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The elsewhere artist

The elsewhere artist
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First Published: Sun, Feb 04 2007. 07 13 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Feb 04 2007. 07 13 PM IST
It’s late for anyone to set up a second home at 70. But Paris-based artist Sakti Burman is taking pains to personalize his spacious new apartment in Delhi.
A miniature poinsettia blooms on the tiny terrace and a richly carved antique bed—“an installation in itself”—moved in recently. He bought two small bronze sculptures from a friend and a large canvas by artist Benoy Verghese, still encased in bubble wrap.
Burman and his artist wife, Maite Delteil, moved into their new home in the Greater Kailash neighbourhood in January 2006. Barely two weeks and a housewarming party later, he left for Paris. But nine months on, in November, he was back with rolls of canvas, easels and paints.
“I have thought of coming back in my old age,” he muses, adding on a lighter note, “by now, I should be leading the life of a vanaprastha (forest-dweller) in the forest.”
But the soft-spoken artist who has lived in Paris since 1956 shows no signs of renouncing worldly life yet. His first solo show in six years recently travelled from Kolkata to Chennai and Mumbai. The same exhibition will run in Delhi’s Visual Arts Gallery between 16 and 26 February.
Burman is also working on a retrospective show and has postponed his plans to return to Paris until April this year.
All this while, he remained aloof from tidings of the Indian art world. But in the last five years, Indian symbolism has been a recurring motif in his works.
What then has got Burman back in India half a century later? “There were no opportunities then. But in the past five years, I’ve got more calls from India than I’ve ever got from the whole of Paris.”  
According to Sunaina Anand, owner of Art Alive gallery, there is a ready audience for artists like Burman.  “What is attractive is that they have a flavour of India, yet are very European. It’s a unique signature,” says Anand. -
In his light-filled studio overlooking the street, a large table is cluttered with pictures: a clown sporting a harlequin-esque costume, a picture of a woman he tore from Playboy magazine—“don’t you think she has a beautiful posture?” he asks—and a photograph of his family on a London street that his French daughter-in-law, Odile, took when a pigeon landed on his head.
In a moment of inspired outpouring, Burman gathers these seemingly unrelated characters on a plain brown canvas: a statuesque man with a bird on his head, a downcast jester wearing an embroidered suit and a Hanuman floating above it all with a tinge of ironic detachment.  
“In my painting,” says Burman, “everything originates from the real. But they blend with the unreal to give an impression of somewhere and nowhere.”
True, his works are a commentary on contemporary times and partly biographical. His wife Maite, scientist son Matthieu and artist daughter Maya often emerge in his works, symbolizing hope in a troubled world.
Yet the settings of his narrative are deliberately yanked to a bygone age. His canvases have a crackled effect, much like the medieval church frescoes he saw during his visit to Pisa, Italy, in the late 1950s.
Burman grew up in Dibrugarh, Assam, in a close-knit family. His fondness for sketching took him to the Government Art College in Kolkata.
“But it was not until I enrolled at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts that I studied art seriously,” he says. His family pooled in money to send him to the famous art school. He reached Paris in 1956, when abstract art was fast replacing the surrealist movement.
His own reflections on surrealism are convenient: “My geographical position at that point of time drew me to the theory of the unconscious state. But I could never immerse myself in a world of nightmares.”
Oddly, it’s the powerful symbolism of his work, Dreamers on the Ark—one in the six series he made on Noah’s Ark—that received the critical attention of cultural historian Lyn Gamwell in 2000, who selected it for an exhibition to commemorate 100 years of Freud’s influential work, The Interpretation of Dreams. It was displayed along with Salvador Dali’s Morphological Echo and Jasper John’s Two Flags in Vienna and New York.
In 1997, Burman was surprised when one of his works was picked by the Japanese gallery, Ecole de Paris, to be shown along with the works of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Marc Chagall. “He absorbs from his environment as he is inspired by motifs from miniature art—a sort of East-West blend,” says Dadiba Pundole of Pundole Art Gallery.
The artist’s sketchbook is proof of Pundole’s observation—Baul singers he heard in Kolkata, an old man singing in a church in the French town of Souillac. “It’s very difficult to close the frontier of thinking,” he says. And as in the universe of his painting, it doesn’t matter whether he is here, or elsewhere.
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First Published: Sun, Feb 04 2007. 07 13 PM IST
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