Prose | Juliet Reynolds

We present to you the third part of the excerpt (reprint) from Finding Neema by Juliet Reynolds ( Hachette India, 2013)

'Self-portrait' by Anil Karanjai.
 It was the cover of the catalogue for Anil's exhibition in Delhi, 1972.  

If my working as a teacher had given Anil the freedom to create without worrying about sales, it had also enabled us to cock a snook at the goings-on in the art world .In view of this, it may seem strange that after I left my job, and our income diminished, I devoted a great deal of my time to exposing those goings-on in my writing. This was a time when the Indian print media was giving a lot of coverage to art and didn't baulk at carrying pieces that were critical of the art establishment. A handful of editors even encouraged it. I took full advantage of the situation, using every opportunity to air my views. But I did to be constructively critical, pointing out anything I thought good and suggesting ways of righting wrongs.

Whatever I published during this era, which endured till the mid-nineties, gave me huge satisfaction but little else. Although I sometimes wrote articles for international publication, the income I derived from these was insufficient to keep us going for long. And whatever I earned from my writing in India was frankly risible. There persists in this country a ferocious disdain for labour, and while I would hesitate to compare ‘intellectual workers” to the millions who slog for a pittance, I can assert from experience that Indian media paymasters look upon the freelance writer as one who should work for the honour of appearing in their publications. Fighting for my dues bothered me even more than receiving peanuts; at times it seemed that the paymasters took a sadistic pleasure in hanging on to cheques as long as possible and making one beg.

My difficulties put pressure on Anil to earn more from his art, a development about which I would have felt much more guilty had he not been so supportive of my endeavours as a critic. He was very passionate about art and was distressed about the direction it was taking on the contemporary stage, so he encouraged me to the hilt, providing me with ideas for articles, as well as inside information about artists and their manoeuvrings. It was not that Anil was jealous of the worldly achievements of others. He believed that artists should live with recognition and dignity, and with as much comfort as was necessary to carry on their work. Yet he was also firm in the conviction that an artist, being privileged, had a responsibility towards society. He himself had always been a socio-political activist and, although he didn’t expect this of everyone, he felt that artists should, at the very least, speak out against injustices and fight for change within the ambit of their own environment. He enjoyed the reputation of being forthright and uncompromising, causing many to fear him.

Anil had moved from Benaras to New Delhi at the tail end of the sixties in order to broaden his creative horizons. The Indian capital in those days was still quite unsophisticated despite the presence of a large diplomatic and expatriate community. But it was just beginning to rival Calcutta and Bombay as a centre of artistic activity; despite there being only a handful of galleries, artists had settled here from all over the country and when exhibitions were held they were taken seriously. Anil had entered this environment full of optimism not just for himself but for the future of art. He was immediately taken on by a well reputed gallery and before long he had earned recognition as a significant young talent. Though he had little time for state honours, he accepted a National Award because this was conferred on him by a jurist he respected a great deal.

During his years in America in the mid to late seventies he became deeply introspective; his distance from India allowed him to step back and reflect upon his art, to consider its strengths and weaknesses and to determine the direction in which to develop it. The result of this was maturation, a quietening down; whereas his earlier paintings had tended to be strident and rhetorical; his wok from this era became progressively more subtle. The mature Anil first went public in 1985 with an exhibition called Images of Silence. Although a success in terms of media coverage, public response and even sales, the exhibition provoked some rumblings in the upper echelons of the art world about Anil’s new style: he had moved on from what was deemed as ‘surrealism’ to a new kind of ‘realism; more classical than ultra-modern. This made him stand out from the crowd.

He was to continue along this path to the end of the eighties and into the nineties, by which time the so-called 'art market' had been created and the art world had undergone its metamorphosis. There was little room in this milieu for mavericks like him but he remained on course, producing work that was ever more at odds with the mainstream. Landscape became his principal preoccupation and he also became fascinated with portraiture. In the greater world of art, where it was mandatory to appear ‘avant-garde’ both these genres were written off as outdated and irrelevant. With such attitudes prevailing, there was no chance of Anil’s competing commercially. Indeed, the path he had chosen had doomed him to worldly failure; one could call it professional suicide.


