Look at the Harlequins

Look at the Harlequins

By VINEET GILL | | 2 April, 2016
One of India’s greatest modern artists and a long time resident of Paris, Sakti Burman has just been conferred the highest civilian distinction by the French government for his contribution to the arts. Vineet Gill meets up with the artist at his Delhi home for a conversation on all things aesthetic.

The timing could not have been better. Holi, an occasion to give festive expression to our love of colours, was around the corner. And our gathering seemed a fitting prelude to it, since we were here, in an important part of Delhi, to celebrate and honour the work of an artist to whom colours have always been extremely important.

Sakti Burman was neatly turned out in a black suit, wearing, as always, a full beard sans moustache, Lincoln-style. The venue was the residence of the French Ambassador to India, François Richier. The small crowd, comprising the artist’s family and friends for the most part and, as always, a handful of journalists, broke into extended applause at the conclusion of the ceremony, during which Burman was conferred the highest civilian distinction of France, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur — the French equivalent of a British knighthood — which boasts a very distinguished set of recipients, including some of history’s most outstanding painters, musicians, writers and public figures.

Burman didn’t spend much time on the stage, making a short impromptu speech before reading out a more formal note of gratitude from a sheet of paper. But all the while he was up there, he seemed somewhat out of his depth. It was a curious spectacle: the helplessness of an artist under the spotlight. You could see that nervous blink of a private creature in the public gaze. And you could tell that Burman would have felt much more at ease at a setting more isolated than this — preferably his own studio, where he continues to spend most of his waking hours.

In his studio, an artist is always by himself but never alone. His thoughts and ideas, and yes, all those colours, are there to keep him company. There’s just no space, inside this private bubble of creative endeavour, for loneliness to
creep in.

When I went to see Burman at his Delhi apartment one recent afternoon, I was led into the house by a man, the caretaker here, wearing a black T-shirt that made this cheeky declaration: “I am never lonely coz my loneliness is my best friend.” Well put, I thought. A successful artist is one who succeeds in making loneliness his best friend, as Burman seems to have done.

The man took me straight to the studio, where Burman, dressed in white kurta pyjama and tennis shoes (why the tennis shoes?), was pondering over a work-in-progress. “I thought it would be better if we sat here?” Burman said to me by way of asking if I wanted to move to the living room next door for our interaction.

You know, Tagore in one of his articles mentions this. When people asked him what his paintings were about, he would, he wrote, ‘remain as silent as my paintings’. The paintings are what they are. Apart from being themselves, the paintings can’t speak. And I also become like my paintings when people ask me ‘what does it mean?’ You have to feel what it means.

On the easel before him lay a canvas that was apparently kept upside down. It showed an inverted image: a boy in an harlequin hat, which was painted some shade of red. I asked him why the painting was kept upside down. “Wait, I’ll show you,” he replied, picking up one of his paintbrushes. “This way you can get this bit…this bit here…you can get this bit perfectly well...” He then turned the canvas the right way up, and began brushing the edge of the boy’s hat with red paint. “See, you can’t do it like this. But like that,” he said, replacing the canvas head over heels and taking the brush once again to the hat. “This way, you can. You see? It’s a technique!”

Le Dejeuner au Taj Mahal - Hommage à Manet, 2005. To comment on Burman’s technique and his stylistic leanings would be invariably to misconstrue his work on some level. And certainly it would be bad form to invite the artist to analyse, for our benefit, his own creations. Besides, Burman has himself made no bones about being a bad critic of his own art: “There are some artists who can talk well about their works. I can’t.”

He later amusedly related to me an anecdote about Tagore in this regard: “You know, Tagore in one of his articles mentions this. When people asked him what his paintings were about, he would, he wrote, ‘remain as silent as my paintings’. The paintings are what they are. Apart from being themselves, the paintings can’t speak. And I also become like my paintings when people ask me ‘what does it mean?’ You have to feel what it means.”

Burman could well have been echoing the words of the Finnish musician Jean Sibelius here. “Misunderstand me correctly,” Sibelius had said.

Any attempt to misunderstand Burman’s work correctly would have to touch upon matters of style. There’s indeed a particular style of painting, despite Burman’s versatility, that art critics have come to identify as Burman-esqe, for want a better term.

This is a style that deals, among other things, in excessive, almost ornamental use of colour. Some paintings by Burman look like they contain every colour in the universe. It’s as if they present to us an accurate reflection of the artist’s palette. Look at his oil-on-canvas from 2005, called Joyful Moment in the Garden, for an example of this. There’s so much richness in this work, such polychrome depth, that it’s easy to misread it — especially its colourful backdrop — as an exercise in randomness and chance.

But the truth is that Burman’s use of colours, so unlike the idiom popularised by, say, Jackson Pollock, is thoroughly studied. Nothing in his paintings is left to chance. Every splotch is carefully thought through. Every square inch of the canvas is subjected to the same level of painstaking attention and care. “I like to work hard,” Burman told me.

Burman likes to work round the clock, whether in Delhi or at his home studio in Paris, where he spends at least six months every year with his family. After relocating to France as a student of arts in the 1950s, Burman became a resident of that country, although, he told me, he still holds an Indian passport. In France, Burman and his wife — the French artist Maite Delteil — live in central Paris, and also own a house in the countryside that comes in handy as a seasonal retreat. “We go every year for two months to the French countryside. It’s beautiful there. From my window, I can see a whole field of sunflowers! Sometimes, they plant mustard there and not sunflowers. Sometimes it’s rice. So the colours change outside.”

Yet the lure of the metropolis seems to have been the formative influence on Burman’s work. “I am a city boy,” he said. “Spending too much time in the country makes me start missing my life in the city, where all my friends are. I start missing, you know, the smell of petrol.”

