Ranjit Hoskote in conversation with Laxman Shreshtha
18 Jun 2016
Ranjit Hoskote in conversation with Laxman Shreshtha, 18th June 2016
RH: It’s a great pleasure to be talking with Laxman Shreshtha this morning, on the occasion of the retrospective of his work ‘The Infinite Project’ at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, at the CSMVS. And I’d like to speak with Laxman this morning about his trajectory as an artist, his concerns, the kinds of preoccupations that he’s addressed across a period of fifty years. And when we think of Laxman’s work we think of the work of an artist who came to Bombay, to the JJ School of Art from Nepal and from Darbhanga. And who then made a name for himself as one of our most distinguished and illustrious abstractionists. And in the course of this conversation we hope to draw Laxman out on the values, the concerns, the themes that have been at the centre of his art all of these years.
Laxman one of the most inspiring experiences for you as a young artist was the time you spent in Paris studying, spending time at the ateliers, interacting with artists who were to play a key role in the evolution of your imagination. Could you talk to us about your Parisian time, the education of your sensibility as the French might say?
LS: Yes ofcourse. When I came from Nepal to Bombay and joined the JJ, it was like an academic practice that all five years I did. It was only when I reached Paris and looked around, my intensity of wanting to know about art, learning about art was very intense; when I went to Paris. So my real education and knowledge about art happened in Paris. There were many Museums when I needed to refer to anything. All those known names like Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin were at hand whenever I wanted. I wanted to peak at their works and even the streets. Everything seems to be historically attached to the art and a young man, a young artist feels about it when he is in Paris like Van Gogh painted certain streets, Utrillo painted some other kind of streets and all other painters did so. The street scenes and running to the museum to connect it, to refer to it, was my real education.
And another very important thing was that I was at Ecole des Beaux-Arts; equally I was in Atelier 17 and Academie de la Grande Chaumière where all the very promising painters from all over the world would come. There’ll be a Japanese painter, there’ll be a Brazilian painter, from Eastern Europe and they were all of the same age and wanting to know and wanting to do something. Some were so good and talking to them, being with them for a long time was the best education that I would think I got at that stage.
RH: Laxman I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that Atelier 17 was part of your itinerary in Paris because when we think of your work we think of the magnificent oil paintings which are grand machines of composition in a certain way. But Professor Hater’s specific gift to his students and colleagues was in the domain of print-making, the graphic arts. So could you tell us a little bit about this choice that you made?
LS: Most of the painters who are not representational or figurative have to search for textures because that’s the way you’ll find these things. And the textures that print-making can give you; there’s no other way you can get those textures. So I was very very fascinated to see the prints of some great artists, great printmakers. And during those days there was a lot of talk about William Hater also, who invented coloured printing in New York. Then he came to Paris and opened Atelier 17. And he was a very good teacher and always became a friend. He used to come to our house. He became a very good friend. So I think it was a very good step to go to William Hater and learn print-making. If nothing else just to know how to get those textures that I needed. It was a need.
RH: And you also had a year in Germany on the DAAD fellowship. What was that like? Where did you live in Germany and what were the kinds of cultural experiences that you had there?
LS: I was invited to United States and I was living in New York for a while and that’s the time I got the invitation of DAAD from Germany. I got a letter. They have an office in New York also. They sent me a letter saying they’ve selected me this year to go to Germany on DAAD invitation.
There were two famous artists who selected the painters from all over the world. And when they said they would like to meet the DAAD people in New York, I went and told them that look one has to go to Berlin and live and I’d already lived in Berlin. I wanted to be in Cologne because that was the place in Germany or in Europe which had become very important. Most of the painters would move to Cologne instead of Berlin or Munich. So they said Mr. Shreshtha we’ve never done such a thing. DAAD means Berlin. But I think they had a meeting and finally they agreed. And I had a free hand; I didn’t have to do anything but did paint very well in one year and had a very good exhibition. They even said that Laxman we would never expect DAAD scholars to do this but you did so much work and you did such a beautiful show. But it was because first of all Cologne was very close to Paris. That was my reason for selecting it. Also going to Paris, going back to Germany, having your own quiet moments, quiet times in your studio and many artists that you met in Germany and their approach was quite different. Very umm almost like violent you know. They wanted to break the rules. Even if you went to a Museum and some happening was taking place, some other artist could get up and really violently argue with that guy, with the artist. So it was a different kind of atmosphere when I was there rather than you know the very civilized kind of meeting, than when artists meet and they talk to each other in a very subdued and good manner. It wasn’t like that. So I also thought that was helping me a lot.
