Romance of landscapes

Published : May 06, 2011 00:00 IST

"Tomb in the Park". A painting from the mid-1980s. The surreal quality is ever present in Anil Karanjai's work. - COURTESY: ANIL KARANJAI MEMORIAL TRUST

"Tomb in the Park". A painting from the mid-1980s. The surreal quality is ever present in Anil Karanjai's work. - COURTESY: ANIL KARANJAI MEMORIAL TRUST

Anil Karanjai's landscapes in pastel, done in the last year of his life, hold a surprise for those who know him as a painter of surreal images.

ANIL KARANJAI (1940-2001) was a most unusual Indian artist: He believed in being himself. The price he paid for his individuality, meaning artistic integrity, was enormous. The Indian art establishment, while being aware of his merit, chose to ignore it. The reason for the high-handed behaviour of the art dealers and the officialdom was his outspoken nature. He never took any nonsense from anyone; now, that could get an individual into all kinds of trouble in a half-feudal, half-capitalist society like ours. The late artist's wife, Juliet Reynolds, an art critic and a champion of the timely diagnosis and treatment of autistic children, has organised an exhibition of his work in various media to commemorate his tenth death anniversary. The event is an eye-opener, to put it mildly.

The landscapes in pastel, done in the last year of his life, come as a real surprise, especially for those who knew him as a painter of surreal images with a sad, even tragic, implication.

His technique in these pastels is as finely controlled as it is in so many of his oils. What is new in them is a genuine sense of romance but not entirely at the cost of the surreal element that is ever present in his work. These small (in size) pastels done during a rain-soaked monsoon in Dehra Dun, Uttarakhand, stay in the mind; they soothe and caress the senses while retaining their sense of mystery. They celebrate nature with a maturity not seen in Indian landscape painting in a very long time.

His preference for the landscape in his later years won him many admirers and also detractors from within contemporary art circles. Those who knew him as a Left-leaning art activist were puzzled by his choice of the landscape as an important element of his artistic expression. Although he never said it, his work and his conduct seemed to suggest that the landscape of a nation belonged to its people, the poorest of the poor of them and not a microscopic elite that rules over them. His landscapes, especially those in the show, seem to suggest that Nature is usually benign, beautiful and bountiful, that is, until human greed intervenes, invariably to line the pockets of a handful who think they can control human destiny.

Karanjai's landscapes have a much greater sense of immediacy than any of his earlier works. The medium both dry and oil allows the artist to put his vision down on paper rapidly. The same subject done in oils would take much longer. Karanjai's oil paintings were painstakingly done. He would, after drawing out his intended composition with a light pencil on the canvas, give it a wash with a half and half mixture of lindseed oil and turpentine. After applying a very thin layer of paint over the necessary area, he would wait for it to dry, a process that could take a day even in hot weather. He would build up his composition in layer after thin layer. To retain one's inspiration especially when doing landscapes in oil can be very tough. His switching over to pastels was only logical.

The old Bengali master Gopal Ghosh was a great favourite of the artist. Karanjai could never have enough of Ghosh's landscapes done in watercolours transparent and opaque, and pastels of both kind, dry and oil. Gopal Ghosh's spontaneity, mastery over colour and form, and innate lyricism inspired Karanjai.

When, in his fifties, he turned increasingly to watercolours and pastels (though he continued to paint with mastery in oils), Karanjai always kept Ghosh in mind.

A few watercolours and many pastels in the show reveal his preoccupation with Gopal Ghosh, also city bred like Karanjai. It would be well nigh impossible to tell, looking at his landscapes, that Gopal Ghosh lived and earned his living teaching at the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata. Born in Rangpur, now in Bangladesh, Karanjai grew up in the ancient city of Benaras, Uttar Pradesh, where his family migrated following Partition in 1947. It is virtually impossible to tell by looking at Karanjai's landscapes, especially the pastels, that he ever had any deep connection with a city. Except for the last one year of his life, Karanjai was a city man.

He had a long and intimate connection with Delhi. He went to live there in 1969. He went to Washington for four years, and came back to Delhi in 1977. He remained in Delhi until 2000, when his wife bought a lovely house in Dehra Dun, thanks to the inheritance she received from her mother, Lady Reynolds. The renewal of acquaintance with Nature made possible by the shift was all that Karanjai needed to become a passionate landscape painter.

This show covers a little over 20 years of his career and touches several points in his artistic journey. There is that restless connection with history through seemingly tranquil works, done mainly in oils. There is a vertical image of a kingly figure who seems to be hewn out of a slab of stone. He seems to be coming alive at the magic hour of dusk. It is not a large work but has monumental qualities.

