Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A poem lovely as a tree

"I think that I shall never see
 A poem lovely as a tree....

.....Poems are made by fools like me,
  But only God can make a tree."

- American poet, Joyce Kilmer, in 1913.

The artist Sam Van Aken did have a hand however, in creating a very special tree. Van Aken is a Professor of Sculpture at Syracuse University, and wanted to "sculpt a tree", that would have multi-coloured blossoms.

Because of a childhood interest in 'stone fruits', Van Aken collected plant varieties of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines and cherries. He grafted branches from these donor trees, on the same tree, in 2008. Van Aken had hoped to get a few multi-coloured blossoms. What emerged was beyond his wildest imagination. The tree actually grew 40 kinds of blossoms and later 40 kinds of fruits!

By 2014, Van Aken had grown and installed 16 'trees-of-forty-fruit' in public spaces, gardens and museums. Each tree was unique. Each one, a unique 'living sculpture'!

Van Aken's project has grown over time. He now uses 250 varieties of stone fruits. His interest in the fruits has grown, and along with that, another mission. He wants to sustain the diversity of fruits in nature, and has gone about collecting local varieties and heirloom specimens from all over the world.

As he explains, the supermarkets stock as per the urban tastes, and many of the local varieties did not make it to the vegetable markets at all, leading to less farmers growing them.

Van Aken's project has become a three-in-one botany-art-conservation project. Years of planning, grafting, and observing have made him confident to prune a multi-fruit tree just right, for multiple and continuous blossoms. He has painstakingly collected rare varieties, and created these wonder-trees.

Van Aken makes sure to visit his trees twice a year, adding more grafts, and pruning the branches here and there. It takes nine years for each 'tree-sculpture' to reach its full form. Five years for the grafts to get nurtured, and another four years before the trees bear fruit.

His tree-sculptures draw gaping crowds wherever they are installed, and the incredible sights of multi-coloured fruits hanging from different branches are specially loved by children.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The sound of water

"Meeting", 42"X40", Watercolour on paper, 2007, by Paresh Maity
At the retrospective of Paresh Maity's water colours, currently on at Lalit Kala Akademi, what impresses you immediately are the large oceanscapes.

The fluidity of the medium is just right for large expanses of sky, and boats lying on the beach. There are a few figures and foliage here and there, but they are totally in harmony with the main part of the composition, which is expanses of sky and water.

What a sharp contrast to the uniformly grey skies of Delhi, the polluted air and the cacophony of vehicles!

Urban children can probably not imagine such greens and blues, or the serenity of palms and still water.

"Talsari", 24"X30", Watercolour on paper, 2002, by Paresh Maity

Paresh Maity has been a prolific artist. His works are with the National Gallery of Modern Art, and various international and national galleries. He is active in painting, sculpture, installations as well as photography.

He is known as India's "best water colour painter", and most of his water colours are about "waterscapes" from rural Bengal, though he does capture images from Kerala, and Venice amongst other places.

Palm Avenue, 31"X31", Watercolour on board, 2008, by Paresh Maity

Water, boats, and boatmen and at the most a few palms remain his favourite subjects. However, a visit to Rajasthan seems to have made a deep impression on him, and he made a number of "desertscapes".

Since he has been painting for forty years, the styles have changed over the years; also he has a huge repertoire: broad strokes and dramatic skies, brush strokes and scruffy vegetation, or fine lines and a few crouching figures, all creating drama on the canvas.

"Family discussion", 36"X60", Oil on canvas, 2012, by Paresh Maity

Paresh Maity's oil paintings are striking with their bold colours, and the firm lines of the human faces. He uses a lot of reds, blues, yellows, and all in pretty resplendent hues.

The subjects here are mainly faces and figures in human settings, and also scenes from Indian cities, specially Benares.

"Reflection on water", 60"X60", Oil on canvas,2015 by Paresh Maity

When I caught up recently with the Paresh Maity retrospective, what I enjoyed as much as the paintings was this video. It had the sounds of water, just as the paintings had the visual experience. Both had captured the serenity, joyfulness, playfulness and timelessness of the flow and web of waves at a shore, and you could just be a part of the have a look at:

A video installation at Paresh Maity's retrospective

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Of Beasts and Men

Many of us have enjoyed the book, songs, movie and TV serials in various adaptations of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book". Mowgli, the child raised in the jungle by animals; Baloo the bear; Bagheera, the black panther; Kaa, the python; and of course Sher Khan, the tiger; are all characters familiar to us.