RH: Tell us about the conversations that you’ve had over the years with fellow artists in Bombay? With Akbar Padamsee for instance; with Tyeb Mehta earlier and then through the years with Gaitonde? What were those conversations like?
LS: Let me tell you something from the beginning. You know I wanted to settle down in Paris. So when I came to Bombay all my things were in Paris, my studio was there. But here something happened in the family and I had to linger for one year, two years. Then I left the idea of going to Paris. But I had a studio and I used to go every year. Why I wanted to settle down in Bombay was that I started to get a little tired of the attitude of the artists in Europe. Whenever they met they talked about which gallery had selected you, where are you having the exhibitions, I mean nothing about the work. Nothing about what you are reading, what you are thinking but about the successes with galleries and commercially. And when I came to come to Bombay I used to meet people like Ambadas, especially Barwe and I used to find, this is the place to paint really. I mean nobody is in a hurry. Barwe used to say what is the hurry? Why paint so many? I thought this is the place that I want to be. So I was happy that I settled in Bombay and then slowly I came to know Husain, then Gaitonde very well. Akbar became very good friends for a few years and he used to come to my studio twice, thrice a week and two, three times he used to call us to his studio. And he’s a kind of artist I mean he would look at my painting, suppose he likes my painting then he would say things that I had never thought my painting had in it. Such profound or such beautiful things even otherwise you spend an hour with these artists whom I call saints. They really are saints because they are so pure. And it was very educational. I really evolved in the company of these people.
But mostly it was Gaitonde. You know you have some quality in you and I think your antenna is open, your eyes and all your senses are open and you pick-up, you are attracted to a quality that someone else has. Or maybe he has more; he’s a more developed person. Gaitonde was one of them and I really was really happy in my life that I came so close to him and learnt so many things. Same thing about texture. One day he told me Laxman how did you do this? There was a certain kind of texture, certain areas, I was so proud that you know Gaitonde is asking me how I did this. And another thing people asked me, Laxman you were so close to Gaitonde, why didn’t you learn to do something like this? In this book also they said the same thing (points to a book on his coffee table). In response I said, because Gaitonde did that, so I never went near it, so they understood what that meant. So that kind of attitude I think all the painters have and that’s how they grow and make their own work really precious.
RH: And there was no sharp distinction between the figurative, the abstractionists, the symbolic. What seems most important about that whole period is that artist’s were willing to talk about their work without emphasising the so to speak stylistic differences. It was much more important to look at the depth and the intensity of the work and what the project was all about in a certain way.
LS: It’s true that those days not many things happened. Not much happened. There were only a few galleries. And a few painters met and talked to each other. So figurative painter and an abstract painter did not differentiate, they could sit in the same place and discuss about the same problems they have with their paintings. But I think there was a difference. It was almost like two different classes. Which it did become later, when articles about art were being written and there were many galleries where the shows were selected in certain ways. It was curated as figurative or some theme and then it did separate. And I thought it should, it is like that. You know figurative art is completely different the way you approach. I would dare to say that it really has almost different purpose while abstract painting if you have that tendency your purpose is a little different. So they are very different.
RH: Laxman you’ve often talked about the quality of silence in the works of Gaitonde, in your own work. And somehow that seems to be a very important centre of gravity. The resonant nature of silence in a painting. So could I ask you to talk a little bit about that? And also to think about how, certainly in your works from the 90’s and the early 2000’s there was a corresponding, there was a counterpoint in the form of opulent colour? And I’ve always been fascinated by this interplay. On the one hand there is this deep resonance silence and on the other hand there’s colour that sets up a certain music of its own.
