into private collections, you don’t see them again. I feel the work I do should be in public spaces. These new monuments of our times are the patrons of great art,” she says.
Know your artist
Born to a Bengali doctor and an American housewife, Menon’s initial education was at Lawrence School, Tamil Nadu, where her teacher Sushil Mukherjee introduced her to western art, and greats like Italian painter Modigliani. Menon’s father wanted her to study medicine but instead, she enrolled for architecture at Sir JJ School of Architecture. “I couldn’t cope with maths, so I shifted to painting. But I was bored quickly because my guru had already taught me all that,” she recalls. She then enrolled at Delhi’s Miranda College and studied literature.
Her career took off early. She had her first exhibition while still in college. The collection featured 50 works, of which 20 were bought by MF Husain. Menon eventually won a scholarship to study art in Paris. Menon was bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2000. However, the artist is unhappy with the present state of affairs. “If I did not give up my Padma Shri, it was because I didn’t think that giving it up is going to make a difference. The government seems immune to protest,” she rues.
What: Anjolie Ela Menon, Recent Works will be on display from November 26 to December 31, 11am to 7pm.
Where: Art Musings, Admiralty Building, Colaba Cross Lane
Call: 2216 3339