I did well in school and took part in every activity. Lawrence School, Lovedale (Nilgiri Hills), had amazing facilities from theatre to trekking, debating, athletics and, most of all, painting and sculpting. I was the head girl in school and won the President’s medal for all-round achievement.
At Lovedale, my art master, Sushil Mukherjee, allowed us to paint in oils from the age of 12 and exposed us to both Indian and European art, taking us through books in the small art library. Another charismatic teacher was KI Thomas, who taught us English.
Later, in Delhi’s Miranda House, there were great professors like Krishna Esauloff and Nisha D’Cunha who inculcated in us a love for literature. As an adolescent, I was deeply inspired by Swami Ranganathananda, whose teachings of the Gita had an impact on my philosophy of work. I try to follow the path of karmayoga, which forbids attachment to the fruits of one’s work and advocates a state of detachment from both success and failure.
Our nomadic life
My father was immensely supportive, and after I married, my husband Raja always gave me the space to follow my destiny. My husband’s naval postings and the nomadic life made it difficult for me to have a career, but I have been so driven to paint, and to paint almost every day of my life, that it didn’t seem to matter where we were or how little space I had. (Artist) Maqbool Fida Husain, an early mentor and friend, helped me a great deal in establishing myself and taught me that you could work anywhere — set up a canvas against a wall and sit on the floor or in a garden, and paint.
Frugality in Paris
Paris was a great revelation in the ’60s. First, I was cut down to size, having been treated as a prodigy back home. There, I met intellectuals and achievers from all parts of the world.
The exposure to art and ideas was very timely and the museums and cathedrals of Europe were an education that far exceeded what I was learning at my atelier in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
Those were frugal times, as the scholarship barely covered one’s needs, but hitchhiking was an inexpensive option. One’s hunger was sated by the visual delights, so the diet of dry bread, cheese and tap water didn’t affect us.
That frugality has lasted all these years. I am still austere in my living, being a great advocate of recycling. Creativity is often born out of thrift — of not having and of making the most of the materials at hand.
My message to young artists, particularly to women, is this: follow your muse irrespective of any other pressures, whether domestic or financial and respect the gift of creativity that is given only to a few.
As told to Rahat Bano