NO more crows and crones, khatiyas and kites, Medusas and madonnas, windows and women. At 56, painter Anjolie Ela Menon is through with all that. Abstraction rather than figuration is the new chosen mode of communication. That November of the soul she depicted through desolate women, forever framed in waiting, is rendered differently now. The new November: a green and blue mindscape, innermost recesses revealed, rendered bleakly through a tortured webscreen that evokes computer brainscapes. Those women were incarnations: this is thought revealed as pared onion. This series is not about person but process, the dark germination, the Ankur (seed) as it were, of thought. New obsession: quintessence. Not with design but distillation of thought as in Boddhisatva symbols, repeated like a prayer. "I'm fascinated with jap," says this autumnal auteur of seasons, "those symbols in repeat are like the litany you chant over and again in prayer."
That sharp intensity is new. The consciousness of fracture, of life as permanent double entendre, is not. The flower in Tikste I begins as fauna, fractures into landscape. "The picture within the picture is important," she says quietly.
The new interest: the complete picture. Which explains the erotic series. Man and woman framed in love-in-the-afternoon-languor goldglow on one, in dry-in-the-mouth frenetic eyeball to eyeball fornication on another canvas. Dreamscapes of yore give way to friezes of the deafening drama of raw passion. "I didn't feel justified merely painting female nudes. Life exists because of the balance of male and female principles," she says, explaining her new passion play. "I don't agree with so many of my feminist friends who go so overboard as to hate men. I myself exist within the fold of family, procreation," explaining her renewed engagement with Eros and Eden.
A deepened understanding of life's essence, celebrity at 16, iconic status at 56. On the eve of her December 17 exhibition at Mumbai's Jehangir Art Gallery, Menon has every reason to be happy. How many painters have been hosannaed more than Husain as she was at Christie's last year? Her 45x28 canvas sold for £13,800, her erstwhile mentor's larger 49x28 for a lesser £14,950. How many people can sell all but four works at mere previews of forthcoming exhibitions as she did last week at Delhi's Display Gallery? Collectors, buyers, diplomats placed first options even as the Gujral bought four, the National Gallery of Modern Art, collector Lekha Poddar, sculptress Hemi Bawa another two each. Estimated rake:Rs 60 lakh. Like one said Menon has every reason to be happy.
BUT Menon's angry. At detractors who would fain dismiss all her work, recent and vintage, as "decorative, upgraded picture postcard". The pejoratives come fast and furious—"handsome accessories for exporters' walls", "great soft furnishings", "piffly, not painterly". A Delhi-based women painter's commentator, who alas remains anonymous—they fear commerce even as they deride it—is downright sniffy. "What's her content? Tarot-card figures, mushy women rendered in Mills & Boon style? Good palette wasted on waffle. Nobody considers her a serious artist." The feedback is uniform from Leftist Barodawalas. "Her work neither interests nor 'engages' me," says a 'critical' Baroda prima donna. Clearly 'decorative' is used as synonym for "visually appealing but devoid of content". "She is rather literal though that's not something you can hold against her," says Mumbai-based art critic Ranjit Hoskote. Others like Mumbai painter Jehangir Sabvala are less sanguine. "It's an instance of a painter falling prey to her own felicity. Looking inwards is not easy. Playing to the gallery is." Another uniform criticism: Menon played out her leitmotif of crow, kite, and check cloth, women and windows to the point of ennui in a vulgar Mumbai film producer give-'em-what-they-want spirit. Very evident in the recent Shahpur Jat the NGMA bought for Rs 10 lakh. "She can't paint badly even in her sleep because she's technically superb. Remember her non-figurative phase? Empty chairs, cots, that evoked presences even as they were about absences? Her pitfall is formulaic repeats," says Mumbai art critic Geeta Doctor. Hoskote agrees. "It's about technique becoming subject. If you saw less rather than more of the same you'd like her more. Style over substance is her drawback." Point conceded. Maithun is sterling example of patina on canvas trying to conceal poverty of content. The nudity gratuitous, the content gross.
Menon's response to detractors? Combative. Even if emphatically off the record! The sluice doors open, you hear the waters roar. Then abruptly the gates slam shut. Given half the chance she'd question on record Leftists who even as they trash her, covet her success. Whose paintings, "reeking allure rather than the avant garde message they proclaim", hang next to hers in premier Delhi homes like those of Lekha Poddar, Harsh Goenka, Mani Mann. And are no less 'decorative'. As for the repeating leitmotif bit her response might well be that her motifs have been emulated by every painterly eminence grisé in town. Can't they find any original motifs, she'd ask? She reacts feistily on record. "Would you ever ask Raza about his bindus?" She would if she could ask whether Tyeb Mehta's diagonals, Husain's horses, Ram Kumar's strokes have changed at all over decades? Did Manjit Bawa's cows ever come home?
The reason for her attracting all this flak she fumingly puts on record. "Professional envy," she declares. "In a free world market, like Christie's, one's true measure is revealed. One sells for more than the six or seven Big Dads. That's upsetting. They call me society painter who sells to friends. I don't even know who bought me abroad." Again: "They're frustrated because they can't slot me." Gallery owners don't exactly love a painter who apart from saying, "who the hell cares for galleries, for owners that dictate when, how, what you should paint", also insists on controlling her own market and conducting her own sales thereby denying avaricious gallery owners their 33 per cent margins. "She's intelligent, articulate, could be a good writer," says Delhi-based art critic Gayatri Sinha. Articulate enough to sell on her own terms. More annoyingly, proclaim it. "Ganesh Pyne and I were the only survivors at Christie's last year," she purrs contentedly. And knowledgeable enough to stop ideologues mid-harangue with a lacerating put-downer.
The last word on Menon comes from Hoskote. "Her work makes no claims on the viewer beyond the painterly. She does not invoke rhetoric to justify her work." He's dismissive of the Leftist rhetoric against her. "She's honest. There's no gulf between her stated intent and her work. Most criticism that comes her way pertains less to aesthetics, more to avarice about her prices." The epitaph may well read, chuckles Hoskote: "Few portray the discreet charm of the bourgeois as well as she does. Within the terms she sets up for herself she's quite credible." Incredible!