Colours of Life
Her Lajpat Nagar bungalow in the heart of the country’s capital is quiet on a hot afternoon when I step out of my vehicle to be greeted by her durban. He ushers me into its oh-so welcoming cool environs and I wait for the eminent filmmaker-turned artist to come in from the upper floors. With over two decades of experience in the creative field, she has spearheaded several national and international award-winning programmes like Namaste India, Rajasthan A Colourful Legacy, The Konyak of Nagaland, The Maharaja of Jodhpur – The Legacy Lives on…, Shamans of the Himalayas and more. Within a few minutes Anu Malhotra swishes into the hall, exuding her customary warmth, calling for some glasses of cool coconut water and nimbu paani….
Almost every room of the home is, as I rewind to my previous visit here, filled with canvases of all sizes and from various artists – Malhotra’s work too finds its own place on the walls across her multi-storeyed abode. We walk up the flights of stairs to the first floor and then to the studio on the terrace – I pause frequently to take a closer, appreciative look at the artefacts and artworks that dot the passage and the walls. It is clearly the home of a creative mind – an imagination that revels in a host of colours and palettes and delights in the visual.
Ensconced first in the hall and later in her studio – where the floor is liberally hued with bright colours – we chat about her new show and her creative journey so far. Malhotra is looking forward to Hue-Borne, her solo show that will showcase in New Delhi in September. Hue-Borne, in which she will be exhibiting approximately 30 medium to large canvases, will be inaugurated at an event where the chief guest will be His Highness Maharaja of Jodhpur. Interestingly, all the proceeds of the sales of her work will be going to Video Volunteers, an NGO based in Goa.
When I ask her about its nomenclature, she replies, “I was reading an article which spoke about ‘multi-hyphenated’ women – women who work in multiple mediums. They are artists, film-makers, singers who do several things. That is one reason I picked the hyphenated title because for me that has always been an issue, not with me, but with the outside world that did not know how to perceive me. Is she a film-maker? Is she an artist? Is she a producer? Is she an anchor? These were questions that were asked when I moved into photography and did Soul Survivors. I went from being a director of television to doing more serious documentaries. But, for me photography was a natural extension of what I was doing earlier. Similarly, my working with canvases and colours is another extension of my personality. One day I just got an urge to paint. I was in Mumbai and did my first canvas there. I opened a drawer and saw my nephew’s drawing books. Before I knew it, the book got filled up. Then I wanted to experiment with oils and did a whole series with them. This allowed me to express a lot of things which I couldn’t earlier as I was dealing with factual things.”
So, after years of exploring the varietal outdoors, Malhotra seems to have turned her eyes inwards to express a different kind of muse. “Absolutely,” she affirms. “In hindsight, I can say that I actually felt very sick as well as I had a burnout by the time I was 40 because I was working 24X7 round the clock. I was multi-tasking, producing seven shows, I was directing travel shows, writing and I was a creative director. I was doing all the management of the channels myself. I would go to different locations, sometimes trekking long distances, and I would return having lost weight. All that came together and that is why I stopped doing broadcasts because it is a full time job. It is a management and a financial commission. And I was never in it for money. It was always a passion for me. I did a few documentaries over a decade – even chronicled a year in the life of the Maharaja of Jodhpur which time wise took longer than that. But soon, the internal aspect of my life became very strong. My energy turned inwards and found its expression in my paintings.” We soon find ourselves in her studio – facing a huge canvas with its burst of colours that is neatly stacked against a wall – and rows of bottles that are lined like an army of soldiers on the shelves. The hues seem to have a mind of their own, having flown into one another to create unusual forms. Malhotra explains that this is due to her technique of painting. “I don’t use brushes except to mix the colours. I only use acrylic. I actually pour the paint on the canvas. Some people say it is like Jackson Pollock but it’s nowhere close to Pollock because he used to take the brush and he used to scatter paint. That’s not what I’m doing – sometimes I use a mug, sometimes a bottle, sometimes a bowl, but it’s all about not using a brush. It’s about pouring and allowing the paints to flow into one another. I exert a control by tilting the canvas in different ways. Of course the challenge is you have no control really! So, when it’s a large canvas and you’re looking at the left side, what’s happening on the right side, you don’t know. That’s the fun – to see how and what’s going to come up. It is like procreation.”
Her process of painting, which she says is not conscious, is quaint. Perhaps that is what defines the final outcome that is seen in the canvases. She emphasises, sitting on the paint-splattered floor, “It is a very subconscious process – since the paints flow into one another, they have to be completed when they are wet. I remember when I was once doing a big canvas, I was almost begging it to let me go! When I paint, I am in trance-like state. I do not know what I am doing. I don’t deliberate even on the colours that I am going to use. I may decide to make a green and blue canvas, but when I begin to work on it, I pick up an orange without realising I have done so. And, the way I work, I cannot replicate a canvas. What has to emerge, emerges.” It is amply evident that for Malhotra painting is all a matter of the inner urge. She admits, “I don’t paint when I’m not in the mood. I can’t. I don’t do anything out of compulsion. I believe that makes you a bit robotic.”
When I gaze at her Behemoth canvases, I get the impression that she believes that ‘Big is beautiful’! Erupting into peals of laughter, she replies, “I have a range of canvasses. As time progressed they actually became bigger and bigger. It has now reached a stage where I find it difficult to paint as I have to fold them on the floor. I can’t even reach out to their outermost dimensions so I have to ask someone to hold them and then get to work.”
For a woman who started with modelling years ago and then dabbled with a bit of advertising, her journey over the years has been holistic. She rewinds to her seminal documentary Shaman Of Himalayas where, she says, “It was a matter of going there and winning the confidence of the people. There is no real explanation as to really what’s happening. It’s a metaphysical work. Later, when I fell ill, I turned to spiritual practices – like yoga, Tai-chi and meditation. I have evolved holistically.”
She has also straddled several creative mediums, but like a mother won’t pick a favourite child, Malhotra refrains from selecting one that suits her most. She believes, “Unlike artists who only paint, I have a more balanced left and right brain. Only art will never satisfy me because I also have a brain that needs to strategise and analyse. I have to do three or four things together, but that all stems from my inner urge. Although art and photography are something I know I will do for the rest of my life, I know I will also do other stuff – like documentaries – when I am inspired to.”
As we walk around her home that is replete with artefacts and art, I ask her what prompted these acquisitions over the years. It is naturally Malhotra who has picked up most of these attractive additions to her home. “I do my own interiors. After I got married, I started buying art. I started collecting but not as an investment. The first painting that I bought was of a Souza for Rs 20,000 – he was an unknown artist then. I am not really into clothes and jewellery but I am always looking out for art. So, our home has pieces from all over the world – and they remind you of where you have been and several moments in your life, giving a different dimension to your present.”
Hue-Borne will be showcased at the India Habitat Centre (September 2 to September 6) and then at Art Alive Gallery (September 8-30) in New Delhi.