Asian Lite profiles Paris-based Indian-origin artist Sujata Bajaj. The acclaimed artist shares her love for her native Rajasthan remains as strong as ever, matched only by her undying passion for art
A critically acclaimed artist with a free soaring spirit that is as is Bohemian as it is purposeful, Sujata Bajaj has innumerable group and solo exhibits to her credit that attest to her artistic prowess and global recognition. Colours lose their sense of disharmony and orient themselves in pliant swathes to express passion, vibrancy and abstractness, while spiritual incantations evoke a mystical primeval connect in her oeuvre. Yet for the Paris-based artist, the love for her native Rajasthan remains as strong as ever, matched only by her undying passion for art. In a first person account, she talks about her Gandhian background, her formative years in Jaipur, her unquestioned love for her roots and her eternal love for colours.
My life is a beautiful blend of Gandhian philosophy, the vibrant, colourful world of art and the multihued Shekhawati way of life from where we originally hail. My father, Radhakrishna Bajaj, a dedicated Gandhian, was born in a place called Kasi-ka-baug, in the outskirts of Sikar, but responding to Gandhiji’s call, spent most of his life in Wardha, where he worked together with the Father of the Nation. As for me, I was born in Jaipur, I schooled in Jaipur and spent the formative years of my life soaked in the rich cultural diversity of Jaipur—so much so that it remains indelibly ingrained in my system. The sights and smells of Jaipur and its colourful milieu have made such a lasting impact in me that I literally breathe colours, eat colours and exist with colours. In that, I think my roots are the biggest gift my life has given me. I wear very strange combinations and sometimes even find myself asking ‘How come I do all these things’; but having seen it all, I know that one can wear green, pink, blue and purple together and still carry it so beautifully!
Rainbows in the desert
My exposure to the culture of Rajasthan started very early in life with my mother taking me to various shows and competitions. As I now realise, they served as valuable early training for me. My mother was an amazing woman who never stopped me because I was a girl. She let me experiment with my life and do as I wanted. It was she who first noticed that I had an inclination for colours. Recalling my days of infancy she says that one fine day, without rhyme or reason, I simply stopped writing and reciting poetry, as I used to as a child, and started scribbling and drawing with crayons. Ever since, I have been drawing. My very first series, I recall, was called ‘Waiting’, where I depicted Rajasthani women in a very symbolic way.
Years later, after I had completed my bachelor’s and master’s from SNDT College of Arts, Pune, and was planning to do my PhD on tribal art, somehow Rajasthan beckoned me and one of the tribes I chose for my research was the Bhils of Rajasthan. It took me across the length and breadth of Mewar and Marwar and even to the border of Pakistan (on the Jaisalmer side), working very closely with tribal folk, sometimes walking 10–15 km at a stretch. I can name a hundred villages that I have been! I still remember once I was in a Bhil village near Udaipur and had to attend a ceremony at two in the night! The Bhils and Garasias, you know, are very colourful people. Their music, their dance and their passion for colour is amazing! I think I am what I am because of Rajasthan; it made me the passionate person I am.
The road to art
I must say though that I never really had decided on art as a career in the early stages of my life. I just wanted to learn, to experiment, without knowing where it would take me. I never said to myself ‘Sujata, you have to become a top calibre artist; you have to have 25 solo exhibitions’ and the like. I just went with the flow, even if that meant leading an unconventional way of life. However, I remember one incident that inadvertently prepared me for my work later in life:
I was in art college in Pune, barely 17, when one of my teachers came up to me and unceremoniously said that he had booked a gallery for me. He said, ‘You have to do a solo show one year from now.’ I wanted to cry. ‘I have not yet finished my bachelor’s!’ I exclaimed. He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘I don’t know.’ So then on, I would be in college the whole day and then in the night work for my show. It was tough, but I did manage to put up my show. It was my first and I was not even 18!
Later, after completing my doctorate, I had a show on a more professional level at the Bal Gandharva Art Gallery in Pune. It took me one more step towards my art career.
Dedication and passion
I remember, during my college days, the Marwari community wasn’t so receptive to art. I must admit thought that attitudes are changing, and I feel good about it. Back then, there very few Marwaris were interested in arts. Most did not have the right approach to it. Some even discouraged me! But my philosophy in life has been ‘Don’t pay attention to negativities; just do what you want, but with sincerity and hard work’. I would say this attitude is a reflection of the way my Gandhian parents brought me up. One was an Agarwal, the other, a Maheshwari. It was Gandhiji who had decided their marriage, so in spite of societal disapprovals, they got married. So dedication and passion have been a part of psychological makeup, and they are very important to me. I remember an incident which kind of brings out the passion and intensity with which I pursue my work: When I started my Ganesh series—this was in Paris—I was frantically looking for a particular shade of reddish orange that I had once seen in a mandir in Udaipur. But I was not getting it anywhere. Three months passed by and seeing my restlessness, my husband, Rune, was beginning to be concerned about me. Then one day, I dreamt that someone was waking me up from sleep and telling me, “Sujata, you have bought that colour seven years ago; it’s still lying in your cupboard.” The next day, I turned the house upside down looking for it, and true enough, it was there! It didn’t look great, but when I started working with it, it was just I wanted! Similarly, on another occasion I saw an entire finished painting in a dream but later realised that I didn’t know how to go about it—where to begin and how to end. I feel these things happen because you are so connected, so committed.
