Mumbai has a special place in Anjolie Ela Menon’s heart. The Padma Shri-awardee lived in the city for nearly a decade in the 1980s when her husband was in the navy. When she moved to Delhi, it was the sea she missed the most. In fact, the Sassoon Docks and the boats at sea have featured prominently in some of her early works.
“Boats have been integral to our family and recur in my work. My grandson is a great sailor too,” she says. It’s fitting, then, that her new exhibition features a painting, The Fisherman’s Story, which is an ode to the city and the sea
Menon, 83, has returned to Mumbai with a solo show, Anjolie The Wanton Fabulist, after nine years. The name of the exhibition, presented by Art Musings, comes from a title conferred on her by art critic Gayatri Sinha.
“(This came about) because of the complicated subject matters and the juxtaposition of different images in the same painting that I am well-known for,” says Menon.
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The 26 oil-on-Masonite paintings are, in her words, almost like a mini-retrospective of her practice because they encapsulate many elements which have featured prominently in her paintings over the years.
Familiar objects such as charpai and kites make appearances in The Red Charpoi And Landscape, and animals such as crows and goats in Crow & A Chair and Goat People. The crow is a memory from her Mumbai days—she recalls a crow that would often come and sit in her balcony while she painted—while the goats are a daily sight at the Nizamuddin Basti in Delhi, where her studio is located. “Sometimes a cat or a lizard joins in. These animals often accompany the figures in my work,” she says.
The show mostly features new works from last year, with the oldest one going back to 2015. Oil-on-Masonite remains her preferred medium of painting but lately a burst of colour has seeped into her work. This is a bit of an irony, given that she is getting older, she says. “The colours should have been more gloomy, I should imagine,” she laughs.
There are some works from her 2017 Divine Mother series too. In a painting titled Yashoda And Krishna, Yashoda holds baby Krishna in her arms, while Parvati cradles Ganesh in Parvati And Ganesh. It was while pursuing formal training in painting at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the late 1950s and early 1960s that she found herself intrigued by early Christian art. “In those days, the Madonna and child seemed to dominate a lot of my work,” she says. “I have started to believe that there are other mothers of divine beings, who are also worshipped in their own right, thus giving rise to the Divine Mother series.”
Menon says she has worked really hard the whole of 2023 to create this new body of work, and describes her daily visits to her studio in Nizamuddin Basti. “Painting is part of my life; it’s part of me. I hate Sundays because that’s the day we visit the farm and I don’t paint. I don’t like holidays. I am driven to paint and I have been at it for the last 60 years—ever since I was a child.”
There are two new works in the pipeline. Also on the horizon is a gastronomic travelogue, an autobiography of sorts from the artist who loves to cook and feed her large family of two sons, their wives and four grandchildren.
Anjolie The Wanton Fabulist can be viewed at Art Musings, Colaba, Mumbai, till 15 March.
Deepali Singh is a Mumbai-based art and culture writer.