A Sixties child, growing up in Tamluk, a suburban town near the Bay of Bengal, Paresh Maity sat on the waterfront for hours, looking at clouds and marvelling at the sky changing hues. “During my childhood, I was fortunate to be surrounded by the resplendent colours of nature. Over the years, nature became one of my biggest inspirations,” says Maity.
Even as artist-in-residence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the eminent painter, 52, made good use of the opportunity for two weeks, getting inspired by nature and pouring his creativity on to the canvas in the lush heart of Lutyens’ Delhi.
Maity and his wife, artist Jayasri Burman, had the privilege of staying at the Rashtrapati Bhavan for 14 days, beginning September 21. They were the second high-profile couple from the world of arts and letters to do so this year. Before them, author Amitav Ghosh and his wife Deborah Baker were part of the In-Residence programme launched by President Pranab Mukherjee in 2013 with the objective of providing writers and artists an opportunity to experience life at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The Maitys stayed at the Jhelum Suite in the South wing of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, next to the Ganga Suite. The giant balcony of their makeshift studio overlooked the Mughal Gardens where they could hear mynah and peacock calls early in the morning.
The dining area was impressive with contemporary amenities including a large kitchen. The bedrooms and drawing rooms had high ceilings. “Looking at the morning dew on the grass in the golf course filled my heart with joy and so did the sight of the peacocks. As an aesthete, I can appreciate a mural on the ceiling of Ashoka Hall as much as the sound of birds early in the morning,” says Maity.
Seeing the sights
For the first few days, the Maitys played tourists and took in the sights of one of the biggest presidential estates in the world, spread over 360 acres. They were given guided tours of the world-class facilities of its gardens, the art galleries, the tennis courts, the gym and the spa. “Everything at the Rashtrapati Bhavan is larger-than-life and of international standards. It has schools, museums, a golf course, an auditorium and even a state-of-the-art water treatment plant. It is a city in itself. With their warmth, the courteous presidential staff made sure we felt at home,” says the artist.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan is a unique amalgam of Raj-era architecture and Indian sensibilities, says Maity. The Jhelum Suite, which was located on the second floor of their wing, had a giant staircase leading into an airy, sun-lit studio space on the first floor where Maity chose to paint.
Most of the architecture is tastefully colonial, says Maity. “There are elegant pillars that incorporate bells on top. But there are some incredible Indian touches to the precincts too, such as the fountains shaped like serpents, oozing water from the mouth. I haven’t seen a fountain like this anywhere else in the world!” he exclaims.
Staying in the same precincts as the President is a rare privilege, but it must have come with strict protocol. How did a free-spirited artist like him take to it? “It was very easy, because being disciplined is part of my intrinsic character. In fact, I loved the cleanliness and clockwork punctuality. If an attendant said he would take us for a walk in the gardens at 6 am, he was there well in time. If I asked the butler for English Breakfast tea at a particular hour, it would be on the table at the designated time. I wish the cleanliness, punctuality and discipline that are a norm in Rashtrapati Bhavan can be extended everywhere else,” says Maity.
Maity says he followed the daily routine that he observes otherwise. “I got up in the morning and went for a five-kilometre walk. After returning, I did yoga and had breakfast at 9 am. I painted until lunch at 1 pm, and later, observed nature and painted some more. In the evening, I would walk three kilometres. On returning, I bathed, had an early dinner and slept.”
The first time Maity was invited to the Durbar Hall as a dignitary was in 2014 when he was conferred the Padma Shri by the President. “In 2014, when we visited it to receive the Padma Shri, among others, we met actress Vidya Balan and fashion designer Wendell Rodricks,” he recalls.
A multifaceted artist, Maity works with watercolours, oils, does mixed media works, installations, sculptures, photography and filmmaking. One of his 800-feet works, one of the longest paintings in the world, is on display at T3 Terminal at Indira Gandhi Airport, Delhi.
For the two weeks that he was at the Bhawan, Maity switched off his phone. The idea was to break free of all digital distractions. “The Rashtrapati Bhavan doesn’t impose any deadlines or routines on the artist-in-residence. Since I was free to do what I liked, I decided to indulge in the best form of relaxation that I know: creating art.”
Inspired and creative
For two weeks, unencumbered by phone calls from gallerists, friends or colleagues and inspired by the setting, Maity paid undivided attention only to painting. “Feeling inspired and energetic, I was painting for eight to 10 hours a day without any disturbances. I did not take any phone calls from the studio. I told my friends they could text me if there was anything really urgent, but even those were very few.”
Maity’s stay as artist-in-residence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan for two weeks was quite productive it appears. “I made two large paintings of approximately 40 to 50 square feet each and began work on another,” he recalls with a smile, as he applies a layer of paint to that large, untitled work at his Chittaranjan Park studio.
Although the President is known to be an art connoisseur, they did not discuss the nuances of painting when they met each other. “He generally chatted with us and joked that we had been working too hard during our stay,” says Maity.
Of the works he created at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Maity is mighty proud of his depiction of Banaras. It shows diyas being floated on a ghat in the Ganga in the colours of twilight. “I’ve been visiting Banaras since I was in my school in the 1980s. For the last three decades, I’ve made it a point to visit the ancient city and paint. I get creative stimulus going to Banaras. Since I was feeling a similar creative energy during my stay, I decided to gift the Banaras painting to the Bhavan museum. It will be a testimony to what I created during our stay. It is a memory I will cherish till the day I die.”
Who’s who in the President’s world
*Artist and MP Jogen Choudhury and author Amitav Ghosh are among those who’ve stayed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan under the in- residence programme.
* It seeks to provide an environment which will inspire creative thinking and rejuvenate artistic impulses.
*As part of the programme, sculptor Subodh Gupta and his wife, artist Bharti Kher will stay in Rashtrapati Bhavan in November this year.
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From HT Brunch, October 16
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