Manju Kapur – “Artists cannot create meaningful works if they are not free” - Hindustan Times

Manju Kapur – “Artists cannot create meaningful works if they are not free”

Mar 01, 2024 10:55 PM IST

The author of The Gallery on censorship, making the Indian art world the subject of her new novel, and how her Buddhist practice helps her writing

There’s a buzz about your new book. Are you flattered or do the expectations of readers weigh you down?

Author Manju Kapur (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Manju Kapur (Courtesy the publisher)

It is always nice to have one’s work rewarded by attention. And with The Gallery, it is no different. The only expectations I am aware of are the ones I have of myself; that each novel should be better than the one before. I am not sure this is happening, but this is the aim. It should not be formulaic. It should be a challenge to write; otherwise, I’ll get bored.

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How did the art world become your focus for this novel? Did the characters Minal, Ellora, Maitrye and Tashi come to you first, or did you start out with the setting?

The characters came first. It was important for me to illustrate the class divide that we in India encounter daily in so many different ways. Delhi is where I live, and the city I know the best. It is a city that offers a chance for many to advance socially and economically, offers a chance for the children of economically weaker sections of society to jump into a higher class category through talent and education. So far as Minal’s interest in the art world is concerned, this grew from my own interest and from observations of the many women who run galleries. I have been reading about them for years.

What aspects of the art world were most entertaining and enjoyable for you to capture on the page? Which details did you find challenging?

Next to literature, art is a major interest of mine. I like describing paintings. The description of the MF Husain sketch on the first page comes from my staring long and hard at a small Husain that I own. The interest in galleries came later. It was for the galleries that I had to do research – How do they run? What are the challenges? How profitable are they? How are new artists discovered? Who is considered worth exhibiting? I had no idea about any of this in the beginning.

The book opens with an apology to MF Husain for being “forced out” of his “motherland”. What made you include this particular reference? Had you met him?

I had seen Husain around but not met him. I admire his work tremendously, I find it vigorous, inventive and lively. The particular reference in The Gallery came from a belief that artists cannot really create meaningful works if they are not free. You cannot create if you are censoring yourself, or if you are censored by others. A society that does this moral policing, whichever society and wherever, might be seen as an immature one; to hit out at something you don’t like or doesn’t meet with your approval. Let us not forget that non-violence was how we won our Independence, so it is useful even in practical terms.

The book is set in India and Nepal. What led you to make this choice?

Many Nepalis work in India in order to seek a better life for themselves. I travelled to Nepal specifically to be able to write about my Nepali characters because I found it hard to imagine the details of a place that I had not seen. I did not want to presume.

The constraints placed on women, and the ways in which they look for freedom and agency, are recurring themes in your work. What has changed for Indian women between the publication of your first novel Difficult Daughters (1998) and now?

Indian women are not really one homogenous group; there are too many differences that arise from class, locality, education, opportunity, caste, the urban-rural divide etc. But if I could generalise a bit, I would say that maybe women are more aware of possibilities for themselves, possibilities that lie outside the conventional ones of marriage and children. Beyond that I don’t know, I meet plenty of women who assure me nothing has changed.

How do you view the relationship between economic independence and sexual freedom? What do you find most fascinating when you listen to young women discussing these topics?

Young women today seem to have many more choices than did the women of my day. Economic independence is key to many freedoms, not just sexual. Being able to stand on your own feet enables one — man or woman — to lead the kind of life they want, at least to a certain extent. Apart from that, there is an emotional angle which complicates the whole issue of choice, and this is what I explore in my novels.

Why is marriage, as an institution, still such an alluring subject to write about?

Marriage is a major life choice and reflects many things: social and familial values, economic considerations, life style choices, dietary choices even. Everything comes into play. And because families are involved, at least in India, not just two people, the situation becomes even more problematic and makes this a very rich source of material for a novelist.

How do you work on the interior lives of women characters who come from a socio-economic background different from yours?

It is not so very hard to imagine an interior life, even if it is from a different socio-economic background. After all feelings are pretty universal though the triggers vary as does the context. A lot of research goes into my books, so if the background of the people I am writing about is different from mine, I need the research to make them convincing. Only when I have finished a book to my satisfaction do I show it to friends. Once I have absorbed and incorporated their inputs, only then come the agent, editor, and publisher.

How does your spiritual practice as a Buddhist for over two decades influence your writing and how you approach your characters? 

My Buddhist practice influences everything that I do. While writing is no exception, it is a bit hard to say how exactly the process works. Let me try. 

First of all, it helps me persevere. The Nichiren Buddhism (a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in Japan) that I practise is very stern about never giving up. And so even when things are going badly – when my story seems stuck and my characters seem implausible and I wonder how much more research I need to do, and when is this ever going to finish – I chant in front of my computer and that gives me the courage to go on. Not only courage, but I begin to get new ideas about my work.  

Secondly, so far as my characters are concerned, I approach them as I would people in my environment. This means, that I refuse to see them in black and white. The aim is empathy for all. 

Thirdly, I try to not be influenced by criticism, negative or positive. I would like to quote Nichiren Daishonin (a Buddhist philosopher): “Worthy persons deserve to be called so because they are not carried away by the eight winds: prosperity, decline, disgrace, honour, praise, censure, suffering, and pleasure. They are neither elated by prosperity nor grieved by decline.”

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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