‘I saw Delhi metamorphose into a dirty metropolis’

Veteran artist Anjolie Ela Menon  

The first Indian model to sashay down the ramp, an athlete and a tomboy who would bash up nasty eve teasers, a lover of classical music, veteran artist Anjolie Ela Menon relives her experiences in Delhi. Talking to Rana Siddiqui Zaman, she goes down the memory lane painting amazing vignettes on how Delhi transformed before her eyes.

With those mesmerising hooded eyes, and dishevelled hair, she opens the door. A sudden ray of light illuminates her face as she greets me with a warm smile.

As I follow her into the living room; I soak in the atmosphere of an artist’s home – a huge Ram Kumar painting and her own adorn the wall, an M.F Husain in a bed room, her painted furniture and a wall full of Russian and Greek icons. Her current abode, 2 Nizamuddin East, abuts the world heritage site of Humayun’s Tomb. The once arid lane is now a forest of trees.

Boasts the 74-year-old with a childlike chuckle: “We planted all these trees two decades ago.” And now she is enjoying the lush green canopy along the ancient wall. “When I speak of the Delhi that I have known for half-a-century, it will inevitably end up in ‘nostalgia’. For, the once beautiful city has now metamorphosed into an unplanned urban jungle where almost everything new is ugly,” she says.

“The first memories of my early childhood are of Delhi Cantonment where my father was a surgeon in the military hospital. Sixty-five years later, as with many cantonments, it remains the last bastion of calm, orderly cleanliness where old trees still stand, bugles sound in the distance and somewhat run-down but friendly bungalows bear testimony to an age that was.”

“I was lucky that I was brought up in Lutyens’ Delhi, because in the mid ’50s, the family moved for a year to my aunt’s house on 12, Willingdon Crescent. My uncle, Rashid Ali Baig, was then Chief of Protocol. The vast estate of Rashtrapati Bhavan was open to us to cycle about and we swam in its wonderful swimming pool. This house was later to be occupied by Mrs. Indira Gandhi and it was while she lived here that Sanjay died.”

“In those days the roads were empty and we could ride our horses down the tree-lined avenues or explore the city on our bicycles.” Coca Cola came to India in 1959 and Anjolie and her gang of friends would “cycle down from Baroda House to Rajghat for one Coca Cola. It used to come for four annas.”

Unsafe then, unsafe now

“Since 1957, when I was 17, Delhi has not changed at all in one respect – eve teasing. It was as unsafe then as it is now. We used to carry safety pins, bottles and pens to defend ourselves against the louts, both young and old. Men on Delhi streets are still crass, crude, ill-behaved and horrible”. Anjolie claims to have beaten up boys, followed them, grabbed them by their hair and slapped them when they misbehaved. For this tomboy from Miranda House nothing was impossible.

71, Lodi Estate, which is now INTACH office, used to be her home while she was in college. Khan Market then was a shabby homely place replete with book stores and small shops. “We would walk around Lodhi Gardens. That’s where my husband (Raja Menon) proposed to me and many years later it was here my son proposed to his wife.” In 1958, it was at that house M.F. Husain organised his first exhibition of 53 works – making bamboo stands in the garden and also designed the invitation cards. The most expensive painting was sold for Rs.300!

On art and patrons

In the early ’60s, the cultural life of Delhi was charmingly amateurish. Charles Fabri, presided over the art scene. Karl Khandelavala, Helen Chamanlal, the sisters of Amrita Shergill, Sir Malcom Macdonald, the British High Commissioner, and the dashing Count Ostorov were among those who formed a small coterie of art lovers.

Husain then had a studio in Nizamuddin West. “Whenever he went out of town, he would give the keys to me so I could use the studio. He often took us youngsters to eat at Flora in Jama Masjid as we were always hungry. Sir Malcom would invite our gang to his house for tea and rides in his vintage Rolls, which we were given turns to drive much to the annoyance of his chauffeur! He bought some of my first paintings,” recalls the artist who was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2000.

In those days the works of Amrita Shergill were hung permanently at the National Gallery of Modern Art. Ms. Menon would hang out there and see her works for long hours. “Though I spent so much time with Husain and others, it was Amrita who influenced me the most.” Those who have studied her work seriously can see the influence especially in the heady mix of dark and light tones that reflect the sombre moods in several of her works.

“Pupul Jayakar now the czarina of culture had taken me under her wings and she was a strong influence in my life”.

On Natwar Singh

Ms. Menon recalled: “Our gang also hung out at the Delhi Gymkhana Club and remember some of the pranks we played. Natwar Singh used to live at the Gymkhana as a young man and three of us friends once pushed the impeccably dressed Natwar into the pool. He never forgave me for many years, but I have to say that he was one of the few young people who actually bought a painting on his meagre government salary”.

Post-Independence a small band of dedicated women took it upon themselves to preserve and develop handicrafts. “People like Shona Ray and Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay brought back handloom in people’s life. In 1959, Shona Ray held the first fashion show in Handloom House. And Ms. Menon modelled the saris. “I wore saris from Orissa and other States,” her eyes lit up, as recalled how the show went to New York. “We were the first to go in Air India’s inaugural flight from India to New York!”

72, Lodi Estate, which is now Alliance Francaise, was a bungalow the Menons occupied when her husband became Admiral. “When they were transforming it to Alliance, I requested them not to touch the huge tree, which is at the centre of it. We loved this tree. They honoured my word and I am glad to see that they shaped the building around the tree (it goes up cutting across stairs).”

The Delhi of today, in no way resembles the Delhi that Ms. Menon grew up in. She laments that “it has metamorphosed from a charming small town atmosphere into a vast, often disorderly, polluted, crowded and dirty metropolis; its beauty restricted to the tree-lined avenues of Lutyens’ Delhi.”

“Yet there is a new energy, a buzz, a young optimism in the prevailing chaos, which gives us hope,” concludes Ms. Menon, who was honoured with the Life Time Achievement Award by the Delhi Government last year.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 10:42:11 PM |

Next Story