Artist Maya Burman asks if her crystal bindi is centred on her forehead. In the country to attend the opening of her solo exhibition of paintings in Mumbai, the Paris-based artist exemplifies a peculiar dichotomy, and the chic, horn-rimmed glasses that offset the garish bindi are only a part of it.
Born to artist parents—the Indian painter Sakti Burman and French artist mother Maite Delteil—her work arguably marries aspects of both their styles. Burman lives in Paris with her (non-artist) husband and two children Ganesha and Leela, travelling to India two or three times a year, much like her itinerant parents. Fittingly, at the Burmans’ Delhi residence, paintings by father, mother and daughter jostle for space on the walls and studio floor.
A tale of two countries: Burman with one of her paintings.
The 40-odd pen and watercolour works presently on display at Mumbai’s Art Musings Gallery, in an exhibition titled A Dreamer’s Labyrinth, make for Burman’s 10th solo show in India. She’s had two solos in France and several group shows in both countries. Yet, over her 15-year career as an artist, Burman has achieved middling success. With time split across two continents, a life split across two cultures, fame and recognition are also split.
It wasn’t a given for Burman to become an artist, she insists. “It’s never a given. You have to go through a lot to become an artist,” she says, speaking of how she gave up architecture school to take to painting at the age of 26 because she was “moved” to. Without an academic grounding in art school, Burman’s influences are sporadic. They range from books she read as a child in her parents’ studios, the city of Paris, visits to the museum, religious art in churches and medieval art. She makes no pretence of intellectualizing her practice. But try broaching the subject of privileges of “second-generation” artists and she is articulate in her response. “Galleries are not philanthropic societies. Surely they can’t keep showing my work because of who my father is?” she says.
As an artist, Burman functions in her own realm. At 40, she is a young artist, but it is difficult to call her a “contemporary” artist in the sense the term is used today. Her inclination towards floral, decorative patterns straddles the French Art Nouveau tradition of the 1890s. Patterns weave around the central forms, evoking a sense of joie de vivre. The strong influence of the Indian miniature tradition, and the rich colours she has inherited from her parents, evoke a sense of déjà vu. But her originality in today’s age possibly lies in being anachronistic.
Burman is old-fashioned in other ways. She expresses horror at the thought of using video or multimedia. They aren’t “erotic” enough. As someone who works for as long as a year on a single painting, she is also aghast at the idea of having studio assistants. “I’m an artist because I like the act of painting,” she says, half exasperated. “I don’t want assistants to help me finish a canvas to speed up that act.”
Coming back to the bindi, she explains it isn’t only an accessory. Her search for identity is an important tangent to her search for her artistic idiom. Burman recounts how her parents didn’t bring her to India after the age of 10 because that would entail full airfare, something they couldn’t afford as struggling artists. She came to India on her own as a 22-year-old backpacker because she was curious. That sense of wonderment and discovery prevails even today. “I’m a Parisian girl who is still surprised to find so much echo in her when she is in India,” she says. But she won’t commit to being labelled either a French artist or an Indian artist. “I belong to what I build,” she says.
Maya Burman’s solo exhibition, A Dreamer’s Labyrinth, will run till 9 April at Art Musings Gallery, Colaba Cross Lane, Mumbai.