We get trapped in clichés of our own making — I call it the ‘Husain horse syndrome’,” says Anjolie Ela Menon, sitting in Vadehra Art Gallery in front of one of the imposing horses painted by India’s most famous artist in exile. She should know. During 55 years of painting that started with an informal show put together by M.F. Husain when she was 17, Menon has painted, over and over again, crows, goats, windows and chairs.
The windows, in fact, opened a new vista for her on the art market in the early 1970s. Menon says, “I had to send a work urgently from Mumbai to Delhi and found myself without a frame. In our garage was an old window that fitted the painting perfectly.” She put it in the frame without taking off the glass shards and asked the organiser to “price it so high that no one would buy it” — so that she could get another chance to work at it. At a time her works were selling for Rs 3,000-4,000, it went for Rs 17,000. And since then, with every lurching rise of the art market, the prices of her works have risen too.
Why, then, is she considered a late entrant to the hallowed gathering of ‘contemporary greats’? Even after her previous solo show at Vadehra in 2003, critic Kishore Singh deemed that she had just moved up from being “the grand dame of drawing room art”.
C. Uday Bhaskar, a retired commodore and an itinerant art critic who has known Menon for more than three decades as the wife of Navy colleague Raja Menon, says with a half-grin, “Anjolie has been very consistent... like, say, Bapu Nadkarni, the spin bowler who would end a Test with figures such as 110 overs, 90 maidens and two wickets.”
“Her late entry into the canon maybe because of her individualism,” says Parul Dave Mukherjee, dean of the JNU School of Arts and Aesthetics. “She has stayed on a semi-realistic, semi-Surrealist way of putting things... not belonging to one group or another.”
Though they have been rarely manifested directly, Menon’s influences have been several. From European masters such as Chagall and Modigliani, whose works she lapped up in the early 1960s while studying frescoes at the School of Fine Arts in Paris, to the works of Amrita Sher-Gil, who attended the same school three decades earlier. From the Romanesque figures she saw lying on the floors of churches while hitch-hiking across south Europe, to the 90-odd films by auteurs such as Ray and Bergman that she watched over a month at the Cinémathèque.
“You can see in Bergman’s Seventh Seal a medieval vision moving between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional — which is also the mark of a very fine fresco work... Anjolie’s style is a tribute to the fresco painters of the medieval and early Renaissance periods,” says Shyam Benegal, who will open the show on Menon’s 70th birthday on July 16 and release a book that leads with an essay written by Bhaskar under the nom de plume of Isana Murti.
If there’s one feature that runs through Menon’s diverse oeuvre, it’s the haunting eyes of the people in her frames. When they are not deathly hollows, the eyes are closed or downcast. “It could be about a great deal of repose,” says Benegal. Or melancholia, says Menon and asks: “Don’t we live in different moods of melancholia?”