Trails in Colour - Tracking Anjolie Ela Menon’s Maverick Journey Through Her Artworks

Creators And Collectors

Padma Shri Anjolie Ela Menon is a maverick Indian artist who has won global fame and critical acclaim. With a diverse body of work abundant with interesting experiments, Anjolie Ela Menon is a torchbearer for generations to come. To Anjolie, painting is an act of self-expression, but seldom is it about her. Her art, charged with characteristic universality, allows one to identify with it and simultaneously vehicles the viewer’s own expression. Anjolie Ela Menon’s audacity to be a free spirit at the risk of being out of context echoes in her art. As is evident throughout her journey, Anjolie’s work has braved trends, movements, expectations, and conformities.

Anjolie Ela Menon (Source: Creative Services Support Group)

Early start

Born to a Bengali Army General and an American housewife in 1940, Anjolie Ela Menon was a child of two worlds, which eventually opened into many worlds when she discovered art. When 12-year-old Anjolie wandered into the art department, filled with melodious music amid a rigorous military school environment, she was taken by it. While studying in Ooty, her art teacher Sushil Mukherjee let her indulge in art unrestrained, in terms of medium, style, influences and technique. Young Anjolie went on a tour of global art through the 6 precious art books in her teacher’s collection that profiled many of the greats like Vincent van Gogh, Amedeo Modigliani and Amrita Sher-Gil to name a few. Seasoned with such strong influences, her flair for art was distinct by the age of 14 - when her painting was first bought by the then Vice President of India, Zakir Husain, at the school exhibition.

Untitled (Portrait of Henry Daniel, Art Master, Lawrence School, Lovedale), oil on canvas, 1972 (Source: DAG/Artsy)

Radical teens

Such early validation of her work instilled confidence in Anjolie to take up art as a career. After a brief stint at Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Art, which she found to be creatively stifling, she moved on to study literature at Delhi University. During her time in Delhi, Anjolie continued to paint by herself, and was mentored by some radical personalities of the time. Her first exhibition at 18 was curated by the legendary Indian painter M.F. Husain, with 53 of her artworks he handpicked. He fashioned the display stands out of bamboo himself, marking his deep enthusiasm towards Anjolie’s work. In the 1950s, Anjolie travelled to New York with Pupul Jayakar, a renowned cultural activist and writer. During the expedition, Anjolie Ela Menon was exposed to new territories as she experienced the epicentre of international art. She visited the Museum of Modern Art, stayed at the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Fallingwater house, and witnessed jazz nights at Harlem. These socio-cultural experiences had a profound impact on her worldview and her art.

Eden, oil on masonite board, 2005 (Source: Aicon Gallery/Artsy)

Two Faces of Ayesha, mixed media on board (Source: AstaGuru)

Paris in the 60s

Shortly after her New York trip, Anjolie Ela Menon was offered a scholarship by the French government to study at École Des Beaux-Arts. In France, she was exposed to Picasso, Braque and other such modernists. Instead of responding to that, Anjolie plunged backwards in time and was intrigued by early Christian art. She hitchhiked on the weekends with her friends to Romanesque cathedrals loaded with Byzantine art from floor to ceiling. The pre-Renaissance influences beautifully blended with the fresco technique she was learning at Paris, famously used by Michelangelo in his murals. Anjolie was a young rebel who didn’t adapt to the lines of modernism, which was in vogue then. She retained the pre-Renaissance influences and continued to portray stark, figurative protagonists.

Untitled (Seated Lady), oil on board (Source: Christie’s)

Marriage and motherhood

After returning from Paris, Anjolie Ela Menon married a naval officer, Raja Menon, with whom she has two sons and four grandchildren. While her boys were growing up, their scattered toys and knick-knacks found their way into her art. Laden with park scenes, flying kites and crows on balconies, the paintings were an extension of the in-between moments she noticed as a mother. As the world closed in around her while navigating familyhood, everyday objects translated as motifs and repeated as symbols in her art.

Boy, oil on canvas board, 2020 (Source: Art Musings)

Left - Landscape, oil on masonite, 2020; Right - Divine Mothers Series - Madonna with Child, oil on masonite, 2016 (Source: Aicon Gallery/Artsy)

Transitions and digressions

Wanting to get out of the clichés of her own making, Anjolie Ela Menon deliberately engaged in digressions from her typical style. Throughout the 90s, what started as digressions ended up as pathbreakers that set several trends in Indian art. In the early 90s, she found refreshing beauty and craftsmanship in calendar art - which was usually frowned upon as lowbrow art. She intelligently used calendar kitsch in her contemporary paintings implying that art transcends class. In 1997, when figurative art was back in trend, she transitioned into non-figurative work with a show on Buddhist abstracts. Towards the turn of the century, Anjolie Ela Menon ventured into new territories by creating glass sculptures, ceramics and upcycled furniture.

Source: Aicon Gallery

Limited Edition Ceramic Platter (Source: Art Musings)

Chair painted by Anjolie Ela Menon

Global influences

As a naval officer’s wife, and a working artist, Anjolie Ela Menon travelled across India, Germany, Russia, USA, Europe, and the Middle East. This played to her capacity of imbibing culture through the events, literature, music, and people immediate to her. Interestingly, the Russian influences in her art far preceded her stay in Russia. Perhaps these diverse geographical influences have been a mere advantage and not necessarily a driving force behind Anjolie Ela Menon’s rich and independent creative instincts. In her frequent travels, Anjolie came across masonite boards that doubled as packaging material. As it was cruder than canvas, masonite allowed her to paint authentically with raw techniques and paved the way for her signature oil-on-masonite art.

Left - Veronica's Veil, oil on masonite board; Right - Endgame, oil on masonite board, 2012 (Source: Aicon Gallery/Artsy)

Studio setup

Even while constantly being on the move for 32 years, Anjolie Ela Menon maintained a diligent practice to paint every day, or at least to think about her work - not just in passing but in isolation. After her husband retired from his naval career, she finally got the chance to set up a permanent studio. As someone who thrives in urban setups, she picked an urban village in Delhi called Nizamuddin Basti for doing so. It was the perfect middle ground as the basti was a pocket of authenticity in the big city - with its people sustaining long lost traditions. After setting up the studio, her paintings were predominantly inspired by the goatherds and streets of this basti. The streets host festivals, meetings, weddings, fights, film posters, animals, vehicles and pedestrians lost in thought. To Anjolie Ela Menon, they aren’t mere roads, but a reflection of the city’s personality.

Goatherd (Triptych), oil on masonite board, 2017 (Image Source: Aicon Gallery/Artsy)

In the afternoons, when Anjolie Ela Menon is out with her grandkids - the basti goats wander into her studio and tamper with the art pieces, reminiscent of the time when her infant kids would innocently stomp over her wet paintings drying on the floor. Along with establishing the legacy of her distinguished art career, Anjolie Ela Menon’s body of work also sheds light on the importance of balancing one’s artistic journey alongside their personal life and navigating the crossroads ever so often.

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