“I have no doubt that before long this gifted young woman will be joining the ranks of our very best painters," renowned art critic Richard Bartholomew had said in 1958, referring to an 18-year-old Anjolie Ela Menon. The invites for that first show had been designed by M.F. Husain.

In a career spanning six decades, Menon, now 75, has lived up to that prediction.

Menon returns to the Capital after a gap of five years with a solo show of works created over the last two years. At her last showThrough The Patina, art critic Isana Murti (the pen name for defence analyst C. Uday Bhaskar) had said: “At a time when modernist abstraction is preferred by artists both in India and the West, Anjolie Ela Menon’s works have been rigorously figurative, sensual and romantic." The critic has authored a comprehensive collection of Menon’s works.

The Birthday: Oil on masonite; 48” x 36”; 2014
The Birthday: Oil on masonite; 48” x 36”; 2014

She says this show—featuring 12 works in oil, a large triptych, mixed media on canvas, and several small collages and miniatures—marks her return to pure “figuration" and her “true love", oils on Masonite, after a decade of new experiments in acrylic, junk, furniture, windows, fibreglass, ceramics, Murano glass sculptures and murals in public spaces like airports.

Masonites, now almost synonymous with the artist, have been a gift from Christian iconography, just like the tropes of frontal perspective, the averted head, body elongation and the female nude: “In the 1960s, I was influenced by early Christian art and Byzantine icons and those were generally painted on wood. Subsequently, I developed a unique style which required a hard surface and Masonite is a great substitute for wood and has great durability."

As Menon told NDTV in 2010, it was at art curator Sharan Apparao’s house in Chennai that she first painted a wooden chair when she couldn’t find any other medium at hand. Follies In Fantastikal Furniture, in 1992, marked the start of her dalliance with all things kitsch. The Padma Shri awardee also experimented with pentimenti, painting layers over computer-generated prints of her earlier works. In the current show too, the miniatures bridge the gap between high art and “the gaudy embellishments of calendar art". The traditional coalesces with the postmodern through “strange juxtapositions".

Upanayanam: Oil on masonite; 96.5”x 97”; 2012/13
Upanayanam: Oil on masonite; 96.5”x 97”; 2012/13

The themes of some of her work carry over from her earlier Divine Mothers series. “I celebrate the divine mother as I am baffled by the dichotomy of current Indian attitudes towards the woman. Is she Devi, whom they worship, or is she the lesser being, whom they denigrate? In Mariam, I paint the Black Madonna."

Another large painting depicts the birth of Ganesha, the young elephant-head boy seeking his mother’s love, while the severed head of Parvati’s child is “symbolic of the anguish she must have suffered".

The artist, who tries not to get “trapped" in her own “clichés", says: “Only time will succeed in defining my oeuvre. It may survive or it may sink without a trace."

Recent Works of Anjolie Ela Menon will be on show from 27 March-27 April, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-40, Defence Colony, New Delhi.

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