For a long time, assertive women have been the protagonists of veteran artist Lalitha Lajmi’s work. The 82-year-old, who first showed her artwork at Jehangir Art Gallery as part of a group exhibition in 1961, has had a long career, and many struggles. Perhaps that is why she consistently used black, blue and sepia tones in her work. Lajmi’s new exhibition, Performers, recently opened at Gallery Art & Soul, Worli, and revisits similar motifs. While her previous works are believed to have been melancholic, Lajmi insists that the new collection is happier. Here, she talks about her show, why she couldn’t work in films, the bond she shared with her brother, late actor Guru Dutt, and more.
How did this new show come about?
When it comes to my work, I generally have figures in mind — men, women, children and clowns. I’ve been working on the concept of ‘performance’ for a long time. It’s about performers, not only those on stage or in the circus, but also in real life. I feel that my work is more optimistic now. Earlier, there used to be a lot of struggle. I was young, and we were not able to sell much. We were not able to even exhibit. It took a long time for me to get into the art scene.
What was your relationship with your brother, Guru Dutt, like?
During those days, a brother was supposed to be a father figure in a family. There was always a distance. Though there was some understanding between us, I could not speak openly to him. When we used to live in Matunga, he used to give us — me and my mother — all the scripts he wrote, to read. He asked us for our opinions. When he made his films, he would invite us, my sister-in-law Geeta (Dutt; singer), and some of his close friends, to watch the rushes. Right from the beginning, we had that rapport.
Why didn’t you work in films?
Many people ask me that. I got married when I was 17, and I got engaged to a sailor who was at sea. We started a family, and Kalpana (Lajmi; director) and my son were born. So, it was a big struggle to come up as a painter. I wish I was young, then I would have done something. I would have loved to do poster design for films. But I never had the chance. I was getting into my own field, and also running a home. That took up all my time. I have done costume designing for a play by Amol Palekar (actor). Aamir (Khan; actor) also asked me to do a small role in Taare Zameen Par (2007).
What was the inspiration for this show?
There is no such thing as inspiration. For my last show, I only used two colours — black and blue. Maybe it is because I am a great fan of films, and also of my brother’s (late film-maker and actor Guru Dutt) black-and-white cinema. However, it looked very monotonous. So this time, I have used browns, red, and a little bit of orange. I think they are better than last year’s show.
How has your work changed?
In my earlier works, I feel I have used too many elements. Now, I want to delete some, and use only the important forms. That signifies the growth of the artist. There are some painters who keep repeating themselves just to sell. I don’t agree with that. Their artwork becomes their stamp.
Did you ever think you would become such a renowned artist?
(Laughs) My uncle was the first person to give me a box of paints when I was five years old. He sent my work for a competition, and I got the first prize. Of course, I always said that I wanted to become an artist. That is what keeps me going till today. Until my last breath, I want to work on my paintings, whether they’re recognised, bought or not.
Your work has been inspired by the works of Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Satyajit Ray…
I feel they are all greats, but Satyajit Ray is the greatest among them. I adore my brother’s films, especially Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). He was one of the most sensitive artists and film-makers. Since I grew up with him, I knew the ups and downs of his life, and his nature. Every artist experiences turbulence internally when a work of art comes out. If that doesn’t happen, then we become merely mechanical.
How has the art industry changed since you began exhibiting in the ’60s?
It has changed for the better. Evolution has to take place. The senior painters have to go, and the new generation has to come up... doesn’t it? I admire the work of some of my colleagues, like Nalini Malani, who has moved away from the usual forms of art. They are highly-priced artists. When I think of my brother’s life, he was successful in his lifetime, no doubt, but not to this extent. Today, he is a world figure; an icon. It’s very sad that he’s not alive to see his own success. There are so many festivals going on everywhere, and people are craving to see anything written about him. He’s an enigma. That does not happen with everyone. It’s a question of hard work as well as destiny. So many people are talented, but they remain where they are, because you need that drive. You need to push yourself.