By Vinay Seth
I met Manmeet Kaur Walia, the curator of the exhibition ‘Masterly Manoeuvring: Lalu Prasad Shaw’, at the preview of the show on the evening of 20th July. Though very busy attending the guests, she was kind enough to lend me her time and attention, and we fixed a meeting scheduled for the following day.
Manmeet: The fluid conversationalist
The next day at Bikaner House, I waited for her on the reception sofa. Upon her arrival, I stood up to meet her and informed her that my colleague, supposed to record the interview, would be coming a bit late. We started chatting while standing, and Manmeet invited me to continue the conversation seated. While making ourselves a little comfortable, I regretfully informed her that my phone’s battery was dead and I had forgotten to bring the charger. This handicap proved to be a blessing in disguise though, as it made me continue our conversation on the spot and discard the question-answer format I had in mind for the interview.
Thankfully, the curator reassured me that this mode of interviewing was what she herself was more comfortable with. Surprisingly, I had learned in our introductory chit-chat that she had been a journalist herself for many years, before pursuing art-making and subsequently art curation. Manmeet shared that she herself figured out early in her journalistic career that a freely flowing conversation worked better for her in her interviews, rather than a strict question-answer format.
She shared that her engagement with Lalu Prasad Shaw had also been a conversational one as well, with her going to Kolkata and talking to him over a period of three days. She chose not to bother about his story based on pre-written canon, and rather curate the show based on her conversational engagement with the artist.
Manmeet: The curator whose exhibitions are meant to be experiential
Manmeet took great pains to make the show an authentic, immersive experience. I told her that I fell in love with the Bengali snacks served at the opening, which I found fitting for the Bengal connection of the show. She was prompt to inform me that this selection was no coincidence, and that she had herself chosen the Bengali restaurant, Tangra Project to be the caterers for the opening. Moreover, once into the exhibition, one couldn’t help but take note of Bengali music from the golden past playing in the background. Even the colours of the exhibition walls had been carefully selected by Manmeet — some white, some maroon.
Manmeet told me that she likes to make an exhibition an immersive experience unto itself. In this way then, her curated shows are imagined by her sort of as installations, with her being the artist co-ordinating and placing together all elements. The curator has lived out a short but intensive life as a visual artist herself in the past, and perhaps that experience reflects well in her meticulous attention to detail in her exhibition curation today.
When I asked Manmeet whether the show was supposed to be a retrospective look on Lalu Prasad Shaw, she stated that despite the retrospective aspect being present, the exhibit had been planned more as a synopsis. The selection was sparse, since Manmeet wanted the exhibition to be succinct and also not be an overwhelming clutter for the viewer.
Shaw: Joyful tenacity, amidst urban poverty
Getting to the artist of the show, Manmeet threw light on her very interesting take on both Lalu Prasad Shaw, the person and Lalu Prasad Shaw, the artist. Early on in our conversation, Manmeet had said that although Lalu’s art is often dismissed by some people as being merely decorative, she finds something much more meaningful in his works.
Later in our conversation did I clearly learn what she was alluding to. She told me that Shaw has been choosing to paint joyful pictures, even if he himself has been surrounded by misery. She told me that Lalu Prasad Shaw is a person who chooses to be happy, and if there’s something he’s miserable about, he prefers to mope about it in private.
When Lalu’s joyful and sometimes humorous works are seen against this backdrop, it becomes clear that his artistic choice of expression is one borne out of tenacity, grounded in his own life experience. Some of this experience has been harsh and the artist has seen trying times in his life. Born in pre-Independent India, he was making art when the art market in India had slim prospects. There is a very short film piece in the exhibition, which shows the artist candidly talking about the hardships he faced as an art student, spending pretty much all he had at the time to study art, and even going hungry on many days during this period. From his voice, accent and the manner in which he talks, it is evident that he comes from the grass roots of society. He is someone coming from a humble background, that too in an impoverished Bengal where the rich too had long crossed their glory days.
It makes sense then that Lalu sought solace in creating beautiful pictures that exuberate joy and simplicity. This is the polar opposite of many of the octogenarian’s generation, who choose to depict existential anguish through their art. Painting — and sculpting, of late — must have been a deeply therapeutic activity for him, and is certainly a delightful joy to behold for many fans of his work.
Masterly manoeuvring through a commercial path
But while Lalu’s pictures are commercially appealing, they are not crass. They are simple, but not simplistic. His drawings are done with bold flat lines but faithfully depict the forms thus outlined.
The ‘masterly manoeuvring’ part of the show’s title, Manmeet informed us, refers to the masterful move by the artist, of choosing a populist theme of “Babu-Bibi”, appealing to the tastes of the masses. This series started off as a deliberate move by the artist to make pictures that sell well in the market. Lalu has no qualms about this intention, and was surprisingly, matter-of-fact honest in sharing it in his interview with Manmeet. While this facet might seem embarrassing to the art purist, learning about his life and his cultural context might make one appreciate the pragmatism behind this move, coming after decades of scraping the barrel — the acclaimed painter was once a devoted printmaker in the prestigious halls of Santiniketan, but was met with financial disappointment since there was no real market for graphic prints in India during those days.
Through the Babu-Bibi series, Shaw celebrates the nostalgia of a romanticised, simpler Bengali middle class of decades gone by. He masterfully journeys through his past, bringing out a freshness from the good old days gone by, while also staying commercially afloat by creating and selling images appealing to the masses. The move has been executed brilliantly by a master painter, under whose vision commercially popular sensibility and high art have blended seamlessly.
Many of the artist’s paintings look almost like they could make for memorable postcards if shrunken to that size. The simple forms, with bold outlines, make for very direct images, with a pleasantness brought about by the colours used.
A marriage of indigenous, academic and popular aesthetic
Although the exhibition text made it clear that Shaw was inspired by Kalighat paintings, I was puzzled to find portraits reminiscent of Mughal and Rajput miniature portraits of erstwhile kings. The curator clarified though that these poses had been inspired by the photo-studio poses that Lalu saw in the art fair at Santiniketan in his college days.
As a graphic artist, Shaw has made a long journey from printmaking to drawings, to paintings, and ultimately to his signature Babu-Bibi series, which includes bronze sculptures. This diverse, multidisciplinary journey is reflected in the eclecticism present in his signature style.
Shaw’s images are a seamless blend of Indian folk and classical painting, and Western academic training. While they might look visually simple on the surface, they show a three-dimensionality clearly discernible in the flat figures and objects. In one painting, I was struck by Lalu’s masterly showcase of three-dimensionality via flat treatment: A woman’s face had been painted in a flat manner, yet the asymmetrical bent in her oral bone structure was clearly perceivable.
Shaw’s quaint pictures carry the undertone of the picturesque. They are pleasing to the eye and comforting in their beauty. His Babu-Bibi series comprises pictures that are old-fashioned and nostalgic, yet very fresh in their artful treatment, apparent in fashions and objects such as the sturdy and beautiful Calcutta umbrella and the anachronistically fresh colours of his protagonists’ dhotis.
Lalu’s legacy lives on…
When I told Manmeet that I find it strange that I don’t recall Lalu being mentioned whenever a group, such as that of Santiniketan, is showcased in either an exhibition or in text, she said that as a curator, she would be happy to place the artist in a larger framework. While the tenacious octogenarian is renowned by now as a master with a signature style, I wonder what his legacy would add to the discourse of Indian, as well as global contemporary art.
“Masterly Manoeuvring: Lalu Prasad Shaw” is on for display at Bikaner House, New Delhi, till Sunday, 24th July. The curator shall be conducting a walkthrough at 4 pm.