But I did not know much about the father of Rudyard Kipling, John Lockwood Kipling, an architectural sculptor (at the Victoria & Albert Museum), curator, illustrator and educator, who taught at the J J School of Art, Mumbai and was Principal at the Mayo School of Industrial Art (now Pakistan's National College of Arts). I first got to see his work from a chance view of media coverage about a forthcoming exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum on his works. And that drew me to learn more about this interesting combination

John Lockwood Kipling illustrated the book covers of many of his son's books, like "Under the Deodhars" (seen alongside), and of course, "The Jungle Book". The works were a unique combination of drawings of Indian men, women, beasts, along with western practices of stylised alphabets, line drawings, compositions and sensibilities.

The Jungle Book, and The Second Jungle Book,
with original illustrations
by John Lockwood Kipling (from

For various editions of "The Jungle Book", there were more book covers, illustrations in chapters, and stylised alphabets at the beginning of chapters, like this "R" from the first page of a chapter "The Undertakers":

Illustration for a "Chapter capital" (!895)

There were fantasy drawings too, like this wonderful composition about Mowgli leaving the jungle. There is a large number of illustrations in other publications by John Lockwood Kipling too, like "Beast and man in India: A popular sketch of Indian animals in their relations with the people (1891) and "Tales of the Punjab, told by the people" (1891) both published by MacMillan and Co., London. Both father and son seem to have influenced each other greatly in their books and illustrations. 

Wood carver at Shimla,
pencil and ink drawing, 1970
Both seem to have been keen observers and listeners as well, of common people, their occupations, characters in epics and folk tales. 

This drawing was part of a project, where John Lockwood Kipling was commissioned by the government to tour the North India provinces, and make sketches of craftsmen. 

Thanks to this initiative by the government of the times, and the talent of Lockwood Kipling, we have a wealth of information on dresses, tools and occupations of those times, and all captured in beautiful detail.

I do think with so many of the traditional arts and crafts dying out in
India, such a project in current times would be a great idea too.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Artists, you do have to market yourself

A lot of artists shy away from marketing, saying their main job is to create, and not get de-focussed by other activities. It would be good for all of us artists to know, that the great Da Vinci had to market his skills too. The faster all artists learn to market themselves, the better off they will be!

While applying for a position with the Duke of Milan, Da Vinci customized his letter to the Duke's requirements. Being an inventor, engineer, architect, and military strategist, he could pitch for these talents to be used for warfare. He did add at the end of the letter that he could paint, too!

A wooden model of the bridge

We know of Da Vinci's phenomenal capabilities as a designer and thinker. Many of his designs are still considered "too modern" for execution! In 1502, Da Vinci proposed the design of a bridge to the Sultan of Constantinople, top span the "Golden Horn" inlet in Istanbul. The bridge if built, at a length of 1201 feet and a width of 79 feet, would have been the longest in the world. But the Sultan balked, thinking such a project would be impossible to execute. 

The completed Da Vinci bridge
The proposed bridge also included a "pressed bow" of 790 feet length, and 141 feet high clearance for ships to pass. Like many of Leonardo's innovations, the original drawing was misplaced, but was found more than 400 years later in 1952. Vebjorn Sand, a Norwegian artist saw the drawing in 1996, and proposed that the Norwegian Public Roads Administration use the drawing. The Oslo Leonardo Bridge Project completed in October 2001, and is a monumental ode to the genius of Da Vinci. 

The phenomenally talented Leonardo da Vinci wrote to the Duke thus after finding out about the palace requirements, and pitching the right skills (the painting skills are mentioned last):

“Having, most illustrious lord, seen and considered the experiments of all those who pose as masters in the art of inventing instruments of war, and finding that their inventions differ in no way from those in common use, I am emboldened, without prejudice to anyone, to solicit an appointment of acquainting your Excellency with certain of my secrets. 

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci,
chalk drawing, 1512
1. I can construct bridges which are very light and strong and very portable, with which to pursue and defeat the enemy; and others more solid, which resist fire or assault, yet are easily removed and placed in position; and I can also burn and destroy those of the enemy.

2. In case of a siege I can cut off water from the trenches and make pontoons and scaling ladders and other similar contrivances.

3. If by reason of the elevation or the strength of its position a place cannot be bombarded, I can demolish every fortress if its foundations have not been set on stone.

4. I can also make a kind of cannon which is light and easy of transport, with which to hurl small stones like hail, and of which the smoke causes great terror to the enemy, so that they suffer heavy loss and confusion.

5. I can noiselessly construct to any prescribed point subterranean passages either straight or winding, passing if necessary underneath trenches or a river.