This ambiguous space between the real and the abstract is where one can locate Burman’s art too. His works express at once a figurative nearness to human reality and, paradoxically, an abstract distance from the real world. One of Burman’s greatest achievements is to be able to aesthetically locate this middle ground between abstraction and representation. 

The cosmopolitanism of his experiences often finds expression in his paintings, which are composed like an assemblage of unlikely elements. Its delightful, catch-all incoherence is the strength of Burman’s artistic vision, lending what many of his admirers believe to be a “dream-like” quality to his work. Consider another of his major pieces, Sadhu Singing in a French Village, where a bearded godman sitting with a harmonium occupies the centre of the frame alongside a slender woman clad in a two-piece bikini. Or else, look at his homage to Eduard Manet’s 1863 masterpiece, Dejeuner sur L’herbe — in Burman’s version, the French picnickers that Manet had painted are transposed onto the lawns of the Taj Mahal, where, strangely, they don’t seem out of place. 

This is not to be mistaken for some facile juxtaposition of eastern mysticism with western modernity, beloved of your average “fusion” musician these days. Burman’s work presents to us, instead of an east-meets-west cliché, the map of a consciousness that’s as much at home in Paris as it is in Delhi or Calcutta, where Burman was born in 1935. Just as he operates within the parameters of his own tradition when painting a Durga or a Shiva figure, so he does when his subjects happen to be centaurs or harlequins.

There are many recurring motifs in Burman’s work: the boy in a bowler hat sitting on a goat-like creature (he has even made a bronze sculpture depicting this exact image, which is the first thing you see as you enter his Delhi apartment); the flute; the headdress; and, of course, the harlequin.

Song for the Lost Dreams, oil on canvas, 2011. The work-in-progress before him now was another of his variations on the harlequin, with the model being his grandson, whose photograph in an harlequin hat and a black-and-white diamond patterned shirt, was placed nearby on a table. “Tell me,” Burman asked. “These harlequins…where do they come from?” I mumbled something about them being characters in medieval pantomime theatre, the precursors perhaps of the Shakespearean fool, knowing full well that Burman understands more about the provenance of harlequins than most others. He simply wanted to further enrich his understanding of a subject that’s been dear to him for a long time. Why harlequins, though? Why do they appeal to him? It could be the play between abstraction and reality that the figure of an harlequin — costumed and often wearing a mask — embodies.

This ambiguous space between the real and the abstract is where one can locate Burman’s art too. His works express at once a figurative nearness to human reality and, paradoxically, an abstract distance from the real world. One of Burman’s greatest achievements is to be able to aesthetically locate this middle ground between abstraction and

This must have taken some doing, for Burman came of age only a few decades after Wassily Kandinsky’s influential creative manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, was published in Europe, taking the art world by storm. Kandinsky, whom S.H. Raza later came to regard as his creative father, wanted artists to turn away from the representational towards “the abstract, the non-material”. I asked Burman whether he was ever swayed by the reigning ideologies of his time, and if he ever tried his hand at abstraction.

“I am not a very abstract painter. I do figurative paintings. Nowadays, the whole…” he turned towards the canvas as he said this, and moved his right hand rapidly across it, in a mock gesture of smearing the surface with paint. “Nowadays the whole thing painted red is also a painting. But I don’t feel happy with that. And I cannot enjoy that. And yes, my friends, especially Indian friends, most of them were abstract painters. One was from Bombay, the other from south India. But us Bengalis were always concerned with figurative work, you know. Abstraction was also the style of the time, when I had gone to Paris in the 1950s. So naturally one couldn’t close one’s eyes to it. So I tried, I tried doing abstract paintings. Even I sold paintings” — he said with a laugh — “abstract paintings. But finally it didn’t continue.”

Our interchange was briefly interrupted at this point by Burman’s wife, Maite, who’d been busy all this while working on her own painting next door. She stepped into the studio to enquire if Burman wanted any particular colours to be ordered from the store. She spoke in French, and Burman responded in a mix of French and English. He handed her an empty, twisted tube of white paint and said, “I might require the white. Can you ask him to buy at least two or three of these?” Then he turned towards me, and said, “Yes, need more colours! Because it’s nearly finished. And you know, I still have to work. Can you imagine an artist ever taking rest?”

Yes, it was the curse of the artist to be perpetually at work. Most of the time there’s real, physical work to be done, and all the time — even on the subconscious, subterranean level of sleep — there’s mental work to be done. “I can’t think of anything else at all,” Burman said. “This is what I do all day. I start the day here in the studio. They call me for breakfast. Then I am back again. It’s the same all day, unless I have to see the dentist or,” he said affably, light-heartedly, “a journalist.”

As I prepared to leave, Burman took me next door, to the living room, where all the four walls were covered with artworks — some were by his wife or daughter (also an artist), and some were Burman’s own, recognisable paintings. On the corridor wall was mounted one of his great works, from 2011, entitled Song for the Lost Dreams. “I did two Gandhis. This is one of them,” he told me. The painting depicts Gandhi at the centre of the frame, bespectacled, with his eyes either shut in prayer or looking down at the open book he holds in his hands. And around Gandhi are painted various mudras of human violence: soldiers with guns, a goddess with a spear. Oddly enough, a bearded sarangi player is also a part of this ensemble. So is a downcast man, visibly unarmed, and wearing a European-style overcoat and hat. Why them? The question occurred to me but I let it pass. I reminded myself that this confusion is as integral a part of the overall experience of Burman’s art as those headdresses, those harlequins, those mythological pointers, and, yes, all those colours are part of his supremely beautiful canvases.


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