Today I am an established artist and living in Paris for 26 years, but all these years away from Rajasthan has not been able to diminish my love for the place. Life’s little things and simple joys mean a lot to me. I come back to Rajasthan every year, I stay in a hotel, hire a car and go wherever my childhood memories take me—sometimes to villages to feast my eyes on the colourful clothes the villagers wear; sometimes to shop for beautiful jarao ki jewellery, apparels, ethnic wear and the fascinatingly printed textiles and embroidery that you still get in small by lanes of Jaipur; sometimes to relish the unforgettable lassi, kulfi, pani puris and tikkis of my younger days; or even to simply gaze at the beauty of the undulating sand dunes away from the city. Sometimes I bring my husband and daughter along; they too have grown to love the place.
Actually I come back so often for my shows or otherwise that sometimes I feel I have not left India at all! Right now, I am here for a show and before the year is out, I’ll be back again. I am currently working on a book called Sujata’s Ganapatis which is a compilation of my works over the last 40 years. It’s a huge collection! The book will feature some 300 of my sketches, mixed media works, woodcuts, etchings, painted fibreglass sculptures—all Ganapatis! Ganapati has been one of my all-time favourites. For me, he is more than a god; he is liberation. His form, unlike other gods, is open to creativity and you can depict him in hundreds and thousands of ways. Though my book is scheduled to be out by November 2015, it will be formally launched amidst a huge display of my works—only Ganapatis—on February 20, 2016 in New Delhi and then at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai on March 7, 2016. It will be launched subsequently in Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and other places.
Art, Rajasthan and Marwaris
Speaking of indigenous art, Rajasthan has always had its own share of artistic treasures. Its wealth of lavishly decorated havelis with their ornate doorways and murals of every description, forts, palaces, sculptures, miniature paintings, handicrafts, textiles, fabrics—they simply are amazing! In the area of fine arts, especially paintings, Rajasthan, however, lags behind. Rajasthan is so steeped in its centuries-old culture that if somebody wants to be a contemporary artist in Rajasthan, I feel he or she has to break free and be liberated. As opposed to being stiflingly traditional, his soul should be liberated and have real openness. Just because traditionally something has been done by five generations of ancestors doesn’t mean you too have to follow it blindly. I for one have found my balance between my traditions and what I am today. Take my marriage to Rune for example, who is a Norwegian. Recalling how my parents were married off by Gandhiji with a short, simple ceremony, I remember I had said to my mother, ‘I am going to get married with exactly the same ceremony.’ With that, I removed maybe 80% of rituals which people observe in Rajasthan. It was very simple, but then it was core—what I could understand. Following traditions or rituals blindly doesn’t make sense to me; you have to find your balance; you have to understand what you want from them, perhaps also take inspiration from them and then let your creative energy take over and help you evolve and grow.
Though people tend to believe that traits like perseverance and hard work are a part of the Marwari DNA, I believe it has more to do with being from that part of the country where everyone around you seems so committed; seeing the heights they have scaled with their hard work and dedication can be really inspiring and motivating. But as collectors, yes, Marwaris certainly fare better. Lots of Marwaris have become art collectors and many of them have good art collections. It’s heartening to see they are learning to live with art and appreciate art. They have beautiful houses now and want the interiors to look beautiful; they want to have beautiful works on their walls and don’t mind spending huge sums for it. So in these domains, a lot of aesthetic sense has developed.
Two worlds, two homes
I have lived away from Rajasthan for a very long time, but in spite of it, I am proud to say that I am from Rajasthan. I feel intimately connected to place and am proud of it wonderful heritage—a place where colour is so important, rhythm is so important, faith is important… when I left for Paris 26 years ago, I said to myself ‘I am not going to be a tourist in my own country’. True enough, I have been coming back regularly to India ever since. Paris for me actually is just an extended home. My daughter, who has grown up in Paris, speaks fluent Hindi and my husband has turned 80% vegetarian to adjust to my vegetarianism. I went to Europe because I met him and felt he was the man for me—the man of my life, not because I felt that I needed to go to Europe. I am still so Indian that tomorrow I could very well come back to India! Though the two places are different in so many respects, I am not given to drawing comparisons between them or criticising them for what they are or for what they are not. Instead, I try to accept each place the way it is and balance it all to be both Parisian and Indian at heart.