What suits your personality about drawing circles again and again?
The painter should be a master of those elements that constitute form. Shape and line, color and tone—their relationship on canvas is very important. I’ve been working for 30 years on bindu. It is the point of departure for everything, as the seed is the point of departure for a plant and the sperm is the point of departure for a human life. Last year I showed only white and off-white paintings. White represents a will towards spirituality. A black bindu can radiate all the colors on earth, browns, reds, oranges, whites. I’ve traveled from Srinagar to Kanyakumari, and I’ve realised to what extent colour is ecstasy in India. I’ve gone to the extremes of colour and come back.
You’ve been cited as a model for authenticity, but also as someone who "produces as many bindus as a factory." Does criticism bother you? Does praise please you?
Whoever said this has a good understanding of what I am trying to do. The only thing is, I feel that bindu expresses vitality and not limitation. I see infinite possibilities in bindu. It depends on the onlooker to find out if the idea dominates me or if I can dominate the idea. There is a point in this observation, but my work is really a liberation of the possibilities that emerge from bindu.
Were you never tempted to paint nudes or portraits?
I was tempted and I’ve done it. But I’ve learned the lesson of the Gita: you have to choose what you are best suited for. I thought nature was so important, so colossal a thing that it can take a whole life to understand. I’ve tried to put in male and female elements in my paintings, to see it the way Indian tradition helps me to see it. This seems to me more important than if I’d studied at the Royal Academy and simply continued in that vein. I’ve gone beyond, I hope, and tried to find my own notation.
You’ve said abstraction and symbols are a way of approaching the sublime. Yet I see the human as much as the divine in your work.
I’m not against human or figurative representation. I have a preference for sublimation, for the metaphysical and the divine. In Indian thought we have a love for sanyas, for going to the Himalayas. Why do we do it? Our thinkers realised that worldly attractions were not as important as the spiritual.
You’ve used acrylics on plastic and on cardboard. What effect do you aim for when you use unconventional materials?
I’ve come back to acrylics only in the last 25 years, after a trip to America where I saw students working with acrylics on canvas. I put them down for 10 years. Then I realised it suited my temperament. There is a whole period of bindus done with acrylics on canvas or paper. Acrylics are a solid medium based on water, not oil. It suits the Indian temperament, like the manuscripts and miniatures done with watercolors. The transparency suits the expression I want to give my paintings. It is better than oil paint, which is thick and cracks.
You’ve said people should buy art for love, not investment. But isn’t it gratifying to have a value, and a high value, placed on your work? Do high prices legitimise art in some ways?
It’s human to understand it as an appreciation of your work. But I prefer that my paintings are appreciated for beauty, not investment. It has been my obsession for 60 years. Most vital painters are not concerned with money. You should want to own a painting because you like it and want to live with it. I’ve always liked it when people bought pictures without knowing me, and sometimes the paintings are understood after 20 or 30 years. People lose interest in false paintings which are superficial and unimportant.
You were a founder of the Progressive Artists Group, but left to live in Paris. What made you leave?
I had innumerable questions. French art seemed to be the most dynamic art expression in the middle of the 20th century. I thought it was necessary for me to go to France for two years, to see Cezanne and Chagall, to study and live in a congenial atmosphere. I liked Paris from the first day, the museums and publications. I learnt something every day. I learnt how important it is to understand that a painting with white and grey shouldn’t have red. There should not be incoherent colour. I stayed for 10 years, married a French artist and kept working.
What makes you come back to India each year?
My genetics makes me return. Indian metaphysics help me in my work. The paintings and sculpture at Ajanta and Ellora; art from Kalighat and Mathura; when I see a dancer pray before she performs; these are inspirations to me. A master of Ellora wrote in the 12th century, ‘I didn’t do this sculpture. It’s a masterpiece; god did it.’ I feel the same way. This is not me: I was assisted.
Human intelligence is a minor thing. I’m not deriding it, but intuition is more important. A woman will say, this man is a fake, or this man is a genius. She will be right. Intuition is the sum total of our faculties. It is the reason I believe in god.
What do you, Souza and Husain have in common?
The common denominator was a love of freedom and work. Each of us had his own vision and themes: Husain’s women, horses, compositions; Souza’s nudes and heads; I restricted myself to landscapes. Our temperaments were different but we met, gossiped, discussed things. We had arguments about Indian philosophy, European psychoanalysis, Das Kapital, exploitation, money. Some believed in god, some didn’t. I said, take your time but be unbiased.
What was Souza like?
Brilliant and well read, sure about his ideas, questioning others’ ideas. That was his quality and his weakness.
What do you hope your paintings will evoke or provoke in the viewer?
That’s a question only the viewer can answer. I hope it doesn’t leave him indifferent, that he sees something important has happened. The paintings should speak, not me. Main na bolu, chitra bole.
What of the viewer who sees only abstraction, who misses the theology for the geometry?
Abstraction is a misnomer. In fact, there’s no abstraction. There’s sublimation, metamorphosis, regeneration of image. They call it abstraction because the representation of the human figure isn’t there. They should look more closely.
This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, February 15, 2006