Behind a seemingly serious veteran artist hides a naughty child and a philanthropist. Discovering some aspects of Anjolie Ela Menon's personality

Enter the veteran artist Anjolie Ela Menon's home at Nizamuddin East and your journey with art begins. The eyes shift from one wall to the other: M.F. Husain, Ram Kumar, Thota Vaikuntham, her own painted wooden cabinets yet it is no luxurious setting.

One moment, she is annoyed with the photographer for taking shots not to her liking, the next, the mother in her pats him on the back and says, “Have some tea and breakfast first, then work.”

The celebrated artist recalls her early days. “My father was a surgeon in the Army. We had a very happy life in cantonment areas. We lived almost all over — from Jabalpur to Moradabad, Lucknow, Madras. The bane of my childhood was that I must have moved 20 times, and as a married woman, 30 times. I am very happy that I have finally found a place — Delhi. It's my FRP — Final Resting Place. I don't want to move again.”

One wonders at the elements of nature — the trees, the earth, the crow — and the spectacular hues dominating most of her work. She owes it to her happy childhood . “I was a tomboy. I was always up on trees. Whenever my father would get a new house, we would rush to see how many trees it had. The cantonment houses were shabby but always full of trees. As soon as we would settle down my father would make tree houses wherever we lived. We would eat in the tree house. My mother loved taking us out on picnics very frequently,” she chuckles.

Lyrical quality

Anjolie's works have a lyrical quality due, no doubt to her eclectic education. “I had an American grandmother . She came to live with us after my mother died. I was 14 then. My grandmother was a native of Boston. They (the grandparents) were studying together. In 1905, she came to India to marry an Indian. My grandfather was the first Indian at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His first job was the electrification of the Kashmir Valley, and they went in 14 tongas to Kashmir. My grandmother brought us up. We had a very European upbringing. We were exposed to European classical music and art much more than we were exposed to orthodox Hindu influences. That came much later in my life, after I got married. My grandfather also belonged to the Brahmo Samaj so we never saw pujas or idol worship of any sort at home. I had a very Anglo-Saxon upbringing that way.”

Art crept into her life early. “When I went to Lawrence School, Lovedale, Tamil Nadu, my wonderful art teacher Sushil Mukherjee allowed me to paint in oil from the age of 12. Later, I got into JJ School of Art in Mumbai. With the arrogance of youth, I thought I knew it all. As a fresher when I got a bronze model, I started feeling bored. They would bring the same model the whole week which I would finish the first day, and rest of the days I would spend in the café and library. Meanwhile I got interested in theatre . My principal wanted to shift me to the third year directly, but it couldn't happen because of the constraints of a Government college. My parents insisted that I do a degree, so I carried on. Actually, I started in architecture but my Maths wasn't good, so I took art.”

Moving to Delhi opened new horizons. “I told my father I was bored of JJ. So, I took literature for my degree, more because Delhi those days (1957) didn't have an art college. But I continued to paint. My teachers in Miranda House were wonderful. They were all trained in Oxford or Cambridge. I made their portrait. Meanwhile, I also met M.F. Husain. He was the first person who designed my exhibition and invitation card.” Her father arranged a display area in the garden of the family's Lodi Estate home. “With jute and bamboo we hung up the paintings. It was two months before my exams.”

Husain had a studio in Nizamuddin. He gave her the freedom to use it. “He taught me that you don't need an easel and whole paraphernalia or studio to paint. He would say, ‘Just carry your bag, lean the canvas against any wall or sit on the floor and paint. Taking his advice, for years I used to paint in one corner of a house and it really helped me when were leading a nomadic life.”

Preferred France

Though Anjolie got admission in the London Art School and Slade School of Fine Art, she preferred to go to France. The reason is interesting. “Pupul Jayakar took me to the U.K. one year before I went to France. She introduced me to Edgar Hoffman. He had an amazing house called ‘Amazing Water' which is now a museum. There I stayed and painted my ‘Harlem' series. I came back and got a scholarship to go to France. Amazingly, the ambassador of France changed the whole rule to accommodate me in France's art college because the rule said that you should have a degree in art to get a scholarship in art in France.”

At 19, Anjolie was quite sure of herself. “I had made much of my two exhibitions. I had this notion that I was the new Amrita Shergil, or I am at the top of the art world.” In France, however, she says, “I came down with a crash. There were so many talented and brilliant people, I realised there were huge gaps in my education. I hadn't seen good films. My education was so Anglo-Saxon that the aggressive European culture just evaded us. And the revelation of the museum in France was overwhelming. So, at Atelier Fresque at the Ecole des Beaux Arts I learnt (to make a) fresco, which was tough. One had to climb the scaffolding and hang there for hours. But my climbing up trees in my childhood came in handy.” Finally she came back to India to marry her childhood sweetheart, Raja Menon. “We clearly waited for each other,” she gushes.

But Delhi gave her a tough time. Painting wasn't a great money spinner. She recalls, “There were times when I painted T-shirts for Rs.63. I had kids to send to good schools.” That's when the discourses of Swami Ranganathananda which emphasised that one shouldn't think of the fruits of hard work or be influenced by praise or censure, helped. “Once I did it, life became easy. As long as I was running after the market, it never came to me. When I stopped, it followed. Once, the doorbell rang. That was Kepu Gandhi. He offered me an exhibition. It was 1974. And by 1988, I had some 10 exhibitions.”

Taj commissioned her to work in Yemen and India. In Delhi she did up their haveli. She got contracts from Birla, created a Buddha mural in the Prime Minister's reception lounge at the Delhi airport…And so on. Five decades down the line, there are many hues still to discover.

Anjolie has been running an NGO named after her parents ‘Omar-ela' at Nizamuddin basti “totally” with her own money for the past 10 years. It offers tuition to students from class 1 to 12 in all subjects at a nominal fee and trains girls in stitching, tailoring and beauty care for free.

She is the first to do

(a) kitsch art work in 1988 and exhibit it at Jahangir Art Gallery and sell all of it which included objects like a refrigerator , cupboards and chairs including a Rajnikanth chair

(b) Moreno glass painting, which now Husain is also doing

(c) Computer digital painting in 1999. “I was also the very first to bring humour in my work (after Bhupen Khakkar) through kitsch but never got credit for it.”

Her mentors

Husain, Gaitonde, Pupul Jayakar

Just did a big work for Mumbai's international airport. To be inaugurated in July 2010.