Stories from the studio

A PLACE OF PRAYER Arpana Caur at her studio in New Delhi  

Artist: Arpana Caur

City: Delhi

For any artist the studio is not merely a place to work but more than that as it inspires them to create an original piece of work reflecting their thoughts they wish to share with others. Arpana Caur, the renowned self-taught painter places her studio at home at a higher pedestal. “It is a place of prayer as art for all artists is their religion.” Calling it a sanctuary, she goes on to add that the place of refuge is different in one aspect. “Here the outer world casts its shadows everyday in different forms. They could be innumerable migrant beggars on the traffic light every kilometre of the city or the migrant labourers living in ramshackle tents in pitiable conditions while huge malls are coming up. It could also be the communal tensions in society or stresses between neighbours. For instance the 1984 anti-Sikh riots entered after over 3006 were killed in Delhi and I did the series of paintings called ‘The World Goes On’ to get over the pain of what I saw with my eyes. The studio and these works acted as a catharsis.”

Access to Caur’s studio is not limited to humankind and its affairs only. “The innumerable trees that had fallen prey to urban greed forced me to approach the Green Tribunal. The trees whose survival I have fought for in the Siri Fort area during the Commonwealth Games can be seen on the canvas ‘Prakriti’.” According to her, everything concerning her as a human being enters the studio space with a loud voice. Loud voice? “Yes, because these are loud times that we live in,” she quips.

Housing a massive collection of books on art, sculpture, miniature painting traditions among others, the studio is very dear to Caur as it was built by her mother Ajeet Cour, the well known author. Earlier working in a cramped space that she shared with others in Garhi used to force her to take the large canvases she worked on outdoors to view them. “Keeping my chair a few feet away, I would ponder what to do next because painting is not just rubbing paint but also deep contemplation.”

Negating the view that change of place affects creativity, Caur stresses that the real studio exists within an artist. “It is a journey undertaken inside. Human being is what Kabir described a little vessel with seven seas and nine lakh stars very much capable of questioning.” Her long walks at different Delhi monuments also inspire her. “The place, people and situations remain etched in my mind.”

An early morning creator, Caur feels at home with the numerous birds who visit her terrace studio to feed on bajra and quench their thirst including one or two rare peacocks. On a lighter note, Caur reveals that she does not attend to telephone calls while working. “Highly allergic to mobile phones, I do not posses one and have the answering machine to take care of incoming calls.”


Artist: R.B. Bhaskaran

City: Chennai

It’s just past noon. I park my car in R.B. Bhaskaran’s garage sandwiched between his two houses in Pallavaram.

One is a small apartment built with “the minimum earning of a teacher at the Government College of Fine Arts”, the other, a massive one-storeyed “dream” built after his retirement in 2000. It triples as a studio, gallery and house.

While he stays in the latter, his five decades of work find an impartial residence in both.

Dressed in a black kurta and white trousers on a sunny afternoon, he steps out to usher me in. A paint-smudged easel sits unattended on the the porch, and a grey cat sits gracefully by its foot. This one might soon meow its way into one of Bhaskaran’s canvases; many have in the past. Many in the art world know him as the Cat Man.

We enter a modest room stuffed to the gunnels with fat half-squeezed tubes of paint, fatter bottles of colours, brushes as thin as a pencil to as fat as a weasel’s tail, and all sizes in between. This is the work studio of one of the most popular contemporary artists of India, and the former chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi. Amidst this chaos, is a striking pair of eyes staring at us; it hasn’t yet found a face, dark red strokes that still do not know their fate... Bhaskaran picks a stack of half-complete canvases and spreads them on the floor one by one, like how plantain leaves are spread for lunch. He shakes his head with a hint of frustration, and says, “I start with one, then find myself stuck midway. So I set it aside and start a new one. Now there are countless canvases to complete. Where is the time?”

It’s past 2 p.m., but lunch can wait. Bhaskaran carefully selects from a set of brushes, like a dentist would pick his tool, dips it into tar-black paint, and draws a ruler-straight line on a half-finished painting of a couple. “There is a trick to get it ‘that’ straight,” he says, and demonstrates it again, just the way he would have during his teaching career that spanned from 1969 to 2000. Even as he paints, he talks about his heydays in the 1960s and 70s, when he, along with artists like V. Viswanathan, K.V. Haridasan, C. Dakshinamurthy and others, would travel far and wide with a bundle of paintings and return with zero sale. “But the drive kept us going,” he says.

