A view through the Patina with Anjolie Ela Menon – by Indira Ganesh

With her creation Dropadi
With her creation Dropadi

A nice monsoon evening at India Habitat Centre turned into an art Odyssey for our family. As I entered the precincts of the hallowed premises, right at the entrance my daughter pointed Anjolieji’s painting of Guru Shishya to me. Well she knew that Anjolieji’s works were on display thus making the identification of the artwork easier.

We walked into the gallery and the next hour passed on by looking at the colourscapes on masonite and canvas. At the outset anybody will be drawn into the seductive world of colours with the familiar motifs of the crow, the chair, the window and the frame within frame themes. A deeper study revealed an artist with myriad moods, playful in a trice and melancholic in a moment. Anjolie jis works are mostly in response to stimuli around her at that moment. Her latest muses were the Naga Sadhus in their gay abandon.

Also considering that she is a much sought after artist, the pieces on display were largely from personal collections and hence autobiographical. There is an unmistakable resemblance between the artist and many of her artworks. It gives a surreal sense of someone entering a canvas and taking on a new life, idiom and metaphor. There also seems to be the recurring theme of mother and child reminiscent of Mother Mary cuddling the infant Jesus. She has painted both her daughters-in-law with their infants.

There are artistic responses to the happenings around her at any give time – be it the war in 1971 which was the midwife in the birth of Bangladesh. She has depicted the birth of a nation drenched in blood and a war which claimed two of her close friends. Similarly there are other expressions of events that have left a mark on her psyche. She is touched by the places she has visited and the textures of things that she has experienced urging her to creatively document her experience for posterity.

The nudes in her collection have a softness to them as only a woman can draw them because while drawing a nude, perhaps a woman sees her own reflection and is kinder in their portrayal. The result is sensuous and not sensational or titillating. All her works in this particular exhibition is displayed theme wise—There is a family and friend wall, the landscape section, the nudes, the kitsch, so on and so forth. We were quite happy being together as a family wrapping up the day watching the retrospective of a great artist but hardly did we know that the evening had much more in store for us.

Anjolie and OP .... half a century of journey for the sake of arts...
Anjolie and OP .... half a century of journey for the sake of arts...

What we were to witness was camaraderie between two artist friends who were discussing each other’s contribution to their art. Mr. O.P. Jain, a visionary in Indian Art world, and is founder of Sanskrit (the artist village) had come to see his friend Anjolie’s exhibits and he got a very warm welcome from his friend of more than 50 years. “Hey OP, I drew your picture without even looking at you. That is how well I remember your face” remarked Anjolie. OP on his part mentioned how she had refused to sell his portrait when it was being sought by a buyer in Shridharini gallery.

We were asked if we would like to join a guided tour of the art on display by the artist herself. A few students of hers also joined in and it was nice to see the SPICMACAY protégées sharing space with her. It was a proud moment for me and sreeni for we facilitate the Guru Shishya scheme every year for SPICMACAY. Sreeni put the camera on ready mode, mallika put on her —I -don’t- believe- it –you- want- to- see- it -again expression and yours truly joined in the walk that was replete with anecdotes and tales.

In one of her exhibitions, Anjolieji was required to frame a picture. She went to OP and said, Isska frame nahin hai, kya Karen. OP went to his backyard and pried a window for its frame. They stuck (thokoed) some nails and lo and presto, the frame was ready. Anjolie did not want the painting to sell. So between her and OP, they devised a price of 17000 for that painting making it unappealing to the buyer. Anjolie did not want OP to loose out on his window and by her own admission, she found the whole idea tacky. But there was a surprise that evening. Anjolie gets a call from OP saying that the painting is sold. Anjolie’s first reaction was one of complete joy for having secured the tuition fee for her children for three years followed by another realization that the window that was to be used temporarily was permanently gone!!

OP added that a few years back he went to the house of Modis whose daughter-inlaw had purchased the first window painting and that painting with OP’s window was still very much on their wall. Anjolie seems to have requested OP to get her many more window frames from the Kabaddiwala. While discussing this, they stopped in front of a painting which was ensconsed in an antique door frame from Gujrat. It was nice to hear OP adding to Anjolie’s description of that particular painting. It was one of a kind, as it was the only painting that Anjolie made to fit the door, otherwise it has been other way around!!

We saw a nude painting that she had drawn as a 17 year old. Sunil Batra, one of our enlightened mentor from the space of education, was curious to know as to why she used the rough side of the plyboard for painting. She nonchalantly said—-“Well I usually painted on both sides as I did not have the money to afford my canvasses”

Then she fondly recounted how OP had taken her to the Chor Bazaar of Bombay and how he would just point to things and say—two of these and three of that. On the way back they realized that OP had lost his wallet in Chor Bazaar. They were mentally writing off the purse when it was restored to its rightful owners. Her sacred prism collection was also explained.

Two students of SPICMACAY started chatting with me and they were reprimanded by Anjolie for not listening to OP. She said, he was an institution in himself. OP then discussed about art and how increasingly it was subjected to newer classifications and prejudices. He said for every good artist making it big, there were at least a few hundreds who don’t get their due and are languishing in anonymity.

Anjolie rued the fact that systemically history has undervalued the contribution to art by the women – women who had assisted the likes of Da Vinci and Michael Angelo and never got any recognition for their contributions. The conversation veered to how art was classified as high art and low art. Anjolieji wryly remarked that maybe in five years, her art won’t be relevant. Then after thinking for a micro second, she added —–but then I really don’t give a damn. It was nice to see her feistiness alongside her childlike enthusiasm while showing off her work to her friend OP who had been a co-traveller in the artscape with her for over five decades.

Long live art and long live friendship!! A memorable evening for all of us !!

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