In Chennai for a show, senior artist Sakti Burman explains how straddling two worlds has enriched his work

His manners are charmingly old-world, his accent Bengali with a quaint French inflection.

Much like his world-renowned paintings and lithographs, Sakti Burman in person exudes a gentle, all-encompassing benevolence towards the world with all its vagaries, and a touchingly childlike enthusiasm for what it has to offer.

For instance, he tells me about going to some temples near Mahabalipuram during an earlier visit to Chennai, and how his half-French daughter was not allowed in, even though she said, ‘I'm a Hindu!'.”

There's no anger or annoyance at the recollection; he just muses, “Where the rules come from, nobody knows; they just go on.”

Fascinated by India

Although Sakti has lived in France since the mid-1950s, his fascination with Indian culture and mythology haven't waned.

“All our deities have such human qualities — they fall in love, they get angry. Shiva destroyed the whole world because his wife was insulted,” says the artist who was recently in Chennai for the opening of his exhibition of limited-edition serigraphs, ‘The Complete Collection', at Apparao Galleries.

“Our mythology isn't dead — the images of Durga or Krishna are living with us, a part of our lives.”

And, that's how these deities appear in his whimsical, dreamy paintings — in the midst of regular mortals, juxtaposed against children playing in shorts, fruit-bearing trees, lions, owls and even perhaps the occasional giraffe.

“Mythology takes us to another world, where our imagination likes to play, where we find our childhood, and that's the world I try to create in my work,” he says.

That is the world art lovers have fallen in love with over generations — an Eden-like world of endless bounty, a Peter Pan-like universe of incorruptible innocence, a place where fantasy meets reality, seamlessly.

He points to a painting behind him. “There, in the background, are the fields and mountains of my village in France, and here is Noah's Ark, as though it was alive, posing for me,” he says, adding with a smile: “You may say ‘why would Noah's Ark be there?' I would say, ‘Why not?'”

Many inspirations

Why not indeed. After all, this is an artist who was inspired equally by Cubist and Surrealist movements as a student in France in the 1950s, and by the art in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora during a visit in the 1960s, the folk traditions of his native Calcutta and dilapidated fresco murals he saw in Pisa, Italy.

“I took my memories of Indian culture with me and absorbed the mythology of the places I lived in and visited,” he says.

Over the years, his experiments in texture and style have lent a gorgeous, old-world ‘marbleised' look to his oils and watercolours, a look considered unique to him.

And, his experiments in lithography and now serigraphy — the art of creating handmade, limited edition prints of paintings — have made these unique works accessible to more people.

“They have helped me go to more art lovers' homes as they're much more affordable,” he explains.

“I work very hard but don't produce more that 14 or 18 paintings a year. This way, 140 to 150 prints could be made of each painting.”

The current exhibition at Apparao Galleries is a one-of-a-kind retrospective of Sakti's work — limited edition prints of 24 representative paintings put together by Lavesh Jagasia of The Serigraph Studio in Mumbai over the last six years.

“I look around and see 20-25 years of work together,” says Sakti, adding thoughtfully, “I think if had stayed in India, or if I had been born instead in France, I wouldn't have created the same paintings — Durga juxtaposed with Noah's Ark.”

The exhibition is on until February 27.