The door from the studio leads into a full-fledged gallery with paintings big and small floating in pools of yellow light. His most recent work, featuring a cat, rests on the floor — the smell of linseed oil and varnish still fresh. Bhaskaran mulls over what to replace it with. The replaced one goes inside one of the two storage areas, which includes his paintings, prints, writings, catalogues and books that he has illustrated for. “No gallery can afford all these works together. This is an important place. My works are secure here, and when I am gone, I feel at peace to know that my works will continue to live here,” he says.


Artist: Shreyas Karle

City: Mumbai

In the northern suburb of Borivali, a rare patch of greenery provides the backdrop to artist Shreyas Karle’s residence, personal practice and CONA, a residency and pedagogical centre that he runs along with his wife, artist Hemali Bhuta (who also works from the same space).

If this seems crowded, Karle tells us the last time he worked alone was before he went to M.S. University, Baroda, for his Masters.

Known for his oddball representations of the ordinary, 35-year-old Karle has never been a fan of the detached nature of studio practice, which he believes is a frequent suggestion given to young artists, so they may look at art in a more transcendental way. “After giving this yogic-penance-art-soul-liberating moment a shot, it dawned upon me that the visual language work is the exact opposite of what I was forcing myself to do,” he says. He realised that his work, which focusses on exploring the trivial and everyday, would need more interactions than what solitary practice would provide.

This worked entirely too well for Karle, whose decision to set up an ‘open plan’ practice was partially predicated on Mumbai’s temperamental rent hikes.

Before establishing CONA, Karle and Bhuta and a few fellow artists, illustrators, designers and filmmakers rented a studio space together.

For Karle, this began the blurring of lines between individual studio space and collective working area, a situation in which his practice thrives. He explains, “There is a thin line between private and public. Our individual practices, though having different visual outputs, spring from a mutual understanding of visual language and its necessity to evolve as a collective trajectory.”

The resulting work also becomes a critique of the visual language and its relation to the present. With the addition of CONA to their lives, where they not only provide residency but also mentor young artists from varied backgrounds, Karle’s studio is more classroom and college canteen adda, where ideas are discussed, and information, shared.

“There is a realisation that one’s work is not an individual treasure, but rather a contribution of the process to the larger definition of the language.”


Artist: S.G. Vasudev

City: Bangalore

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s resonant voice wafts through the air. In the chaos and heat outside, 71, ST Bed Layout in Koramangala, appears to be nothing less than an oasis. This is the abode of one of the most eminent artists of our times, S.G. Vasudev.

As we climb the stairs to reach his studio on the second floor, Vasudev gives credit to architect Edgar Demello for designing the house 20 years ago. “It was not a big site. We needed rooms for ourselves and the kids,” he recalls.

Vasudev chooses his music with just as much concern as he chooses colours depending on his mood and the painting. It ranges from Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Sanjay Subrahmanyan to Kishori Amonkar and Gangubai Hangal. Today, it’s an album called Legends by Joshi. “Music has lent so much intensity to my art. I was always fond of music, but then about five-six years ago, I began to see it. I am not a music critic, but I analyse how notes go high and low, and why the singer does what he does,” says Vasudev.

A painting from his well-known series ‘Rhapsody’ is underway. Up on the easel, white dominates the canvas with figures emerging in hues of green. It appears as if someone has cleared the mist for these quasi-abstract figures to be visible. A founder-member of Cholamandal Artists’ Village, his art is rooted in the ethos of Indian culture.

Old sketch books lie around. While painting a new work, Vasudev may refer back to them any time. It could be a sketch, a painting, a tapestry or copper engravings.

He reveals he may not paint every day, but needs that space and time of six to eight hours to read, listen to music and think, six days a week. Evenings and Sundays are reserved for family get-togethers, events and meetings. “I have to come to my studio every morning after breakfast and do something. The day I don’t do anything, Adiga’s line ‘Yenadru maditiru, tanna sumane irbedu’ (Do something brother don’t sit idle) hits me.”

The studio houses a lot of Vasudev’s old works as well. As the senior artist shows us works from his various series, ‘Achala’, ‘Theatre of Life’, and ‘Rhapsody’ — hung on the unplastered walls and a few stacked against the wall — you can trace the evolution of his art.

But how come so many empty-framed canvases? “My framer is from Chennai and he can’t come very often. So whenever he comes, I tell him to fix everything. When I paint, I take out the frames. It is very simple. My driver does it, and once the painting is done, we fix it back.”


