Q. How did you come to Bombay and what was that time like?
A. I am from Odisha. I was studying biology, which I gave up and went to Bombay to study art at J. J. School of Arts when I was just 17. Though I did have a fantastic Guru in my home town, who taught me painting and yoga, who was a poet, cook, did gardening...but it was Bombay where I began my journey. Then I worked there for almost a decade. It was a fantastic time - highly charged - there were writers, musicians, dancers, poets...I got exposed to a wide range of art and culture. I learned and imbibed from many stalwart artists like Hebbar, Bendre, Hussain, Gaitonde, Ara...also the School of Art was very alive in those days. All the teachers were artists, like Prof. Palsikar, who was a great mentor to many of us. Then when I moved to Delhi, I found it much smaller, though it was also very vibrant - there were great photographers and dancers like Kelucharan Mahapatra... almost 55 years ago.
Q. When and where did you have your first exhibition? Who were your friends and contemporaries?
A. A gallery was newly-opened at the JJ School, and the inaugural show was my sketches - that was my first solo exhibition. Teachers and students of art, architecture, sculpture, all at the campus came, as they were good friends. We all had the idealism to work passionately, with commitment. The idea was not to become an artist or earn money, that was not the concern for any of us. Some people used to work in advertising for money but then they would do theatre, or write poetry and things like that. There was a unique place called the Bhulabhai Desai Institute where we all had our little studios. Iyengar Started his yoga, Ravi Shankar, Dashrath Patel, Gaitonde, Alkazi's theatre...even some theatre directors like Satyadev Dubey and actors were there like Harihar Jhariwala, who became Sanjeev Kumar and Jatin Khanna, who became Rajesh Khanna acted in plays and took their photographs for their auditions! It was one of the most important art centres in the country that doesn't exist any more. That is why Bombay will always remain special for me. After all that's where I started my journey, had friends. People truly cared and appreciated one another. Dr. Bhabha, the great scientist, would come to my studio and see my work. I then had shows at Bombay Art Society, Jehangir Art Gallery etc. Only once at that time a Dutch ambassador inaugurated my show but after that I never had inaugurations.
Q. What then brought you to Delhi, which has been your home for the last 50 years.
A. It was Pupul Jaykar, who invited me to Delhi to become the art consultant at the Handicraft and Handloom Export Corporation. At that time, Kumar Art Gallery in Delhi was one of the most respected and known galleries in the country. They began to show my work. Gaitonde and Souza became my closest friends, even though they were both much older than me. I did a portrait of Souza in 62 and the friendship with both remained all along our lives. Hussain was the first artist to come to Delhi from Bombay and I was second. Then there were other artists like Tyeb, Nasreen etc. came and we found places for them. New Delhi was different and not to be compare with Bombay. Delhi was a sleepy town and in those days people used to say let's go for a drive or a coffee to the airport! The locality of Nizamuddin became a special place for artists, as we all started to live close to each other. Ram Kumar, Raj Rewal, Alkazi, Krishan Khanna, Tyeb Mehta, Ramachnadran, Shankho Chowdhury, Gaitonde, Dagar Brothers, Ustad Asad Ali Khan…pretty much the entire artist community was there. Nobody was talking about art as such, we used to go buy vegetable and meat and drop at each other's places for tea or coffee and people would stay for a drink or dinner if it got dark. It was all very casual and friendly and everybody helped each other.
Q. Has the art world changed and how?
A. There is now a sea change in the art world. People talk about art market, art business, somebody comes to see your work, they call them a client! And there are a lot of players now. Art students are more interested in commercial art or go abroad to study about art investment. This word did not exist before. People visited studios, sometime multiple times to look at the works and gave money in installments. Nobody bargained. There was great camaraderie there was no art business. Today a lot of young people say Sir we have to compromise for our bread and butter.
A lot of the artists these days paint for an upcoming exhibition. Some even see the gallery size and paint accordingly! I or my friends from my generation never painted towards an exhibition. Only when we felt we had a body of work that gels we would exhibit. I just don't feel like exhibiting although I have lots of works. I sell very little. I'm not in the Art Market. Some people feel sorry for me that my works are not in auctions. They don't realize that in auctions, artists don't give their works. It is either buyers or gallerists who do it. It is all hype and high society and has become a glamorous world now!
Q, Is the changing art scene the reason why you exhibiting so rarely?
A. To a large extent, yes. I also don't feel so excited anymore. In Bombay I had so many of my friends - Sukhdev, Chari, Pratap Sharma, Dom Moraes, Leela Naidu, are just not there anymore. It's like when a musician is singing and when he recognizes his friends in the audience he asks them to come in front as he knows they understand his music and will appreciate it. So, when I have a show, I think who am I showing it to? Of course, the show is open to all, but you think of your friends and wonder what they would feel. It's becomes a very personal experience. The other reason why I don't exhibit so much is that it has become a business, something else altogether. The dichotomy is that one still must show. In Bombay I am exhibiting after 7 years.
I genuinely believe that any person in a creative field has to distance oneself from limelight and public for one's own freedom and one's privacy and space for one's creative expression. I also don't like giving interviews. But if you have a show coming up, I guess you have no choice but to give interviews and spread the word. Otherwise there's no reason to.
Q. And when will Delhi see your show?
A. I haven't done a show in Delhi for quite some time now. I have a huge body of work that are sitting in my studio. I am due to have a big exhibition of portraits. A good assistant of mine said "you have a large collection of portraits" when he was helping me shift my studio. I don't have a studio of my own so every time you shift, you clean up and this time he found about 800 portraits. So, I am going to do a big show of portraits from the 16th of November at the Lalit Kala Academy.
