Sanjay Ashtaputre’s is a long journey with every medium of art contributing to his evolution as an artist.

Sanjay Ashtaputre’s modest studio comes alive in a tapestry of colours from his paintings, some carefully mounted on the walls and the others stacked alongside. The centrepiece is his yet unfinished work of a young woman lost in meditative thoughts. Sanjay uses strokes of black, leaving large white spaces and adds a hint of mustard yellow. This painting will be a permanent exhibit at a new art gallery in town. “The gallery is colourful and this black and white work, I hope, will give it some relief,” says the artist.

The cosy apartment-studio in Narayanguda is a study of the artist’s career over three decades. Ashtaputre and his wife Daya have documented everything, from old comics he has illustrated to his paintings in watercolours, charcoal, acrylic and oil-on-canvas works.

Ashtaputre studied at GD Art, Govt School of Art, Aurangabad, got hired as an illustrator in an ad agency and came to Hyderabad. “I wanted to go to Mumbai, but my cousin was working as an illustrator in Hyderabad and my parents felt it would be good for me to get a foothold here before moving to a bigger city,” he says. That was in 1978. Ashtaputre spoke Marathi, his Hindi wasn’t fluent and he knew only a few words in English. “In those days, you could study fine arts soon after X Standard. I studied in a Marathi medium school,” he adds.

Showing us one of his old illustrations, he says, “Hyderabad was home to a number of nationally-known ad agencies in the 80s, many of which have shut shop now. Illustrators had good scope, since not everything was computerised and photography was also a luxury.”

He faithfully illustrated to the briefs given by the art director of the ad agency he worked for. The regular income helped, but soon he tired of the monotonous work. “I hardly worked there for six months. I quit and worked as a freelancer for five to six years,” he says. Commercial advertising jobs of illustrations, screen printing and signboards helped him make ends meet. “I painted portraits and did restoration work of old paintings,” he adds. Ashtaputre used all his spare time to learn painting. He observed works of renowned artists and honed his skill.

Incidentally, Ashtaputre’s wife Daya, who was his junior in college, was a student of painting. “She is still my first critic,” smiles Ashtaputre. Daya is a skilled photographer and most brochures of his art series have photographs shot by her.

Ashtaputre started off with figurative paintings. His first exhibition in Hyderabad was at the now non-existent Koratkar Art Gallery, Nampally, in 1985, followed by another one at Kalamandir, Begumpet.

With each new series, he felt the urge to push the boundaries. In due course, the realistic figurative paintings gave way to abstract distortions. His Couple series (2010) shows a young couple in love, lost in embrace unmindful of the world around them. The colours and emotions speak volumes while the postures convey anatomical distortion. “Composition and a beautiful visual was priority to me in this series; not the anatomical perfection,” Ashtaputre explains, pointing at the heads bent unnaturally at right angles. The placement of the eye and nose are starkly asymmetrical.

Ashtaputre was inspired by many masters — M.F. Husain, V. Gaitonde, Narayan Shridhar Bendre and Ganesh Pyne to name a few. Ashtaputre himself has been a pillar of support to budding artists and the now established names like Sachin Jaltare and Vinayak hold him in high esteem.

His illustrious career was punctuated with a personal setback in early 2000s. He couldn’t put his brush on canvas while mourning the loss of a loved one. “For five years, I was unable to paint,” he says. Ashtaputre found solace in Sitar. He trained under Pt. Atmaram Sharma and was part of annual Sitar festival at Thyagaraja Gana Sabha and till date, looks forward to meeting fellow musicians at Gurwar Mandal. “Daya and I are music lovers, both Hindustani classical and old film music. We start our day by tuning into old melodies at 6.30 a.m.,” he says. Naushad, Madan Mohan and O.P. Nayyar are some of their favourites. “I remember the tunes but tend to forget the words. She is good with lyrics,” he adds.

Ashtaputre spends most of his time at his studio-cum-residence. A dead trunk of a tree felled at Ram Koti occupies a pride of place. The intricate furrows on the bark are all natural, he says. “I thought of working on this trunk but then I didn’t want to tamper with a natural creation,” says the artist.

He is happy to have dabbled with different media in his long innings. Illustrations, screen printing, signage, murals and paintings have all been part of the learning curve, he says. “Some artists feel apprehensive about changing their medium or style, being unsure if the art works will still find takers. I paint for myself; my paintings are an expression of my thoughts. If they do well commercially, it’s an advantage,” he says.

At one point, he took a break from colours and did a charcoal series titled ‘Malkauns’ (2007). Charcoal is a challenging medium, he explains, “There is no scope to erase and re-do. A small blotch can spoil all the hard work.”

A delightful yet taxing work he likes to recall is the mural he did on a gallery ceiling at Salar Jung Museum. “You can’t move back a few steps, gaze at your work and go back to do something different while painting on a ceiling. I was perched up and lying horizontal while painting. My wife was standing below; she would look through the net perforations and tell me where I am going wrong,” he laughs. Ashtaputre and Daya regale us with more such anecdotes over a piping hot cup of chai. Theirs is a bond strengthened by art.

Raga and charcoal

In 2007, Sanjay Ashtaputre did a charcoal series titled ‘Malkauns’ named after Hindustani rag Malkauns. “This is a raga of romance and gives an expression to emotions such as devotion, romance and bliss,” he explains. So impressed was poet and filmmaker Gulzar by this series that he penned a verse appreciating Ashtaputre’s work.

From within

For a theme-based contest on the influence of satellite television, Ashtaputre painted the famed bamboo/straw umbrellas of Varanasi ghats. He made his point by turning the umbrellas skywards, resembling dish antennas. Years later, when Hyderabad was shattered by bomb blasts, he painted a lone cycle with smears of blood in a market place. Barring such occasional works borne out of current affairs, Ashtaputre’s paintings are mostly drawn from observations from the past, joy and sorrow from his own personal moments.

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