‘I feel that for an artist, passion and focus should remain. If you change your art to suit someone else, then your art goes away.’

Lalitha Lajmi is a prominent Indian artist whose works portray and celebrate women as strong figures. She is the sister of famed director-actor Guru Dutt. Her daughter, Kalpana Lajmi, was also an accomplished filmmaker but passed away in 2018. Lalitha had her first solo exhibition in 1961. She appeared in a guest appearance in Aamir Khan’s 2007 film, Taare Zameen Par, as the judge of an art competition. Lalitha Lajmi has given several lectures in India and the UK. She has showcased her work at the graphic workshop of Prof Paul Lingerine in Mumbai and two of her etchings were selected for the “India Festival” 1985, USA. Her paintings have been widely celebrated and exhibited in various prominent galleries. Her works are often autobiographical and revolve around the themes of death, the mother-daughter relationship, and have a surrealistic quality to them.
Her journey into the arts began when her uncle gave her a box of paint when she was 5 years old. Lalitha was enrolled in the Sir JJ School of Art where she would also attend evening printmaking classes. She recalls having being gifted several books of German lithographers and etching artists by her cousin, which at once inspired her. At that time she was approached by Amol Palekar, who asked her to design costumes for his play. This was where the motif of masks, ubiquitous in her work, took birth. She says, ‘I was very keen that I was going to do expressions in my mask and not the decorative kind. So, I think that whole journey of mine, from 1973 onwards, especially in printmaking and etching, was very powerful.’ The elements of chess, mirrors and masks have been a recurrent constituent of Lajmi’s work, reflecting the tough choices, deep introspection, and duality that exists in one’s projection and self.

The veteran artist spoke about her life and work with Prerna SM Jain:

Can you tell us more about your uncle’s influence over your childhood?
My uncle, B.B. Benegal, used to create film posters and I loved seeing him work in his studio. Every Friday or Saturday, my grandmother used to take us to our uncle’s house in Dharamtala by tram. We used to live in Baliganj, which was one of the suburbs. He used to get passes for all the films and he used to send us to see those films. It was great fun. I think it had a really big influence on my mind, on my brother’s, specially my eldest brother Guru Dutt.

How did your relationship with your brother affect your work and you personally?
I am a self-taught artist, I haven’t studied painting. My brother was also self-taught. In those days, there was no film institute. Most of my paintings are perhaps autobiographical, why, I don’t know. I went through a very traumatic time not only when I lost my daughter but also when I lost my brother. He was my eldest brother and he died very young unexpectedly. It was a terrible shock to my mother, Gita, and to all of us. I was doing different kinds of works at the time and I was so disturbed that it came out in the work. It was like a constant emotional turbulence. I had some problems at home, too, so I had to go through psychoanalysis through a proper doctor. That’s where I discovered that I only wanted to do figurative work and not abstract. Clarity came to my mind.

Can you talk about the aesthetics of your work?
I don’t use space a lot of time [spatial depth]. The content should come through one’s work instead of colours, so I use very little colours. My expression is through forms and not non-forms. The mirrors are also a reflection of my mind.

What has been the influence of cinema on your work?
When I go back to the days of my childhood, I think the influence of films subconsciously comes into your work, even if you don’t remember the films. Also, with my brother being a big film personality, I was fortunate to meet and see many actors, actresses, and the poets who used to come to our house.

Can you talk about your passion?
Even when I was teaching the whole day, my mind was always thinking about art. I used to do printmaking till 2 o’clock in the night and then go to work. That sort of passion that I had I still have, though I may not be able to do the kind of work that I used to do or the kind of hours I could put in, because I don’t have the energy now because of age. There was a time when money was very important. I used to do teaching, take tuitions, do story illustrations in the Times weekly, but I decided that I won’t do calendar or poster kind of works, because before marriage I did three years of commercial art at Sir JJ School of Arts. I feel that for an artist, passion and focus should remain. If you change your art to suit someone else, then your art goes away.

Could you talk about your recent personal loss?
I lost my daughter and I was very close to her. Even today, the pain has not gone. We used to live in the same house, in adjoining rooms. It is very hard to lose your child. The bond between a mother and child is so strong. Now a lot of people have pointed out that I had done a lot of works, paintings, watercolours and oils with mother and child figures. I never pointed out that aspect, I always said ‘untitled’, but now I agree that the bond is so strong that somewhere it came in my work long before I lost Kalpana. I miss her very much, I will miss her always. Nothing can fill that void. For one year I did not do any work after she passed away.

How have you been spending your time during the lockdown?
I have some Japanese rolled paper and I have been doing some drawings on it. I have been doing some reading as well, like philosophical books. My son lives in Greece and during his last visit I told him that I was not very comfortable with the kind of television that is there in Bombay, so now I watch Netflix. ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ are some good films on Netflix. I have a studio in the garage but with the lockdown I can’t step out, so I take a walk within the house.

How has this pandemic affected you personally and professionally?
Today I was thinking that I have not seen the sun. One doesn’t see nature any longer; it is like being shut off from the whole world when you are by yourself. It is very difficult. If you talk about art, people are not getting essentials like food during this time, so art took a backseat long time ago. Since 2008, in fact, it has been bad for the art industry. I got three calls from three different galleries last week asking if we are prepared to bring down the prices a little in these times. So, yes, it is a tough time ahead.

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