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Crowning the iconoclast

Reclusive Indian artist Anjolie Ela Menon in a candid tete-a-tete with Arnab Banerjee.

india Updated: Oct 17, 2005 11:19 IST

She finds a mention as among India's pride. And has received accolades that suit her stature and talent. But does she care? Not if one looks at her modest lifestyle and complete indifference to fame. Her obsessive passion for the fine arts flows out of her creative energy that seems to be a reservoir of all that concerns art, Nature and Gods. Not to mention her free spirit.

Or her immense literary background, which probably led to her somewhat deep philosophical imagination. But that's because she happens to be Anjolie Ela Menon. Next year in April, as Menon goes to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, she will make her country proud as the first Indian artist to be honoured with an exhibition of her body of works.

She hates being singled out though, having lived away from the limelight, lost in her world of brushes, colours and the canvas. She isn't exactly a recluse but non-conformist painter Anjolie Ela Menon wouldn't like 'interference' of any kind. Not while she is working or is simply looking through knick-knacks at her studio in the Capital - a four-storied building houses studios on each floor belonging to women artists.

"But we don't talk while we are working," she makes it unambiguously apparent. Clearly, it's her 'space' - cluttered yet artistic, in the back of beyond of residential and densely populated commercial complex adjacent to a basti, yet inspirational. And in the midst of almost non descript and unknown surroundings yet familiar and decipherable to Menon. Her studio reveals many facets to her temperament. Some of the most prized collection of books on art, brochures, and wooden boards adorn the room.

Next to of course, paint brushes, her canvases - both completed and unfinished, snapshots and related paraphernalia. Natural light streams into the room through huge glass windows, but passersby or even prying neighbours "would not know of my existence even," she laughs. "I love the ambience here because it's so close to the villagers I love. It's so near Delhi and but quite far, if one notices. I don't want to be caught by anyone."

She is right - no one would imagine the Sir JJ School of Arts product who majored in English Literature from Delhi University and studied at Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, to work out of a modest apartment.

"I am found more at the studio than in my residence in Nizamuddin West and refuse to be drawn into a lifestyle most people would term as 'comfortable.' I don't feel the need to keep up with the modern 21st century and never allow cell phones, computers or even a landline phone near me. I am fascinated by kabaar( junk ) and keep collecting it."

The constant overlap of the west and the east and the consistent dichotomy between fantasy and reality in her works are a proof of the studied contrast in her persona. "One should engage with the present while honoring the past and thereby address the question of tradition and modernity."

Art does translate into her 'artistic arrogance,' but make no mistake, this Padmashree awardee is not a didactic person since "to me art is an extremely selfish pursuit and manifests some of the innermost responses and expressions of life around me." In the same breath, she continues, " I am not one for art being a social comment on anything. I am very pragmatic and would never use the license which artists enjoy to convey a political statement."

A few moments later in a reflective mod, Menon ruminates, " It's not that I have never protested against the government. But do so in my quiet manner." Her nudes, several works depicting final 'empowerment' of women as a form of 'Shakti' and several windows or doors through which she 'views' life have been an eclectic mix of figurative, sublime, surreal and even abstract forms of her art. "Women have been a perennial source of inspiration to me for years, " she smiles. If all this sounds as a voice of a feminist, she is quick to defend her stance. "The west has a very different view of equality of women with men. They don't seem to comprehend the divine power of our Godesses - Durga, Kali and Saraswati- in our lives," she rues.