There is certain ambivalence to Sanjay Kumar's figurative work on display at his exhibition at the Gallery Art Resource Trust. The figures appear part Greek, part Indian. In each of them, the facial features are not obvious and the body movements have been used to display different emotional states ----- from sorrow to distress to grief.
In a lot of his paintings nude dominates, playing the guitar, sitting across the chessboard, contemplating... In an interview with Deepali Nandwani, Sanjay Kumar talks about his art and his growth as an artist:
There seems to be a certain ambiguity in your figurative series on display here. What is thought process that's gone behind these works?
I will not call this work figurative, it is more semi-abstract and it revolves around different moments and completely different themes. This is not a series, it wasn't planned, a different thought process has gone behind each of this work. It doesn't relate to any single class of people or any single event. I have taken the images from my surroundings.
A lot of these images, these men, seem to be out of Greek mythology?
Yes there are Greek images, the influence is obvious particularly in the anatomy and in movements. But then the same kind of muscles, the same dynamism can also be seen in Indian figures, in Indian mythology. Let's say there has been an assimilation of all images.
I would like to mention my painting 'Silence' here. It depicts how the flow of life has become stagnant. I have worked on a suggestive kind of landscape; nothing is in your face. I believe the subject is not important; it's how you treat the subject that's vital. A painting is a sum of experiences, starting from childhood, even the way you have been treated by people around you.
There is a predominance of nudes in your work. What made you take recourse to nude forms?
I will not call them nudes, I will just call them expressive forms. I didn't feel the need for facial expressions or clothes to express the emotions. The body language says it all; from the movement of the hand or even the body you can understand whether the figure is displaying grief or happiness. As an artist I react to the form. For instance, take a poor old lady. You don't need her facial expressions to tell you things like her suffering or poverty, her body movement says it all.
How do you work? On a series, or do you paint some parts of a work, and then go back to it after some time?
Actually I work over a period of time. I work till expression continues to flow smoothly. Then when I am exhausted, I stop. I don't unnecessarily force myself to continue working; I know where to stop. Sometimes a painting takes four days to complete and sometimes it takes even a month.
I don't plan a painting, I don't start with a sketch, I just put color on the canvas and take it from there.
The use of colors in your figurative work you are showing is very interesting. There are splashes of colors but it is intermingled with black...
Yes, I do play around with colors and forms. The bright colors are quite subdued and in some of my work I have painted an aerial source of light. That way I can depict a feel of light on my figure's shoulders.
For me, textures are more important, whether it is in the painting or in the frames I use for them. The wooden frames I have used are chipped, burnt and chemically treated, so that the textures are just right.
You have presented a paper on''The use of color in Indian modern painting'. Tell us about this research?
Yes, it was part of the PhD I was doing. The presence of colors is a universal fact. But each color has a different impact, and arouses different feelings in different people. I have worked on the relationship between colors and people's personality and psychology.
Can you go back in time and tell us about your first memories as an artist?
I come from Allahabad, where a lot of emphasis is given on academic qualifications, but I wasn't very good in studies. My mother and aunt wanted me to be a doctor. But the art bug had bitten me, in school itself, when my teacher organized a competition.
In those days, we used to get a Hindi magazine called 'Dharmayug', that carried a lot of works by great artists. I began by copying N.S. Bendre and B. Prabha in watercolor.
My father, an MA in English Literature, was a very knowledgeable man. He was a teacher and had taught famous Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri. He taught me about art and poetry, he told me about Michelangelo's agony and ecstasy as a painter, his lust for life. He bought me books to read.
He encouraged me to do MA in Fine Arts from Agra University. I even enrolled for PhD, and partly worked on a thesis on colors in Indian art. I wanted to use color therapy to treat mentally distressed children, and even did some work with them. But then I shifted to Mumbai and the struggle began.
So what were those days of struggle like?
Miserable, I remember when I held my first major exhibition in Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. My wife and I were very sick and we had no money!
I had my first exhibition at the Art Plaza outside Jehangir, a lot of artists appreciated my work, but the initial years were bad. In 1993, I met art promoter, and from then on it's been all the way up. Since then I have had 14 solo exhibitions in Mumbai and Delhi.
You began by doing abstract art. When and how did you move to figurative works?
I couldn't identify with completely abstract art. Abstraction is hidden in Indian art forms. Indian artists use symbols, but then they define it. I believe surrealism was not born with Dali, it was always present in Indian art. Look at the images of Ganesh and Ravan with his ten heads. If seen on surface of reality, you don't get these characters.
Abstract and surrealistic images intensify what an artist wants to express, they add something to your images.
Who have been your inspirations?
Michelangelo, I love the figuration and the movement of human body in his works; it's so lively! There is also Bosch, whose works were dominated by fantasies. His paintings expressed reality made unreal. If you paint reality it is nothing by calendar art. Only when you infuse unreality and fantasy to real situations and emotions can true art emerge.
I also admire the work of S. H. Raza. The way he expresses even the basic elements of life, the way he uses symbolism drawn from Indian art and philosophy is amazing.
Besides that, I don't think artists can explain what inspires them. There are so many things in his or her surroundings. Every artist has a different temperament. I, for instance, like sportspersons especially athletes. When they begin running it's not just their body that is moving, but even their spirit.
What kinds of medium do you like working in?
I have experimented a lot. I have worked with wood, and what fascinate me are the different textures that wood takes on. There is ruggedness to a log of wood. I have worked on canvas, on paper, with watercolors and oils.
In these ten years or so, how have you evolved and changed as an artist?
There is a lot of change in my work. I started with abstracts, and then I did a lot of faces and heads and expressions. For a year I did just heads.
Later, I did works with just the body, some of them in oil on canvas, some on paper. I have also experimented with the human form, with the textures, to depict the rough and smooth parts of life. There is a combination of reality and imagination.
What are you working on right now?
It's a series on war and peace. I call it 'War In The Perspective Of Life'. It's a reaction to the build up of the war atmosphere across the world. I have begun by reading on it and writing and done a few sketches. All of these will be big canvasses, because a theme like this requires a span of a huge canvas.