Excerpts from an interview with Juliet Reynolds
By The Sunflower Collective
Juliet Reynolds, well-known art critic and wife of the Hungryalist painter, Anil Karanjai, met the editors of the Sunflower Collective at her Jor Bagh residence recently for a chat about her husband and his art, the art-world of India in general, and the Leftist politics and its understanding of art. The conversation started with a discussion about a previous post on TSC describing Karanjai as “embittered” towards the end of his life. This is part one of a three part series.
Juliet Reynolds: I was just a bit taken aback by the word ‘embittered’. And I got your point; you clarified it. Anil’s…wasn’t so much embitterment.
Abhimanyu Singh: I understand.
JR: In the Malay interview, that word comes up again. It hit me…
AS: Has Malay da used the word?
Goirick Brahmachari: I think one of the questions had it…
AS: Actually, that’s my understanding from reading the book (Finding Neema). I don’t put a negative value to bitterness. I like Bob Dylan; his songs are bitter. I think any reasonable person will feel bitter with this world because it is unfair.
JR: Bitterness was never really in Anil’s character. He could be very fiery; he would express a lot of rage and anger. But he also had a very soft, quiet side; he would feel sad about it then. There was a sad side to Anil… (almost) melancholic. He would feel deep sadness about things that had gone wrong…and then at times, he’d be furious. Maybe, in a way, there was an element of bitterness…
GB (to AS): I think you had meant to say that his experience was bitter…
GB: Not that as a man he was bitter.
JR: Ok, we clarified it now.
AS: He had taken to painting landscapes which were not considered highly in terms of concept.
JR: For him, landscapes were his own rebellion against mainstream art, which was more and more imitating the trends in the West; he always felt strongly about that…art going into post-modernism, installation, he refused to do it.
AS: What is your view on it?
JR: Very rarely have I seen anything (of this sort) which struck a chord in me…emotional or intellectual. Recently, I was at the Royal Academy in London and I saw Ai Weiwei’s work and it was mostly installations. I was skeptical at first… because he is critical of the Communist regime so the West is making him very big…but I recognised that the man really has something, he has originality. Anish Kapoor is a midget in front of him, frankly.
AS: You don’t care much for his work?
JR: No. Highly over-rated.
AS: And Subodh Gupta?
JR: Also highly over-rated. Ridiculous. And it is not particularly new exhibiting bartan and garbage …even people like Vivan Sundaram, from an older generation, a really well-trained, very skillful artist, even he has piled up garbage at the Lalit Kala Akademi.
AS: Do you think identity is being peddled in the name of art?
JR: Certainly, I think there is tokenism. Anil was not only against it … from deep inside his core, he could not do (what others were doing). It did not come from within. If his art did not come from somewhere deep inside him, he wasn’t going to do it.
There were many aspects to his painting landscapes. One was going against the mainstream. But he never protested for the sake of it. He was drawn to landscapes because he liked going into nature. He got a great feeling of solace and comfort from it. There is a film on him…
GB: Which was shown at the Sahitya Akademi?
JR: Yes, and he talks of spiritual loneliness in it. He wasn’t religious though. So that connection with nature he felt. He also wanted to give a contemporary, modern language to landscape while not straying too far from realism. That got him into a lot of trouble. Some called it calendar art. Anil looked at calendar art. He wanted to bridge the gap between high art and low art, to communicate with people. He was not interested in painting only for the elite. He wanted to communicate with as wide a public as possible… (Of course) no artist is going to produce a masterpiece every time. It takes trial and error, experimentation. That happens to every artist. But everywhere his detractors would be saying “aah”, “ooh”…“look at him, he’s painting Lodhi Gardens.” Lodhi Gardens was the closest place where he could be in nature. Like Cézanne, he was exploring the forms of nature, something much deeper, something more rooted; like Cézanne painted that mountain in Southern France (Mont Sainte Victoire) hundreds of times, looking for something, that feeling he would get standing in front of it, how could he capture that feeling?
AS: Do you think he was protesting against the diktats of the Progressive movement and its emphasis on social realism?
JR: He knew about the Modern masters and paid homage to them in his early works. But he was not very influenced by any one artist. Maybe in his early years he liked the old master, Hieronymus Bosch…To be a Modernist, your work had to be full of contortions and distortions; he was also turning his back on that. But it wasn’t just for the sake of it, it was because he felt it also.
GB: It was more organic…
AS/ GB: Tell us about his politics?
JR: The Hungry Generation were anarchists, nihilsts. But Anil did not share that; from a very early stage, he was associated with the Left, the far-Left. I think he became a cadre of one of the mainstream Marxist parties also but they told him that he should wear dirty shoes when going to the people, that he should fill up these forms if he wanted to be promoted up the hierarchy, so he told them to take a running jump.
AS: So he did not favour their dogma and pretences?
JR: Oh no no! Never! But when the revolutionary movement was going on…
AS: You mean the Naxal movement?
JR: Yeah…He wasn’t in Bengal at that time but he would go to Calcutta…. Also, there were student movements going on in Benaras, he was involved in all that. You couldn’t just define him narrowly. Anything which was questioning the status quo, something with solid foundation that could overthrow the status quo, anything of that kind had his support.
To come to Malay, they did not really share politics. Anil used to tell me that he did not really share their politics, anarchism and all that…it was because of the anti-establishment stance that he was part of the movement. And also, the energy and their creativity. He joined them for that. He was a bit at odds with their politics, although not in any major kind of way. But he stuck to them because the Hungry Generation experience for Anil was life-changing. I never realised until much later how much he missed it. In fact, Malay came here once, just once…
GB: In fact, he told me about you and that’s how we got in touch.
JR: Anil talked a lot about Malay after that and how much the movement had meant to him. Anil and Karuna (Nidhan, another Hungryalist painter) were in Benaras at that time, with flower children and hippies…
GB: And the student politics…
JR: Yes, and I don’t know why the Hungry Generation fell apart, maybe there were ego problems…
GB: More than that, I think there were mass-arrests and the government…
JR: …Cracked down on them. But there were some differences between them, between Malay and others…
GB: There are.
The interview was first published on The Sunflower Collective on 12/31/15. Read the full interview here.
The Sunflower Collective is a blogzine based in India that researches on and translates The Beats and The Hungry Generation poets. It also publishes contemporary poetry from around the world.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.