LS: You know I met Gaitonde when I was student, last year as a student. And slowly by very many accidents we became very good friends. He once invited me to Bhulabhai Institute and he gave me the time. I am also very punctual about time. I reached. I was raw. Very young. Didn’t understand much. But he must’ve seen some intensity and something in me that he would invite. It’s quite unusual that he would ask somebody to come and see him. He was sitting on the wooden bench and only two people could sit at the entrance of Bhulabhai. And in front of that there was sea. There was no construction like they have now and you could see the sea and rocks very very clearly. He said Laxman come and sit here. And saw the sun was setting. It was very beautiful. We didn’t say anything. Sun set and it became a little dark and he said Laxman let’s go upto my studio. We went to his studio and then he told me, Laxman you know why you are my friend. I didn’t say anything. He says because you know the value of silence and I was very intrigued because I wasn’t silent, I was silent in front of him. I was a very boisterous man I was born that way. My first reactions are of tremendous colours, you know dancing and you know jumping and seeing something you know in different way. But Gaitonde I think he used to talk to me, he used to behave with me in a certain way, a very special way that I used to understand every word that he is saying, everything that he is doing, the way he experiences. So that really changed me. To begin with and I started becoming silent. But it was much later that I become much more silent. Silence is very necessary for a painter. How will you reach the source otherwise because if you have an abstract painter’s attitude it’s the source you are searching. Meditation becomes so complete that source is right in front of you. With you all the time, that meditative comes. That only comes with the silence, being alone and then taking the path of silence. And I find it very valuable, very good for human beings. Very good as a human being. I read such books. I have such friends and I am very many times five six hours quiet by myself. And I think that it’s worthwhile living because of that.
RH: Laxman you once told me that, this would be nearly twenty years ago now. Some young artists who today are very prominent, who used to visit you, spend time with you in your studio expressed a completely contrary view. And that they said they wanted art that was talkative and that was not about silence and despite your strong convictions about the quality of silence and so on you’ve always had a certain capacious attitude to the diversity of art practices. So could I ask you to talk about that?
LS: Yes. Yes ofcourse. And there were bunch of students from JJ who almost grew up in my house and when they passed out, one day when we were discussing one painter told me, he was very good abstract painter himself, he told me Laxman we do not believe silence in art. What is this silence, silence? We want painting to talk, we want artist to talk about his painting. We want artist to organise in such a way that people come to talk to him in his studio and we want him to create such an atmosphere that everyday something happens in his studio, in art and art talk. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t argue, I just kept quiet because I have a feeling that an artist like these and I can see that they have their own point. Maybe today’s artists feel that way. And artists always revolts against the artist who has been before us. That’s the way art goes forward. But I think they also know the value of silence otherwise how will they plan such big things that they do. They will have to be silent at some certain moments. Maybe it plays smaller role in their life then it, for me it’s whole thing, the whole truth. For them maybe part of it is okay because they are also youthful and they want to run but then the value of silence is in everybody’s heart. All the creative people’s heart.
RH: Laxman could I draw you out on a key moment of transformation in your life which was an encounter not with the kind of secular saints you talked about earlier-the painters, but with a person who lived the spiritual life- Nisargadatta Maharaj. Could I invite you to talk to us a little bit about this?
LS: Yes I came to Bombay because I was very inquisitive. I always had about fifty questions which could not be answered. I mean I would have to live very fast to get the answers so I was always restless. I was always wanting to know something. There was a time in 80’s I was very successful artist, had a beautiful wife who loved me. I had a place in Paris. I could go to New York and live very very well but I wasn’t; I hadn’t found the meaning. That made me very very restless, very very.. Almost destructive and Gaitonde saw this in years and one day he gave me a book called ‘I am That’ which is on Nisargadatta Maharaj. When I read that book it says where to go and meet him. I met him. We became very very close. First three days the discussion was on me. And first question he asked me; first there were translators. First they said that Laxman is a very famous painter. He lives in New York and all that. Then he very angrily, he always talked angrily, he sounded angry, he was not angry. He said ask him where would he go to find himself? You know, so that changes the whole pattern of living or thinking or your being there and then I said I’ve come to you because I feel very good coming to you. And in a minute I feel peaceful and he said that what do you know about Samadhi? So I thought and thought and there were hundreds of people around. I said Samadhi is a death. And he was so excited he said wah wah, he said in so many years of my life so many people came in front of me. Nobody gave such a reply and then discussion went on for three days. Then finally he initiated me also and I’m not telling you lies, I never thought that I would think of somebody that he is a God. And whole thing changes, my purpose of living changed. My paintings changed. They became quiet, I became quiet. Everything changed. All my activities because of Nisargadatta Maharaj and I think all these things that happens in your life is they say it’s written know. I would say that you know you have a prepared ground for something or for questions; the answer is just next door. The minute you are ready it would come. So that’s how I think it has happened. Same with Gaitonde. Same with Nisargadatta Maharaj. Same with many other painters who gets what they are searching for.
RH: Laxman thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and insights and these intense reflections you’ve had and your experience of the prepared ground and the quest. Thank you very much indeed.
LS: Thank you. Thank you.