Paresh Maity, painter and boundary-breaking artist, has me enveloped in a bear hug on a particularly chilly night in Kolkata. I pause to let the feeling that I am face-to-face with the Padma Shri winner. We’re at the famous lawns of Birla Academy of Art and Culture in the heart of the city. This is where his second retrospective exhibition of sculptures and installations titled “CAST”—presented by Gallery Art Exposure—is being held till December 16. His first exhibit at CIMA Gallery, Kolkata, titled “Noise of Many Waters”, is open to the public till December 14. Curated by Rakhi Sarkar, it features over a 120 artworks, which span 40 years of Maity’s career. Both the retrospectives include his trademark watercolour paintings, drawings, sketches and a film and sound installation about water.
I interview Mr Maity as the Jagaddhatri Puja celebrations are underway in full swing in an adjoining park overlooking Lake Kalibari, a stone’s throw away from the academy. His calm, measured words still have a way of drowning the drums.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
What was the thought behind having two retrospectives now?
The last two years have been tough, there weren’t any physical exhibitions. But sculpture is a multi-dimensional art, so is painting. You can’t see it virtually, you’ve got to feel it to truly understand the colours and the scale. The Birla Academy president told me that we ought to take a chance and just go ahead with it, with all the safety measures in place of course. But there’s a method to the madness too. You see, putting together sculptures of this scale is no joke. For instance, in “The Power” I collected over a hundred bells and fashioned them into the structure of the bull, to convey the vigour of the bull with the sound of bells that we can’t hear. More than anything, all of this is a combined hard work of more than a dozen people.
Kolkata is often seen as your muse. Tell us about that relationship.
This city of joy is rich with culture. Think drama, theatre, music or even old school architecture and you can’t rule out Kolkata. The germination of my art was in this city. It’s a city that is not only nostalgic but also rewards your nostalgia. I have always wanted to capture this. I try working on this through an interplay of light and shadows of course. Because you need to project that nostalgia of light in the background of memories.
What does travel mean to you?
It’s travelling to the small towns for me. There is a story and inspiration in every lane. Something about the simplicity of these towns allows me to dream big, be more ambitious. My relationship with travel and its intersection with my work is purely emotional. Any piece of art will only come alive only if the artist is in tune with the core of his heart, as cliché as it might sound. For me, I only work with love. You’ve got to get lost in it, drown yourself in it and cut the chaff.
You have often been credited for single-handedly pioneering oil painting in the contemporary art scene. Why does this medium lend itself so effortlessly to your vision?
I started my career with clay modelling. I would work on Durga idols and other murtis for days on end—nurturing the clay was my first passion at the age of 7. When I slowly graduated to oil painting, it was purely for the range of colours they provided. But the oil painting canvas also comes with a limitation as you can’t go all out in terms of the expanse. The size of the paper is limited in that sense. I am obsessed with size. That’s how I merged into sculptures as well. Some of these works at display today, took years to work on. I have experimented with melting metals, junk materials, mixed medium, or even oil acrylic.
The artworks and the sculptures, all convey a wholly different story. It’s fascinating to see them all together sharing a single space.
For “Motion,” I had to collect a hundred pieces of old Royal Enfield bikes, then I attached fan blades to give an impression of what honey bees looked like in an urban milieu. While I scoured north India for the best truck for “The Spice Route”. They might all seem different but there is a common theme of harmony with nature. “The Spice Route” is all about the harmony of various species while with “Motion” I have tried to show we are in the honeybees’ world, not the other way round. It’s like milk is the common denominator in curd, cheese or buttermilk. Here, nature is the milk.
Arman Khan is a freelancer journalist and editor who writes at the intersection of travel, culture, and queer and minority rights. When he’s not binge watching dystopian dramas, you can always find him foraging in the hills. His works have appeared in Them, Vogue, GQ, VICE, Architectural Digest, The Swaddle, The Caravan, India Today, CN Traveller, Grazia, and Femina.