The original letter by Da Vinci,
pitching his skills
6. I can make armoured wagons carrying artillery, which shall break through the most serried ranks of the enemy, and so open a safe passage for his infantry.

7. If occasion should arise, I can construct cannon and mortars and light ordnance in shape both ornamental and useful and different from those in common use.

8. When it is impossible to use cannon I can supply in their stead catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other instruments of admirable efficiency not in general use—I short, as the occasion requires I can supply infinite means of attack and defense.

9. And if the fight should take place upon the sea I can construct many engines most suitable either for attack or defense and ships which can resist the fire of the heaviest cannon, and powders or weapons.

The last supper, Leonardo da Vinci,
Mural painting, 1495-1498

10. In time of peace, I believe that I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in the construction of buildings both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another.

 I can further execute sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, also in painting I can do as much as anyone else, whoever he may be.

Moreover, I would undertake the commission of the bronze horse, which shall endue with immortal glory and eternal honour the auspicious memory of your father and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

And if any of the aforesaid things should seem to anyone impossible or impracticable, I offer myself as ready to make trial of them in your park or in whatever place shall please your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility. 

Portrait of a lady, Leonardo da Vinci,
Oil on wood, 1490-1496
Leonardo Da Vinci

The employment did happen, and Da Vinci worked with the Duke for sixteen long years. He completed several important projects for the state, as well as many of his important paintings, including "The last Supper" for the Refectory of the Convent of Santa delle Grazi, Milan, and the luminous La Belle Ferroniere, said to be a portrait of Beatrice d'Este, wife of Ludvico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and Da Vinci's chief patron for all these years.

Well, even for such talents, employment was not certain, and Da Vinci worked pretty hard on the letter, his commissioned works and for state projects of Milan. So artists, you do have to use all your marketing skills!
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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The banker and the artist

Krishen Khanna was working with the Grindlays Bank in Mumbai, when he came in contact with an artist group of friends, and later became a part of the Progressive Arts Group. Largely a self-taught artist, he had strong ideas of his own what he wanted to paint and what he did not. He moonlighted for a long time, working weekdays at the Bank and painting on the weekends and in the evenings, before deciding to quit the Bank, and became a full time artist.

Untitled, Oil on canvas, by Krishen Khanna

He painted about whatever affected him: The partition of India that displaced human lives like rag dolls on a humongous scale; the band-wallahs or musicians who walked with the Baraatis, or the wedding guests, faceless men whom the guests would not spare a second glance at; the chai-dhaba the small tea-shop, where they were all young artists together: M F Hussia, F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee and he himself, where they drank gallons of tea, and talked of everything.

The last bite, Oil on canvas, by Krishen Khanna

Untitled by Krishen Khanna

Each of Krishen Khanna's works told a story. There was another reason I took a special interest in his art! My first job was as a banker (State Bank of India) and I always was an artist within as well, and I knew you could do many things at the same time, and at times you made choices. I was intrigued recently, to come across several stories outside India, of bankers-cum or bankers-turned artists. Obviously they interested me and I am sharing some of them here:

William Savage made his decision to turn into an artists when his finance firm Babcock & Brown closed shop. Before that he was a nattily dressed artist rather than a hungry, paint splattered one. He was in San Francisco, had being doing water colours, and had just sold his first painting, and there was hope. So when Babock & Brown closed down, he dived into full time art.


Bridge cafe by William Savage
Marko Remec joined Morgan Stanley after business school and was a banker for 25 years before turning full time sculptor.

For this work on a New York street, he combined steel dome safety mirrors and utility poles, to make a statement on urban paranoia and narcissism.

He had painted in college too, and was always an artist, as well as a banker.


"You are not the boss of me": Tree totem by Marko Remec

Martie Datu worked at a multinational bank and her father's investment firm, but now her work station looks very different. It is full of images from her childhood, and of happy children straddling her present background of skyscrapers, metros and urban parks.


Martie Datu's current work station

Evidently, for those of you straddling two boats or even three boats, it is fine; do what is right for you: you can take the plunge whenever.

Or keep managing a heady mix!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Suhas Roy and his mystical compositions

Artist Suhas Roy who passed away in Kolkatta earlier this month, at the age of 80, was known in the last few years primarily for his Radha series. Though Radha Rani has been worshipped as a goddess, a Devi, the most powerful association in our minds is of Radha as an embodiment of pure love and devotion to Shri Krishna.

Radha, Mixed media, 10 by 12 in.

