World of Paresh Maity

Stylised forms, flowing colours, movement and stillness co-exist in Paresh Maity’s work. For absolute luminescence, interplay of warm hues and vibrant colours and a criss-cross of the figurative, representative and stylised art, topped with academic technique, Maity has a unique place on the Indian art scene. There is the unmistakable ‘soulfulness’ of mood and memory, sweep and slash of colours and the transparent depth of his watercolours that makes Maity’s artistry a wonderful coalescence of art and thought. Like Turner, who pioneered the great age of British watercolours, Maity weaves into his psychological stream the many faces of nature — the colours of the sea, the pitter-patter of raindrops. He talked to Uma Nair on the eve of his show at CIMA in Kolkata in 1993, and then later in August 2005 just before this book went into print. Excerpts:

Paresh Maity: I wanted to be known as a hardworking artist
Paresh Maity: I wanted to be known as a hardworking artist

From Tamluk to Venice is a long journey. Has nature always been a part of your psyche and surroundings?

I was born in Tamluk, a suburban town near the Bay of Bengal. Throughout my childhood, nature was omnipresent. It was there in the sprawling green fields, the ever-changing sky, and in all the other objects around me. I used to sit on the beach and watch the clouds, the dawn and marvel at the changing colours of the sky. Looking at the colours of the sky became such a natural part of me. In those days you had to become either an engineer or a doctor. Nevertheless, I had made up my mind and went to Kolkata. After 10 days in Kolkata, I came to Delhi. But I did not have enough money to enrol in the College of Art, so I went back.

In Kolkata I used to visit the Victoria Memorial Hall to see the paintings. I saw works by Rembrandt, Turner, Constable, Winslow Homer and all the Western masters. I wanted to be like them — I wanted to be known as a hardworking artist. I liked the way Rembrandt used light. I tried to capture his method of sourcing the light. I also admired the Impressionists very much. I liked the Cubist phase of Picasso, too, but I think that Rembrandt, Winslow Homer and Turner became my favourites.

In those days, I used to travel all over India. I went to Kerala, to Kulu-Manali, to Rajasthan — but wherever I went, I painted nature. Whenever I get tired of the city, it’s as if nature beckons, and I go. In the 1990s, I went to France and Germany, and to Venice. I would carry not just my watercolour paper, but also a small camera. It was the atmosphere that I wanted to capture. Yes, I think that the atmosphere has become a part of me — I want to understand more and more about nature. I feel it is never enough.

Celebration-III. Oil on canvas, 2003.
Celebration-III. Oil on canvas, 2003.

Let’s talk about your Delhi experience. There is no sea here, only buildings and trees and extreme weather. How did you respond to Delhi?

I think my reason for coming here was for the opportunities it provides.

Delhi gives an artist a platform, it also helps to build your reputation, and I think the winter in Delhi is fantastic. I love the way people huddle together near open fires, the way the mist and the fog descend — it reminds me of a British winter. I believe that Delhi is a vital link in the market process of the artist. When I held my first show in 1990, I remember the critic Krishna Chaitanya — he was like a guru — I eagerly wanted to see what he would write. I believe what the critic says is so crucial, he forms a bridge between the artist and the viewer.

Canticle of colour. Watercolour on paper, 2001
Canticle of colour. Watercolour on paper, 2001

And so many times I have heard people coming to a gallery and saying, "We read the review in The Asian Age, or some other newspaper and came by." Ten years ago it was not so crowded. It was nice to be in Delhi — no pollution and fewer vehicles.

Delhi gives me an alternate take on life. Delhi is what I return to. I am on the move all the time. Sometimes I am in France, sometimes I go to Venice, or to Germany, but I think it is the south of France and Venice that particularly fascinate me. I go to these places only to paint. I paint in Delhi too — but Delhi provides intellectual stimulation. It has a way of captivating intimacy which I cannot describe, and I feel that it pulls you and draws you in.

Many of your works in the earlier years were traditional watercolours — landscapes. Then, in the early 1990s, figures started appearing in your works. At times there is an evanescent feel in your watercolours — the figures in the oils seem to melt into one another. How have you blended the abstract into the realist?

In watercolours, I have always wanted to paint the trees, the moisture-laden clouds drifting across a blue sky, little boats lashed by the waves or the sights of a rainy day. But over the years, I have also brought in female and male forms with animals and birds. When I look at nature now, it has to have man and woman, animals and birds. I fact, one of the places I frequently visit in December is Talsari — the fishing coast in Orissa — where I sit and watch the sky on a moonlit night. I also watch the lone figure of the fisherman. How can I forget him? He becomes a part of the watercolour. My response also becomes a part of what I represent.

Lord Ganesha. Oil on canvas, 2004
Lord Ganesha. Oil on canvas, 2004

Yes, you’ve always reacted to things that you see.

Do you remember how I used to come to your home and pick up Prabuddha Dasgupta’s book Women? I used to sit and look at those photographs every day for many months. I feel that my work reflects my attitudes, and my approach to life. Also, my personality integrates itself into the paintings. Just as I do not like the harsh side of life, my paintings too have no harshness — they only reflect what is soft and soothing. It isn’t only nature that inspires me, it is also people. Even a small incident remains in my memory. I like to look for mysterious notions, for lyrical quality and a touch of the poetic.

An impressionistic vision.....

When I go to Venice, the sights and sounds of the cafes, the water reflected by the single shaft of sunlight dancing on the edge of the gondola — all these captivate me. Any scene makes me want to pick up the paper and brush. As for the impressionist streak, I think that I want to show that every element in a canvas lives and adapts to the other. In a scene of Pushkar, you will find many symbols and at least five people. Yes, I blend the real and the imaginary. I like to create a romantic tableau in which you search for the figures. It must grow on you.

