Experimentation has always been at the heart of Anjolie Ela Menon’s art. She is among the first Indian artists to do kitsch and experiment with computer/digital painting. She has done sculptures from Murano crystal, a type of Italian glass. She has also tried out painted objects, ‘the opposite of installation art’, even while dabbling in oils.
With her imagination, innovation and restless spirit, the celebrated artist continues to experiment with newer forms, materials and ideas. This tendency to try out things can be attributed to her adventurous spirit nurtured by a father in the army and a husband in the navy. She recounts having moved house 30 times, at least! One of the foremost artists of her generation, she reminisces in an interview, “Our family lived almost all over (India) since my father was a surgeon in the Army. Whenever he would get a new house, we would all rush to check the number of trees it had. He would make tree houses and we would eat in them. My mother loved taking us out on picnics.”
Her grandfather was the first Indian at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), whereas her grandmother, a native of Boston, came to live with the family, when Anjolie was 14. Incidentally, she bought her up, resulting in a ‘very European upbringing’. When she went to Lawrence School, Tamil Nadu, her art teacher gave her the freedom to paint. Later, she joined Sir J. J. School of Art. Bored there, she took literature for her degree in New Delhi. Though she received admission in the London Art School and Slade School of Fine Art, she opted to travel to France.
Anjolie Ela Menon had several exhibitions in the late 1950s-60s. The one that launched her career was at the Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, in 1976. Since then, she has shown at invariably all prestigious venues – nationally and internationally – including Winston Gallery in Washington, D.C. (1986), including many retrospective of her illustrious career. Incidentally, she considers Gaitonde, Pupul Jayakar and Husain as her mentors. The exquisite elements of nature - the earth and the trees – coupled with the amazing hues dominate a majority of her works with a lyrical touch. She is also known for her pointed portraits that have a rather mysterious, melancholy appeal.
It’s noteworthy that an itinerant life has resulted in some truly interesting aesthetic and practical choices for the innovative artist. For example, she happened to come across masonite, sheets of pressed wood fiber sometimes employed as packing material, which made her works more convenient to lug around, too. She has worked with several such offbeat materials, leading to painted works on found ‘junk’ objects like castaway old wooden furniture, cupboards, suitcases and trunks.
The socially conscious artist’s NGO ‘Omar-ela' at Nizamuddin basti offers tuition to students at a nominal fee and vocational training for girls. She has been a keen collector of works done by her famous compatriots for more than a decade. Elaborating on her passion to collect, an essay by Margot Cohen for The Wall Street Journal notes: “Her collection includes such names venerated by lovers of Indian art as F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, Jamini Roy, Arpita Singh, K.S. Radhakrishnan and Manjit Bawa as well as a host of younger sculptors and painters. She has steadily acquired works through friendly swaps or purchases. The artist also has a fondness for Russian and Greek religious icons, which have shaped her own perspective in terms of human expression and overall composition.”
Explaining how she started collecting religious icons, she mentions in an elaborate interview to The WSJ: “In (1961-62), while studying in France, I did chase Romanesque frescoes as well as paintings all over Europe. A friend and I even hitchhiked to Barcelona, all the way from Paris, and stayed in a convent for a long time. So I was very influenced by icons. With whatever I saved, I managed to buy six Greek icons.”
Anjolie Ela Menon has also worked on several ambitious public art projects, including the most recent one at Mumbai’s Chattrapati Shivaji International Airport, a true tribute to this versatile artist’s spirit to experiment. Summing it up, she has once stated: "I was instrumental in bringing art down from its high pedestal. Most people approach it with a sense of awe. I wanted to break that. I was a karma-yogi as far as experimentation went. I never simply thought of the fruits of my labor."