Minds Cupboard Retrospective – Curated by Sumesh Manoj Sharma

by Lalitha Lajmi

We have lived in times where the present has been fleeting.  Preoccupied in our lives that were eternal , our lives promised unending scapes of happening and possibility.  During the Covid pandemic Lalitha Lajmisketched portraits of women,  birds with human heads and Christ-like busts on a long Japanese paper scroll that lay in her studio for decades.  A relative who was a flight captain had brought the paper from Japan , she never got to using the scroll, rather the pandemic forced her to scout for material in her studio.  The  pandemic also changed the nuance of time, it was ever present even though its raced away into loneliness.  Loneliness is a malaise we live in Bombay at pandemic scale.  It stains our memory ,nostalgia for familiar loved faces often returns to question our existence.  

”The thought was that I would start with the beginning of life because creativity begins in the womb. When I worked with watercolours, I did a series on the psyche of the child,” she says. “These scrolls were not for an exhibition. This was for myself. During the lockdown, I wondered initially what I would do because I’d already done etchings, watercolours and oils. So I thought I would try to draw in pencil. I used to work in oil earlier but you need daylight for oils and I had no time during the day earlier. I’ve got daylight now but I’m already done with those mediums.” – Lalitha Lajmi to Ritika Kocchar for the Hindu in an article on her practice –  Artist for all seasons: Lalitha Lajmi, January 9th, 2021 , The Hindu 

Rhetoric and discourse cannot erase emotional states, Lalitha Lajmi in her Memory Rolls, scrolls memories of much happiness, she sheds the masks of her earlier work in printmaking where torsos appeared with masks hiding the inherent sadness of relationships.  Her memory rolls are happy in shedding that weight rather their birds allow much freedom of flight. Her recent works show her conceptual prowess at being able to draw from memory complex perspectives and anatomy.  She uses the water stain that has been on the rice paper for years to act as a base to sketch the continuity of her drawings in grisaille and sepia tones.  Like most of her work these drawings are autobiographical as they are imaginary.  

Lalitha has battled loneliness all her life and the emotion has authored her prints.  She is  the senior most practicing printmaker alive India who is practicing  and one of the few women printmakers of generation that is defined by Zarina Hashmi,  Anupam Sud and her , all three women who have lent their personal lives as the subject for their etchings.  She is the sister of the legendary filmmaker Guru Dutt and the mother of Kalpana Lajmi who is  thepioneer of parallel cinema in India.  She was extremely close to her brother and her daughter understood her conversations through her drawings.  We all pine and suffer the parting of our loved ones.  But in a  time where contemporary culture convinces us of our immortality through consumption,  invincibility through fantasies of material success and an urban architecture purposed for individuality , loneliness has never been so overwhelming.  

She places windows often within domestic spaces, windows that look into landscapes of the mind. These she depicts as artist self-portraits. Lajmi was born to a poet father and a poly-linguist writer mother in 1932. Through a vocabulary of an unequal distribution of images and perspectives within the same plane she narrates a layered history of the modern Indian woman in the decades that followed independence.  She returned to her career as an artist after her marriage and the birth of her children in an exhibition of the Progressive Artists Group in 1960 at the Artist’s Centre Bombay.  A year later her mentor KH Ara, who had included her in the exhibition,  gave her the opportunity to do her first solo show.  Being one of the few women artists of that period, Lalitha managed her career along with the responsibilities of a family and that of an art teacher within a school. 

 She returned to her home late in the evenings. This and the lack of sunlight curtailed her painting. Having studied the art of intaglio and etching through a government funded program for evening classes at the Sir JJ School of Art, from 1973 to 1976,  Lalitha set up a press within her kitchen.  Working at night using electrical light, through an interesting use of grisaille and sepia tones, she began making prints that later were to travel to an exhibition that took place simultaneously in West and East Germany in 1983, supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.  Images in her works are metaphors with multiple references to relationships,  dream sequences and multiple identities.  The performer- often the clown – represents our own domestic performance of roles we are expected to play,  the mask – our concealed identities through which we put up our multiple appearances,  and the skull a vanitas to our short life. Drawn from her personal history she creates a visual biography  thatis left to interpretation by her viewers.  Presenting dichotomies that are both humorous and tragic, akin to the stories of her brother, the legendary director Guru Dutt often narrated through his films. 

Each year, on his journey to Shantiniketan Dr. Heinz Mode an archaeologist would stop into Bombay to meet Lalitha Lajmi, replicating the barter trade that existed between his country the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and India. He was one of her first collectors. The two hailed form socialist economies where the paucity of liquid funds was acute. Thus they devised a barter where Lalitha would receive art books in lieu of the art work Mode would pick up. From this friendship over a few decades arose an extensive library. In 1983 Lalitha travelled with her daughter to Germany on the invitation of Dr.Mode. A pastor and his wife arranged for an exhibition of Lalitha’s works in West Berlin. Lalitha thinks back to her journey by train to the other side of the wall to an exhibition of her etchings arranged by Dr. Mode. The stark contrasts of the two worlds, and her two simultaneous exhibitions across the iron curtain, were coincidences that resembled the dichotomies within individuals, represented in her works. Often described as stark and biographical, etchings that are difficult to view, they were personal metaphors, easily misunderstood as literal, until read as a visual vocabulary for concise, psycho-analytic insight in a confessional mode. 

The major themes that re-occur in her work: dichotomies of the self-hidden behind masks; the trope of social performers, like the clown; intense portrayals of the abject; metaphorical windows and psychological interiority; erotic works of intimacy between the sexes; and arresting portraits.  Her present works are presentations of her imaginations,  during the pandemic we were engulfed by material that has been animated on screen. 

The act of drawing is an act of radical conceptualism in a time where we are  inundated with multimedia.  Drawing is least consuming of resources and demonstrates human ability over the techniques and possibility of machines and artificial intelligence. The last canvas she has painted depicts her pumping blood from her heart out to the heart of Frida Kahlo.  Both Frida and Lalitha are distinct in their personalities but have faced a society that often contests the narratives of a woman.  Lalitha’s engagement with psychoanalysis and therapy as well as her courage to conceptually treat it as a subject four decades ago makes her practice relevant and critical specially today where we inhabit a mental health crisis.  


Chennai 2022