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An affair with hues

From black and white to colour, Jerry Pinto traces the evolution of Lalitha Lajmi's art work.

art and culture Updated: Dec 20, 2007 19:04 IST
Jerry Pinto

It seems oddly right that Lalitha Lajmi should be on the minus two level of the Tao Art Gallery. The artist has, through her long career, reached deep into the self, into the subterranean levels of the subconscious for her images.

Her women always appear as though they are looking out from under water. Something will disturb the water soon and the women will decide whether to chuckle ironically at their fate or to burst into tears.

And yet, it is also the quotidian spaces of the kitchen and the cabinet that inform these paintings.

"I live in a very small house. There isn't much room for me to paint but in the kitchen where I work, a creeper made its way up and around a grill. And I thought, why shouldn't the creeper work its way into something? And so I put it in," she says.

"In many ways, this show is a part of the personal journey that my works have always been," she says. "This is a continuous process for me, of making and unmaking the self and the art.. of understanding, healing and creating."

Those who have followed her work will recognise familiar tropes. There is a woman with a mirror ("The mirrored self is another self. Or it could be reflection, thinking about the past."), there are clowns ("For the people we play, the masks we wear.") and fruit ("They stand for domesticity and also for generativity, the whole notion of the womb.")

Shades of grey
But there are also those who will step back in surprise. Many of these paintings are vibrant with colour, as if reflecting new optimism. What happened to the sepia memories we have of her work?

"For years, I worked as a teacher. I could only do my own work, my etchings, at night. And so I worked in black and white. Arun Sachdeva would keep saying, "Why don't you bring some colour into your work?" I would reply, "When there is no colour in my life, where do I bring it from?"

Colours of life
When I finally got tired of black, I moved on to sepia. Colour came back slowly. I think part of the reason for that is because I have always seen great art as tragic. And so my colours had to be muted and sombre. Now I believe I have struck the right balance between the colour and the content."

On show are also some pencil drawings, one of which has Lajmi in a playful mood. A young corporate type storms about his office, his head leonine. This is probably the differ ence between the mature artist and the arrivistes who crowd the walls of galleries with their hybrid creatures, their cows with smokestacks for udders, their easy man-beast mutants. What they present as social comment, Lajmi offers as her leela, a pencil going for a skip and a jump on the playground of the paper.

"I wanted this show to be about how form determines colour and nuance. In the oils, it is impasto, a thick layering, which leaves little room for play. With watercolours, there's more air and light. I wanted to show the skeleton of the painting, its origins in the drawing, and so I used only light pencils, 2B and 3B."

In the paintings, the women are all set in domestic spaces, as indicated by bowls of fruit, cups of tea, pets; while behind them the world opens up into mountain and river, hill and cloud.

"In the 1970s, I had an exhibition in which the women were all indoors. But that doesn't seem to be true any more. The boundaries are slowly dissolving. Our spaces are opening up."