'Why are bad painters given any importance?’

Updated on May 13, 2007 12:56 AM IST
Mumbai-based artist Laxman Shreshtha in conversation with Reema Gehi.
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Hindustan Times | ByReema Gehi, Mumbai

Later this month, he will be flying out of the country to finalise exhibitions in London and New York. Sitting in a quiet corner of his Bandra drawing room with an abstract painting for company, the 68-year-old artist unwinds:

I hear your works are sold even before they are exhibited?
(Smiles) I hear that too. Honestly, I get at least 12 phone calls a week from people all over the world interested in buying my art.. I feel humbled when 200 people compete to get my paintings at exhibitions.

You recently exhibited your works after a hiatus of four years.
I do not exhibit if I do not want to. It is no ritual.. I display my work at galleries only when I feel I have something to say . The one in March was a black-and-white series at the Pudole art gallery. I spent the four years doing a lot of commission work like a huge triptych canvas, which was unveiled by Ratan Tata.

You seem to be closely associated with the corporate set..what’s the connection?
(Laughs) They happen to be my dear friends. Whenever Kumar Mangalam Birla comes over with his family, he spends the entire day at my home. His house is like a little museum of my works. He has been collecting my paintings since 1972.

Harsh Goenka and Ratan Tata are regular visitors. They understand my work. The late Jehangir Nicholson owned at least 50 paintings of mine.

How come you have practically lived in every art destination of the world?
Pause) That’s at the age of 21, I was in Paris on a French scholarship..I spent 16 years there. I lived for 11 years in New York, three years in London and two years in Cologne.. since the last seven years I have been in Mumbai. I follow a gypsy-like lifestyle.

Aren’t art exhibitions getting far too associated with the Page 3 culture?
When I was in Paris, it was all about which art gallery and museum picked up your work.

The art scene in India was very quiet.. now the Parisian trend is picking up here. Those who believe in Page 3 have a different kind of ambition. A serious artist can never lose his way .

What’s your take on art galleries?
Honestly some of the galleries don’t know anything about art and are simply catering to the so called celebrities.

In this process, some serious artists are ignored..and the bad painters who have done horrid work get undue importance.

Who are these bad painters?
(Long pause) The art circle and even they know who they are.

What do you think of art prices skyrocketing?
It’s unimaginable. There was a time, in the early 1970s when I would be starving, I’d survive only on tea.

If an artist sold his painting then, there would be a celebration. Whatever little money I got was blown up..I sold my first painting for Rs 300.

And what is the price of your painting today?
Reluctantly) It can go as high as Rs 50 lakh, sometimes more.

What do you think of art as an investment?

People tell me that they don’t find my work at auctions.. I am very firm that my paintings should not be bought for mere investment. Still, I’m not against the idea of art as an investment, I believe each buyer stands by his own scruples.

Among the young artists who do you think has great potential?

Well there are several..Atul and Anju Dodiya, Bose Krishnamachari, Jitesh Kallat, Riyas Komu, Chintan and Hema Upadhyay .

What is currently on your platter?
I’m doing several beige paintings. It is so strange for 21 years till 1985 I never touched white paint; I didn’t mix colours, I used them directly from the tube on to the canvas.

Which are your favourite galleries in the city?
Chemould, Sakshi and Bodhi art gallery ..they are spacious and have excellent lighting.

Why did you part ways with Chemould way back in the early 1980s?
I felt my exhibitions weren’t getting a boost.. so I left their shelter. Initially that was almost , like suicide. But I survived.

Soon after that, I had a show at the Jehangir art gallery and I received a lot of encouragement.

What was your childhood like?
You left your home in Nepal to pursue art. Right? During my childhood I was very simple, I used to doodle a lot but was never really exposed to art. There were tankas (Tibetan artwork) at my place.

When I ran away from home in the 1960s, all hell broke loose. I’m from a big family of aristocrats, a painter’s job was regarded as the lowest of low.

What do you do besides painting?
I read a lot. I listen to soulful music, from serious jazz and opera and Western and Indian classics.

Who is your favourite painter?
V S Gaitonde is my guru, he used to paint with one knife and brush.. Not much is known about your wife Sunita. (Smiles) I met Sunita at the J J School of Arts. She was junior to me, I would see her every day when she walked into the class. I never spoke to her, I had quietly made 300 sketches of her.

The girls of my class told her that this Nepalese boy sketches you. Since then we have been together. She paints for herself, doesn’t like to exhibit her work.

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