Artist: Babu Xavier

City: Trivandrum

Pink is Babu Xavier’s favourite colour. Sure enough, pink elephants greet visitors to his paint-splattered, sunny studio on the first floor of his house, just a stone’s throw away from the beach resort of Kovalam. In this narrow lane, through which a two-wheeler can scarcely squeeze through, one can hear the wind in the leaves and get a whiff of fish frying in neighbours’ houses.

Babu’s creative space, like his studio, is a curious study in contrasts. In the early Eighties, when Babu was making a splash in the art world, he decided to shift to the backwaters. Ignoring the advice of well-wishers who warned him that he would not be doing himself any good by moving away from the art markets in the metros, he settled in Kovalam. Technology and his distinctive art brought the world to his doorstep.

A rather steep staircase takes visitors to a flower-filled terrace that leads to Babu’s studio and den. Daubs and streaks of acrylic paint on the cement floor of the terrace mark a trail to the artist’s workspace. “Acrylic paints dry quickly and that is why there is paint all over the floor and easel. Moreover, I don’t always use the brush. Sometimes, I pour or splash the paint for the background of my works,” explains the artist.

His artistic vigour is apparent on the paint-covered easel and wooden parquet floor. A tall, narrow cupboard on one side of the easel holds jars of paints, opened and used, brushes andrags cover a table on the other side. Canvases of different sizes are stacked all around the room.

His simple whitewashed walls are a delightful contrast to his bright art works. “Pink is not a colour that is used in traditional Indian art. However, I am not shackled by rules and strictures regarding style, colours and combinations,” he says.

Sunlight that filters in through the leaves streams in through windows, and more than six tubelights are positioned on the ceiling just above his easel. “That is because most of my painting is done at night when it is quiet. During the day, I read a lot, watch television and listen to music,” says the 56-year-old artist.

The only cane chair in the room is for visitors who come to meet the artist, as he rarely leaves Kovalam. Even M.F. Husain visited him back in 1999. And it is to this room that the world comes calling.


Artist: Zakkir Hussain

City: Kochi

The indigo coloured 1942 Sathar Building on Bazaar Road is conspicuous by its colour. It is also known for harbouring artist, Zakkir Hussian’s studio, a space he defines as one where he arranges metaphors. Zakkir is the thinking artist, involved in continuously processing in his mind any cue that could originate in stirring good prose (he’s currently reading Clarice Lispector) or something as trite as a turpentine spill on his work table. He likes to refer to his studio as a laboratory and himself as a receptacle where he mutates thoughts and conducts experiments.

But unlike a clinical and impersonal lab Zakkir’s space bears his stamp. It is pragmatic and matter-of-fact.

A large room, the studio has four east-facing windows that flood in light. A small passage runs alongside overlooking a drum yard. A continuous sound of metal work is background score. Zakkir seems unmindful. He is immersed in what he calls his “compositions”. On one wall hangs, a triptych, Prolonged Hours of Disguised Situations, showcased in the first edition of the Kochi Biennale and on the other is a work in progress, Abandoned Citizens.

“My art did not begin one fine morning. It is a long process. People are rejecting this kind of process but I believe it is important. An artists’ language is prime,” he says. Zakkir recalls his initiation into art, sketching actor Prem Nazir on paper diligently. Later he was introduced to political thought by his friend at Maharaja’s college. Art and political consciousness fused finally into his works but Zakkir is categoric that he is not a political artist and not a Left artist as made out to be. “The red colour that I use is often misinterpreted. Red is a life giving colour but blood on the street is something quite different,” says Zakkir who has a disciplined approach to work. He draws and paints daily and works steadily from 10 in the morning to 5 in the evening. In the studio are books- fiction and non fiction- strewn carelessly; there are drawing books and sketches, conceptual notes lying on two centre tables. On the terracotta floor is a preliminary work, taking shape. Oil paints, acrylic tins, bottles of oil, watercolours, pastels and crayons, brushes of different sizes are spread around. Though there is disarray there is a method to it that Zakkir is comfortable with. An etching press, which he carted from Baroda when he returned in 2000 after his Master’s Degree, lies unused. Does he take a nap in the afternoons in the space that bears no sign of rest? Sometimes he does but mostly he is toiling away translating his inspirations into artistic interpretations. “This space is a part of my development,” he says. And for some reason the absence of an easel, commonly associated with an artist, is not felt.

Priyadershini S.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 6:22:50 AM |

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