There are other paintings done from the late 1970s into the 1990s of a particular motif, that of three stone steps with truant blades of grass growing in the crevices between stones. Sometimes there is an old monument in the background, but not always. Nature seems to be waiting with great expectancy, and yet not. The movement of time seems to have been stilled. The light, invariably in these works, has a between night and day' quality. The viewer may get the feeling that although the artist appears to be painting a landscape, he has an intimate connection with dreams that may turn violent.

There are other works in the show that convey a sense of false tranquillity, which gives them both power and pictorial authority. There is an oil of a lush green landscape. The greenery is sloping upwards, culminating in what appears to be a plateau. The image, on first glance, appears to be tranquil because of the gentle brushwork, but then a sense of foreboding takes over. There is another one of a similar motif with gentle, softly painted after-the-rains evening clouds that owe allegiance to the Pahari miniatures. The mind is soothed for the moment and then it is tingled into alertness, like when moving through a jungle that may have predators lurking about.

The artist, after 40, let his sense of irony and wit enter into some of his paintings. It is a special kind of wit that is touched by poetry. There is the face of a boy in profile that appears to have emerged or rather flowed out of white stone, tinged with pale blue on a deep blue night. The feeling thus evoked is of a dream within a dream, if such a thing is possible. It is a small work that grows in size and scale in the mind.

One of the reasons why most critics as well as colleagues were foxed by Karanjai was his versatility. He turned to portrait painting for pleasure and then, for a time, out of sheer economic necessity. There is a self-portrait in the show. It is a three-quarter view, of him looking out with brooding, introspective eyes. The study reveals more about the artist than words possibly can.

A difficult and interesting life

His was a difficult and in many ways a very interesting life. Money was chronically short in his childhood in Benaras but excitement was not. He grew up among poets and artists. He was a part of the Hungry Generation that made such an impact on the Indian cultural scene in the 1960s. It was around that time that Allen Ginsberg, the American Beat poet, visited Benaras, and his presence helped unite various people with similar artistic pursuits in the ancient city. Karanjai was fond of Kadis, Ginsberg's signature poem. Ginsberg represented for him and his friends the quintessential rebel artist who held up a mirror to society and was thus both an outsider and a trenchant critic of socio-political wrongdoing.

Karanjai was also an outsider in more senses than one. His art education was painstakingly acquired he never went to an art school. He received some valuable instruction from a traditional painter of miniatures, Karanman Singh, and from the now-forgotten excellent watercolour artist Ambika Prasad Dubey. The rest he discovered on his own. He remained hungry for knowledge the rest of his life. His curiosity about technique and how it was related to the creation of an authentic work of art remained keen until the very end.

A sudden death

Death came to him suddenly, in Dehra Dun, when he was painting in his studio and Juliet was out on a walk. He had had some slight heart trouble earlier. That day his heart stopped ticking without notice. When Juliet found him lying on the floor, she thought he was taking a nap.

Many of his works deal with states of dream and sleep. There is a lovely drawing of a young girl who is said to be deep in thought but appears to be in a dream-like state. There is also a small painting of a nude girl in slumber. It is evocative and mysterious and leaves the viewer wondering whether or not she is dreaming. A large canvas on display, titled Evening Raga, is particularly arresting in the masterly simplicity of its treatment fusing form and colour. A similar mastery is present in a small pastel called Morning Raga. However, the most evocative work in the show is a small pastel simply titled Monsoon. It has a quality of freshness that the earth experiences after a generous rainfall. The glow in the sky is what makes the picture so special.

Fine conjurer of atmosphere

The drawings in the show, apart from revealing his command over line to express form, reveal him as a really fine conjurer of atmosphere. The atmosphere evoked may not necessarily be happy'; on occasion melancholy may take over. Would it be an exaggeration to say that the last year of his life gave his art a new direction? The view of the Dhauladhar range from his window lifted his spirits. There was real pleasure in the landscapes he did then, and he wanted to share his visual discoveries in an uncomplicated manner with the viewer.

His work has an appeal for the connoisseur and the layman alike. It does not bear down on the uninitiated as do so many pretentious, empty, non-representational works or others that masquerade as installations, sans wit and humour. A security man came into the gallery, took his time looking at the works on display, then went up to Juliet Reynolds, and said in Hindi, Ye A-1 kaam haiye ( This is top drawer work.)

Being a politically aware person, Karanjai found it hard to stomach the jockeying for power among the forces of the Right, comprising in the main unprincipled Hindu businessmen and the middle class which strengthened their hands. Since childhood he had seen the people of India being repeatedly betrayed by the ruling Congress party. The politics in the art world was no less mendacious than in the world outside. He had realised, when young, that one did not live in the best of possible worlds. He had protested against injustice and inequity vigorously through his work for years. In middle age he also began to believe that the pleasure of being alive was to be shared with like-minded people.

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