The word Radha is said to have come from Aradha (worship or homage) and Aradhana (paying homage). The love of Radha for Krishna is eternal, spontaneous, and like Bhakti (or devotion). Suhas Roy's paintings of Radha try to capture this devotion, longing and Bhakti, and bring a mix of youth, innocence and a dream like quality, in the figures.

Dry pastel, 48 by 36 cm.

Suhas Roy studied at the Indian College of Arts and Draughtsmanship, Kolkatta, and also at the Ecole Superior des Beaux Arts, Paris. He had been the Head of Department of Painting, at Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan, till he retired.

Christ - 1, Conte on board, 20 by 30 in.

Suhas Roy travelled extensively in Europe, US and Japan, and was hugely impressed by the Great Masters, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Particularly the Pieta influenced Suhas Roy so much, that for several years, he sketched and painted his own versions of The Lamentation.

What is not known widely is that one of his paintings from his series at the time, "Through the Gospel", forms a part of the collection of The Vatican. Suhas Roy published a book of his paintings created during that period of personal journey called: "A Solitary Quest".

Christ, Oil on canvas, 56 by 41 cm.

Suhas Roy was born in Dhaka, and like many artists of his generation hit by partition of India, the loss stayed with him all his life. Several of his early compositions in water colours are inspired by the Bangladesh countryside.

A water colour

Suhas Roy will be remembered and missed for his mystical imagery, the wide range of textures and materials used, and for the simplicity of his compositions.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Durga Pooja art works

Why is the Durga Pooja like an exciting, cultural immersion and not confined to quiet prayers? Well, mostly because Ma Durga has so many incarnations and is an embodiment of so many things: she is the goddess of power or Shakti, and the cause of all past, present and future occurrences.

Ma Durga is the mother of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity; the mother of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, knowledge, learning, music and arts; the mother of Karthikeya, the god of war; and she is the mother of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles for all auspicious events.

"The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection." - Michelangelo

Temporary places called Pandals are set up to welcome and venerate the goddess and to make arrangements for devotees. The entrance to the Pandal or the gateway, the panels at the sides, the ceilings, and the floors are all composed and decorated to honour the divine. All of them serve as opportunities to artists to pay homage to Ma Durga.
A gateway

Atop the entrance to a Pandal

In a Pooja, we make offerings of all that is good and nourishing and beautiful in our lives: fruits and vegetables, grains, flowers, art and music and dance. The goddess is also showered with gifts of sarees and sweets.

Ceiling of a Pandal
In the Pandal, the idol or Protima of Ma Durga is accompanied by her children, their Vahans or vehicles and the Kala-Bou, a banana plant depicting the mother nature part of Durga.

The Owl, Vahana of Lakshmi, symbolizes observation and perception. The divine Swan, Vahana of Saraswati symbolizes purity and realization of knowledge. The Peacock, Vahana of Kartikeya, symbolizes beauty. The Mouse, Vahana of Ganesha symbolizes the Vighna or obstacles our mind create very much like the fickle and darting movements of a mouse, that have to be controlled by the mind.

A panel at the Pooja Pandal

Ma Durga herself being powerful, beautiful and radiant has the Lion as her Vahana. During Durga Puja, she is shown in her Avatar of Mahishasura or slayer of the half-buffalo, half-Asura or demon.

The devotees of Ma Durga come from all communities, but do take care to deck themselves in their best clothes and jewellery. Devotees go to the Pandal every morning for Pushpanjali, or offerings of flowers and leaves for the goddess. They go for the evening Arati, or lighting of lamps. 

The last day of Pooja is the Sindur Khela, when the goddess is bid farewell, till the next year with vermillion and sweets.

Over the years, Pooja Pandals have got more organized. Each locality has tried to differentiate itself. Some of them have themes for the Pooja, or take up causes. One New Delhi Pooja for example, wanted to draw attention to the dying jute industry. They got specially commissioned a Ma Durga idol made of jute, in addition to the normal clay one. 

While the clay idol was immersed in water in the usual ritual fashion called Bisarjan, the jute idol is being preserved. The organizers of this Pandal want the jute idol to have a place in a museum or an educational institution.


Pooja Pandal resembling the PAlais Garnier

Another New Delhi Pooja Pandal paid homage to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris. The entire Pandal was designed and put together over two months to resemble the Palais Garnier, or the National Opera House. 


A Kolkatta Pandal paid homage to the once ubiquitous black and yellow Hindustan Motors Ambassador taxis. The Pandal artists bought 15 taxis, 200 silencer pipes and 300 car doors for the purpose.  

The taxis were deconstructed and put together in art installations all around the Pandal.