Known for her powerful canvases which come with a disturbing element, Anjolie Ela Menon continues to be unabashed about her creations. Dressed in a long black kurta and her signature colossal red bindi, the artist welcomed me into her Nizamuddin house with a warm smile. This wasn't my first meeting with her but this was the first time when I stepped into her private space. But the familiar vibe put me at ease immediately. Several art works adorned the walls. Her bulldog Cloe sat smugly midst the imagery.
We talked for about half an hour and the septuagenarian artist was quite excited about recent exhibition in London and mural at the Delhi airport entitled The Walled City. She also talked about another passion she has besides painting. Excerpts from the interview:
What has been keeping you busy?
Well, I have been very busy for the last few months, finishing a big mural at the airport, the T3. Once that was over, I had to go to London for the show at the Grosvenor gallery. That was rather sudden! But being a medium sized gallery it wasn't too hard to gather enough work to fill it.
I was told that London is very important for Indian art and the gallery was very keen that we should have the exhibition in June because Sotheby's, Christie's and all the auctions were on. There were many people from here; it was like almost Delhi repeated in London. There were many familiar faces from here and of course the diaspora.
Tell us something about the recent exhibition.
The exhibition in London consisted of some very large paintings and some very tiny collages which I've been doing. It was a progression of the Hitch series and it's a combination of my own work in calendar art or posters. Those were quite intriguing; people had never seen them before. So, from very small to this huge mural, there has been a contrast of work that I've been doing in the last year.
When you have an exhibition, all your work comes together at one place and it's always a revelation when you see your work up on the gallery wall to know which direction your work has taken.
One of the works was inspired by the Kumbh Mela. It was called visarjan, with these two people immersing themselves in the water. So that was a very serious, large work.
Last time I met you at the India Art Fair (2012) and you were working on The Divine Mothers theme. Is this one somewhat related?
I am still working on the theme of Divine mothers for the Vadehra exhibition at the year end. I really wanted to keep those paintings for India exhibition but two of those paintings also got included in the exhibition and they were sold so I'd have to work that much harder to make up this collection. After many years of experimentation I've gone back to my favourite medium which is oil on masonite. It was a very layered pigment and kind of a soft focus of themes which are very close to my own daily life - portraits of women, children and a lot of hens.
There is this recent painting that I am working on which shows Parvati with Ganesh. And there has been that little bit of disturbance in my work. Critics have often found that element and that has been part of my genre. In this painting, you see severed head of the baby before Ganesh was restored to Parvati. So, it is going to be not only powerful but probably a little controversial.
Why did you choose London for your exhibition and not India?
I didn't choose London. It was actually the other way around and a two year old commitment to the Grosvenor Gallery happened. June is apparently an important month for Indian art where dealers, critics, auctioneers, buyers and artists congregate.
Were there any Indian buyers?
Yes, I would say 90 percent of the buyers were Indian, especially people who live there. Lot of writers and journalists and those kinds of people came, which I was very happy about (she smiles) because they show very deep interest in your work. There's a huge difference between the kind of people who really understand and go deeply into your work and people who treat it like a commodity which they must own. There's a lot of that now and I am really appreciative of sometimes a small buyer. There was one lady, who was a journalist and she said she's been saving up. She bought a small work but she came two or three times and I could see that it's a part of her savings and she really wanted it. That means more to me than the sale of my paintings.
What is the difference between Indian and the international market?
To be honest I know nothing about the international art market or its dynamics and manipulations. The Indian art market is in a state of flux. It will take about 2 years, I reckon, before the inevitable shakeout will give us a clearer picture of where we are.
Do you feel that art has more buyers now?
Hey, not at the moment! The boom, now three years old, was fuelled by investors not collectors. The investors withdrew totally after the global recession and the real collectors have become wary of new art. They only support the so called 'proven' names, and seem to have generally dumped the cutting edge after the initial enthusiasm about what are now labeled as contemporaries.
What is it that you are working on currently? Is there a big surprise for your fans?
What will emerge from my current work will probably be as much a surprise for me as for my fans! One lets it flow. I try not to predetermine the course it will take much like a maverick river that occasionally shifts from one bank to the other. Who knows?
What else do you enjoy besides painting?
I like to cook! I like to cook...I've been working on a cookery book for a long time because you know our family is very varied. My grandmother was American, I married into South, my mother married a Bengali, my aunt married a Muslim, and the other aunt married a Frenchman, so we have many strains of very good food that we've been accustomed to. Plus, our travel - we've lived in Russia, Germany, England and I love to experiment with food. So, I am doing this cookery book.
Also, I am a bit annoyed that we get magazines which mention very fancy names of things which are not even available. My cooking is pretty down-to-earth. I try and make do and experiment with local ingredients to make gourmet food so you could call me the foodie gourmet! (She laughs). So the book is going to be based on my family's secret recipes and my travels. It'll be a food-travelogue.
This is very interesting, something your fans would look forward to.
It is very different from what I do but I enjoy that. I love feeding people basically. It's such a lovely event when people come and you've cooked something.
Do you have a specialty?
I make a very good paté; I think I make a very good paté.
What is the best and the worst compliment you've received?
Oh! I've received a lot of compliments which is hardly fair. Why don't I tell you the worst compliment - One big exhibition I had at the Jahangir art gallery and there was a comment book full of praises and one guy wrote: "What a load of rubbish this is!" And I've forgotten all the compliments but I remember that one. (Laughs out loud)
One of the compliments which was rather nice. There were a brother and a sister standing in front of a painting, which was of a broken chair, and both of them were fighting and they would say "this was in our grandmother's house" and the other one would say "no! This was at an aunt's house". It wasn't their chair at all! But you know the idea is that somebody should identify with something that you've painted, I think it was really nice.
Would you like to say something to your fans?
I can only thank my fans for their continued support and am grateful that so few of them ever put my work up for resale but obviously continue to like what they have and live with it. I recently had a mini retrospective in Mumbai and old collectors of mine most generously lent their work for a whole month. I am really grateful to them.