Let’s talk about travels in the new millennium. Turkey, China, a few more interiors of France. How has it changed the way of seeing? Do you like actually waiting for the ‘decisive moment’? How important is impulse in your works?

Tribute to Bengal. Oil on canvas, 2003
Tribute to Bengal. Oil on canvas, 2003

Impulse is always there, it is inherent, whatever I paint I try to take out that inner essence and that is what I try to depict on my paper and canvasses. After all, I am deep down a spiritual person. It is the spirit that drives me and my work. In life while we try to capture what we see, we also keep changing because our way of seeing changes. The way I looked at a landscape 20 years ago is not what I see now. I see less and exact now, there is a foundation of minimalist moods that has entered that approach, it dictates what I translate onto the canvas or the paper. So if you see the Chinese watercolour you will see the hint of the monumentality of the search but you will also see the absolute minimalism which is certainly an oriental feature. It has today become a language in the world.

Let’s talk also about the Mahayana that you did recently. In terms of figurative language this is novel. It is intuitively differential because Paresh Maity rarely does iconic symbols.

It was from my childhood, maybe 25 years back, when I travelled to Orissa, and saw the Udayagiri, Khandagiri caves that the wall paintings and cave paintings remained in my mind. Recently when I travelled to China, I saw that artists and people were all thinking and painting the Buddha. The urge has been there for more than a decade and one evening it just happened. I was also amazed at the element of spiritual expression that I had given it. The painting took only a few hours, I painted fast and furiously, but the image in my mind took 25 years to be realised.

How much did you sell your first work for and to whom?

My first work was sold for Rs 75 to Gallery Chemould at Kolkata. I sold three watercolours and was very happy with the Rs 225 that I got when I was only 18 years old. Yes , the memory is precious because in many ways it was a humble beginning.

* * *

As an artist Paresh has continued to work according to his own precept, finding his own signature through the experiences of his own travels, symbolizing at regular or irregular intervals what he has wanted to capture, as well as translate emotive evocations close to his heart. Paresh creates for the inner resonance that comes with the joy of creation. It isn’t the process that is so demanding, it is the end result. The compositional qualities of colour and contour are so intrinsically woven together that they bring about an iconic rendition of the expressionist refrain.

For an artist who spent time doing work on watercolour paper and other textures of paper, the idea of working on canvas was enticing, particularly because it stood for another perspective as well as a shift in the proportion of the way of seeing. After doing landscapes all his life, filled with allegorical and metaphorical references, the act of tackling a canvas meant bringing to it a composition that had both depth and insight. A canvas for Paresh would not be a study of a single portrait, it had to be an amalgam of a moment in time.

The year 1983, and his first canvas was a study in still life. Grapes, a vase and an Indianesque brass object completed the academic tone of a study that mirrored the realist idiom of the old masters. The second canvas was a portrait of a Van Goghian rustic; the loneliness on the expressive face was a symbolic suggestion of the winged vapour of the desire for freedom that seduces. The peasant face was almost like a locked-up bird, imitating an enigmatic melodic essence of melancholia.

Excerpted from Life and Works of Paresh Maity — 25 years. By Uma Nair and Sushma Bahl. Published by Art Musings, Mumbai; CIMA Gallery, Kolkata; Gallery Ganesha, New Delhi and Gallery Sumukha, Bangalore. Pages 346. Rs 10,000.


Mystery. Water on paper, 1999
Mystery. Water on paper, 1999

Manifestation of love and its sexual representation in Indian art goes back to pre-historic times. Its origin can be traced to archaeological material of the Indus civilisation replete with phallic stones and terracotta Mother Goddess figures. The amorous couples in somewhat explicit poses and other erotic motifs, seen on various historic structures and in temple sculptures of the early period at Ajanta & Ellora, Konark, Sanchi and all over the country, seem to focus on the aesthetic elements of erotic art that enhances the viewers’ experience of sensuality as a divine act and emotion, distinguishing it from the western concept of pornography. Meeting and mating of male and female that generates fertility and life for the natural forces to continue and flourish has been revered as a creative force in Indian religion, Vedic texts, classical literature, societal practices, folklore, art and culture since the Ancient era.

Paresh Maity is a natural artist and designer, a compulsive traveller, a keen photographer, and above all a perfectionist. Bhadraloki and a romantic at heart, he likes all things beautiful. There is an enormous resource bank of the poetic and sensuous, which he brings to play in all his creations giving them the erotic under and overtones. The aesthetics of his creations seem to stem from his personal and contextual perspective, sensitivity and encounters with the classical and the folk, combined with his contemporary concerns for a new look and a global worldview. Love and love-making in his view is a basic human instinct. "The paintings you see here are spontaneous. I have never had to make a special effort to give them an erotic feel or look," he says. The result is a natural beauty, sublimity and an aesthetic appeal which permeates his work.

Paresh Maity’s paintings are also replete with other signifiers of eroticism such as lovebirds, flowers and the moon, tuning into parts of a female body, endowed with a charming fusion of the sensuous with aesthetic, classical with folk, realistic with make-belief, simplicity with grandeur, beauty with beast and slender but fulsome. Of special mention in this context are his early works including the nude studies and couples that he made as an art student in Kolkata. His subsequent drawings with a clear erotic nuance were inspired by his visit to Khajuraho. Some of his erotic drawings and paintings, though very different in their atmospherics, remind one of the works of both Picasso and Souza in terms of their lines and images. The difference is in the omission of brutality in his work which is instead replete with elegance and grace. The love-making and sexuality in his art is more poetic and sublime — note the man and woman enjoined together in a seductive pose in ‘Tatoo’. In some of his other paintings his women seem to come closer to the female protagonist Yayati in Ramachandran’s work.

— Sushma Bahl