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Dealers and auction houses have commodified art'

Dealers and auction houses have commodified art
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One of the best known names in art today, Anjolie Ela Menon is known for her canvases and murals. Awarded the Padmashree in 2000, Menon recently added the Dayawati Modi Award for Art, Culture and Education 2013 to her long list of achievements. We caught up with the artiste at the awards function, here are excerpts from the interview.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Right from childhood to becoming one of the most celebrated artists in India.

I had a happy childhood in various army cantonments riding a cycle, climbing trees, reading endlessly. Then I went to Lawrence School at the age of 11 where my art master Sushil Mukherjee became my guru. I started painting when I was 12 and have not stopped since. JJ School thereafter and Miranda House where we were taught by brilliant professors for an English (hons) degree.  After I left school I met MF Husain, who became my mentor and friend – a friendship that continues to inspire me even after he has gone. He organised and promoted my first two exhibitions and taught me how to make manifest the visual repository within oneself. Emulating the mobility he enjoyed helped me to be able to paint anywhere, anytime; an important attribute for a nomadic artist like me. I arrived in Paris to study at the Beaux Arts in a freezing winter. Homesick and cold I was taken under the wing of Prof Aujame who put me through the rigours of fresco painting, climbing high scaffoldings with buckets of wet plaster. I specialised in Fresco because the Atelier Fresque at the Beaux Arts in France was one of the best in the world at the time and I was one of the lucky ones to be accepted by  renowned Professor Aujame to work under his guidance. Aujame was a great teacher. Travelling the world has been a very great experience. As a student I back-packed all over Europe. My travelling companion, Shama is one of the most eccentric and brilliant people I know., an intellectual foil to my impulsive and restless self. We once spent a month in a village in Sparta subsisting on spinach and oranges as we hit a patch of poverty! I looked backwards as I was always a maverick and have usually bucked the current trends  to do the opposite of what everyone was doing. The early Christian imagery and Byzantine art with its strong colours and rich ornamentation seemed closer to my Indian experience. When everyone was turning to abstraction, I remained figurative and have always created my own genre. My earliest influence, even before Paris, was Amrita Sher-Gil. I was very close to Husain, but I never painted like him.

Do you believe in the high art - low art distinction?
I was the first artiste to consciously demolish the barriers between so called high and low art. My exhibition Gods and Others embraced ‘calendar kitsch’ and street art in a pastiche which broke new ground and gained a huge following among other artists, leading to a new inclusive genre in Indian art which responds to the visual matrix of our own times.

In India most children are encouraged to take on sciences over arts and even fine arts. Why do you think this divide still exists?
My parents wanted me to become a doctor. But I’d developed a need to paint which was so strong and showed a certain precocious talent. I had my solo exhibition at the age of 18 with fifty-three paintings of varied styles curated and hung in Delhi and Bombay by MF Husain. This led to my scholarship to France to study at the prestigious Ecole de Beaux Arts and I have had 48 solos since. However  a career in art is a long and arduous journey and should only be taken up by those who are driven to paint.

How tough was your artistic journey?
I am driven to paint. I paint everyday. Painting is a necessity for me not a challenge. It's not been tough at all. It is my life, my greatest joy. The fruits are not important but surprisingly have been abundant.
How do you think the art scene has changed over the years, from the time you started to now?
There are many more artists today, lakhs in fact, and now, galleries, dealers and auction houses have commodified art. In our time it was art for art’s sake with very little prospect of money.

Are people buying more art now than in the past?
Hey, not at the moment! The boom (now 3 years old) was fuelled by investors not collectors. The investors withdrew totally after the global recession and the real collectors have become wary of new art. Only support the so called ‘proven’ names, and seem to have generally dumped the cutting edge after the initial enthusiasm about what are now labeled as contemporaries. Art is going through lean times today. No, people aren’t buying at all.

If you were to buy art - what would you pick ?
I have bought a lot of art. Today I would buy KG Subramanyam, Amit Ambalal or Ranbir Kaleka

Who are your favourite artists?
Souza, Modigliani, Hieronymous Bosch, Frida Kahlo

Which city do you think understands and values art best?
Mumbai was really the hub, the crucible, of the modern art movement in India but Delhi is important today with major events and patronage emanating from the power centre which is the Capital , and the presence of major art institutions here.
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