Q. How do you see your own work?
A. I can't explain my work at all. As I said, they are bare figures, there are normally one or two figures and there's no reason for that! I don't sit and think about my work. I work and I put it away. I only paint and draw human figures, bare, without embellishment, devoid of time and place. Without any architecture, without any narrative, so it's quite difficult for people to be comfortable, to be familiar. If you do a Benares series, then you know it's from the city of Benares and makes you feel comfortable. I don't work like that. At times the work I did 10 or 20 years ago, rises again. So, it's not necessary that all works must be new, but they could be of the same family, is when you feel a body of work belongs together. That curation only an artist can do himself or with a very close friend, who has seen your work for 30-40 years. Nobody else can really do it, though now there are many curators and experts who do this. But I think an artist knows the journey and must select his or her own work.
Q. What inspires you to paint?
A. I don't use words like creativity, mood, inspiration. I feel everyday I am starting to paint for the first time. I assimilate from various visual cultures; traditional and contemporary. I draw mainly human figures, completely devoid of embellishments and any reference to time and space. They are simply energised bare figures. I paint and capture elements that excite me, not just images but the flavour and smell of the place.
Years of observing and sketching culminate in the making of a line.
To etch, to draw and pull a line on a surface is to accept the challenge of an arrogant virgin space. It is like blood flowing through the tip of the nib. It is like a river flowing. The beginning and the end of a line is very important. Like a musical note... like the end of an arm-rest of a chair or the extremities of the human body as fingers and toes are. When I stop, I know whether the work stands... if not, it finds its way into the bin. When I finish a drawing, I wonder how it got done. The drawing draws itself.
Q. What do you think is a true marker of an artist?
A. I believe strength of an artist in his drawing. The power of creating a flowing line, without it being superfluous, is when a line meets another line, intersecting and flowing together, crisscrossing one line demanding another and so on; there is fusion and an energy. A 'dead line' destroys the flow creating a dead end.
Painting is also drawing. Drawing is also sculpting. It is a matter of creating negative and positive spaces. The ecstasy and the poetry of a line transcend tone and colour. Conté (compressed charcoal) has another dimension, that of creating texture and tone in a singular line.
Q. Where do you think your art begins from?
A. I digest all my angst and tension of my day to day life and bring it to my work. The body language reflects that and is related to my context. They're not borrowed from anywhere though I suppose we imbibe and get influenced by many things around us that we are not even aware of. I never analyse what I am influenced by, whether an incident, a observation or even an artist, like people say, " I am influenced by that artist". At another level I am influenced by every artist, by every part of nature, by everything around me. I do my own work what I like, and what I don't, I destroy. I paint in oils. I don't like acrylic much but I've done some. I like to draw and do watercolours and when I draw with ink, often people ask, "did you study Japanese or Chinese ink paintings?" Ofcourse, they have their masters in their inks but I've been handling ink since my art school days. It's an integral part of me. Funny how people ask, "you also draw?" Every artist must draw, paint, do murals, graphics everything.
You must do all kinds of things. Play with the mediums like a child.
Q. Not many do water colours when they primarily work on canvas. What's your story about water colours?
A. I was in Bali for 3-4 months and I had a fantastic studio there. When I started oil, the oil would not dry because of the humidity. So, I got some handmade paper and began to use water colours. First it was getting all spoilt and then I started again and again. I began to tame it. Wherever I travel, I always carry a portfolio, a sketchbook. In a hotel room I set up a temporary studio and then before or after dinner I do a little drawing with conté or ink or do a little watercolour. If I am somewhere for a very short time then I don't do watercolours or ink. Then I just draw.
Q. What connection do you have to your roots now, having lived outside Odisha for so long?
A. I have been away from Odisha for close to 60 years. But I go there so often as I am very attached to my hometown, to my home. So, I go all the time, repair my family home, plant trees in the garden, meet everyone, travel and draw. I like to draw the temple sculptures. My children too used to go to see my mother when she was alive. But after she went, the anchor is lost. Now all the family has spread - siblings, cousins, their children...it's just not the same.
In the last 25 years my passion for art and rare objects has taken me to Odisha. I began collecting, be it a stone statue, or a ritual object, a piece of craft or handloom. So, having accumulated all this, in the last 40 years, I needed a place to store and preserve them. Various chief ministers had been telling me that they would give me a studio to work in Odisha, but about 27 years ago an acre of land was offered to me by the Odisha Government so I decided to set up an art centre. Then it was almost outside the city, opposite the Khandagiri caves. It is a special place, maybe because monks must have been there 2000 years ago! The art centre will be for folk, tribal, classical and contemporary arts, all under one roof. This is for 3-4 reasons - because Odisha is my home state, secondly, I wanted to be away from big cities and metropolis, third because Odisha has a rich cultural heritage and four that despite that Odisha is often a neglected state. So, it's an uphill task to set up anything new there but I don't regret it. It is just that it takes a lot of energy from my work going into this and all of you that come and help. It's slowly taking shape so that's a good thing. All my collections are gradually going into it. I have never had a house of my own, but I will be just happy to see this dream realise.
Q. Is the Pankha collection - 6000 is not a small no. part of it? How did that begin?
I have a collection of hand fans. Yet another stupidity of mine! 40 years ago, somebody gave me a pankha and I thought I would make a collection, as every fan has a story and each of them are so unique. What I do is that any idea, any concept I pick up, if I see a larger picture emerging around it, then I don't give up. I have always been intuitive about these things. The Pankha collection has grown to be one of the largest private collections in the world. It's been shown in many museums in Europe and Southeast Asia and now there's a proposal for making a national Pankha museum in Delhi. When it's my own painting it's my own personal journey. But when it's an initiative that involves public space, a lot of other people then others must join hands to actualise the dream.