Contemporary artist, Anjolie Ela Menon slammed Salman Rushdie on his domination in the Jaipur Literature Festival and how people who have never read him will now scramble for his books. The artist speaks at length about the Satanic Verses author, her inspiration MF Husain and her collection at the India Art Fair.
SP: My first question is an obvious one, what is the theme of your collection here? And what made you choose that?
AEM: I have been doing a whole theme called The Divine Mothers. So, I have like…Mary and Jesus, Maya and Buddha, Yashodha and Krishna etc. So, I am working on that series now.
I have liked the idea of mother and child and I've often done it. But I thought I'd contextualize it this way and It'd be something different. One never knows which way one is going to move between one set of work and the other. So, this is one of that series.
SP: I am really curious to know what goes through your mind while selecting a theme.
AEM: I don't even know what goes in my mind (she laughs). You sort of wait for an inspiration and then you start on a work then you add something to it and then in the middle of the night you might get a new idea. So it's all a mix of various things. Things that are residual in your own mind and consciousness, things that you see of the theme…may be the woman looks like somebody you are seeing very near you or the child might look like somebody you know. But the whole thing comes together in your own consciousness and subconscious.
SP: Can you tell us something about the Mary and Jesus painting?
AEM: I have done a series before; well I think that's also true that one series also leads to another and there's no quantum jump…there's no big break from one series to the next. So I've been doing a series called the Goat People. That is because I live in Nizamuddin basti and these goats wander in and out of my studio, they eat the drawing sometimes (she laughs)…they love eating paper.
So this is an extension of the goat series because in the Christian mythology, you always heard that Jesus was born in a crib…in a stable, I am not saying that it's literal but the goats continue to be in the paintings. And it is the difference in the myth being so rooted in ordinary reality like the goats, the chairs and the windows. And the angel's wing actually signifies divinity. So it's a combination of the divine and the temporal.
SP: MF Husain inspired you and what do you have to say about the display of his work here at the Grosvenor gallery?
AEM: I think we are really lucky to have some lovely works of Husain here. The work they have put up is beautiful and there are some of his older works as well. And look at the difference between last year and this year…many galleries have the courage this year to display his work.
Last year, there was some misunderstanding, they kept saying that the government had stopped the Art Summit from having Husain's work but that wasn't true! It was that the galleries themselves panicked and said no if there is an attack what do we do then. They didn't want to take the risk and it is a huge place and an attack would have led to a riot may be. So, I don't blame the galleries, though I just wish some of them just had the courage…I think one or two did have the courage to display his work.
SP: Do you think the fact that Husain is not with us anymore has given the galleries a comfort to display his work?
AEM: May be the heat has been taken out now that he is dead. I see a lot of galleries have put his work this time.
SP: Husain was not allowed to enter India as Hindu sentiments were hurt and recently Salman Rushdie was banned because of hurting Muslim sentiments. What do you have to say about that?
AEM: Seeing this Rushdie thing unfolding, all the artists will make a stand against censorship by fundamentalists.
The government doesn't censor us, then why should these fundamentalists hold us to ransom. And I think we must continue to fight it. I have fought it tooth and nail in the past, where we deliberately kept one Husain's exhibition open at the IIC and I asked Sheila Dixit, to provide me with a force and she did! The next morning she sent a big contingent of police and they kept the exhibition open despite some outfit in Nagpur saying that we'll burn it down. And there was nothing objectionable about exhibition; it was on Mughal-e-Azam, nothing to do with religion.
So these things are politically motivated and I think we should not be made the pawns in this political game. So I am really happy to see his work here.
SP: What do you have to say about the 4th edition of India Art Fair?
AEM: I feel that this Art Fair has been amazing. There's this young person Neha Kirpal who has put this all together at such a fantastic level. Hats off to her! She has been very brave. Each year, the Art fest has been better and better.
SP: How important for you is this platform for artists?
AEM: Of course, this is a platform to show the young art, the installations, the new things…our generation is actually shown less and less now. But what is fantastic here is that under one roof you are shown all kinds, from ancient to modern to contemporary to funky and the presence of about thirty odd foreign galleries has put in something new.
You know, everyone in India knows all the work that has been shown now but to see new work and new trend is very important for us and as well as for the young artists.
SP: Do you think the young artists get enough space?
AEM: This is not a space for promoting "wannabes". It is a space for promoting aware people who have some sense arrived because this space is expensive and galleries don't want to put up artists of whose excellence they are sure. So they may be young and inexperienced but they have to reach a certain level. I mean look at some of the installations, not only are they funky but they are extremely well made, unlike the installations that we've seen in the past made out of wood and strings. And amazing use of technology and 3D, which is just fantastic. The spectrum is much bigger today than it was when we were young.
Maybe some of us won't change, we are too old perhaps (she jokes). We'll stick to our old ways and we are now called easel painters! You need a period of 50 years to determine what will last, what will endure and what will fade without a trace.
SP: How much emphasis is given to feminism in the field of art?
AEM: Why should it be, I mean there is didactic art, a lot people especially the youngsters…they are full of messages, full of protests. Personally, I have never done an art of protest because I don't feel..It's not that I don't have the very strong views on politics, feminism to whatever it is but I don't think that so far in India, art has been the best medium for protest. Television is obviously the best medium because it reaches those who need to be addressed. Unfortunately with much protest, we are only protesting to each other…to the believers. if there's protest you need to reach to the non-believers. And art doesn't address itself to the non-believers.
SP: Coming back to the Rushdie controversy, do you think it was overhyped?
AEM: I got a bit annoyed because this Rushdie thing finally took over the Literature fest. Nobody else got a chance to be seen or heard. It was just Rushdie Rushdie Rushdie! That is the fault of the media. Look at the whole Hazare thing, they took hold of it…they made much out of it and then they dumped it. The media is very fickle, especially the television. They only want the news of the day. If the news of the day happens to be Rushdie so they absolutely milk it for every last drop.
I think though Rushdie grumbled, he got the best of the deal! People, who have not read him, will now read him. So he got the publicity. He is quite a megalomaniac!