Despite the economic uncertainties that Anil and I faced after I gave up my teaching job, this was a very fulfilling time in our creative lives. And it was without significant doubt that this phase coincided with Neema’s becoming part of our home. The decision not to have children had been reached equally by both of us after much deliberation and we had made it with equanimity and without regret. But as has so often been observed, childless couples tend to experience difficulties not felt in families: when the excitement of a new relationship has dwindled and familiarity sets in, there come moments of discomfiture or emptiness between a couple which can become more pronounced if not dealt with rightly. To be successful, every marriage requires hard work and a degree of compromise and self-sacrifice, but a childless marriage can be much more demanding. Anil and I were acutely aware of this but, even then, we were not always tuned to the needs of the other, sometimes not knowing what to say or saying the wrong thing at an awkward moment. In the presence of children, the tension arising in this way tends to get diffused. Never for a moment had we considered taking in Neema as a panacea, as somebody to fill a void in our lives. Yet, once he had settled in with us, we both began to feel a greater completeness. This must have contributed a good deal to our creative oneness of this time.

Anil had become absorbed in his quest for a new visual language that would express the panoply of human emotions through landscape. Progressively at odds with the world of art, he felt alienated and alone, yet he wanted to share this with others. In the part of New Delhi we inhabited, we were surrounded by nature. Our immediate area was abundant in trees, some very exotic and colourful, some generously verdant. At home, in the downstairs courtyard, there was a mango tree of advanced years which reached up to our rooftop and spread its branches over a large section of our terrace, giving shade to our more delicate plants. The door of Anil’s Studio opened onto this greenery, and we rarely closed it while he was at work or while we were relaxing inside; only on the very coldest days of winter or the hottest of summer was it necessary for us to insulate ourselves from this welcome view of nature. Better still, our neighbourhood was bordered by Lodhi Gardens, one of the most magnificent parks one could hope to find. Lodhi Gardens is named after Northern India’s 15th-16th century Pashtun rulers and it contains this dynasty’s elegant mausolea, as well as other monuments, including a bridge of rare beauty dating back to the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Every morning before breakfast without fail, Anil and I would walk there with our dogs and, in due course, with Neema once his legs were strong enough. With such an entourage, our pace was fairly leisurely, but we would keep it up for at least an hour so we were always well exercised, as were the dogs who loved to break the rules, chasing squirrels and vultures or jumping into the fountains.

With his deepening involvement in landscape painting Anil’s love affair with Lodhi Gardens became intense. Indeed, I could say that this luxuriant green location grew to be his muse. He wasn’t remotely concerned with the touristy or scenic views of the monuments that captured the interest of other artists, art students or photographers. What drew in were the unknown corners of the gardens, hidden spots where, peeping out from the green were vestiges of the past like a few old steps or some broken masonry. Moreover, it was never his objective to paint Lodhi Gardens as it appeared to the eye. The ultimate goal for him in landscape was to capture feelings or moods, as very Indian approach to artistic expression; it is paralleled in Indian classical music in the raga system, where by a composition conveys a mood based on a season and time of the day or night; Anil very consciously painted with ragas in mind; scale, tone, harmony and discord were but some of the elements contributing to the moods of his images and the feelings these evoked. His need for classical music while he was painting became all the more acute this time.


As contemporizing salient aspects of Indian tradition was Anil’s holy grail in landscape painting, this brought us into very special union, Indian aesthetic theory is as much concerned with the way the spectator responds to an artwork as with the means by which the artist builds up particular moods and communicates emotions. The more Anil and I explored this approach, the more we realized its relevance to all cultures, past and present, and to all cultural manifestations including film. We were thrilled by the realization and spent long hours discussing it.

This was an extraordinary juncture in our marriage. So often had our work been carried out in separation and even when we discussed what each of us was doing, there tended to be a sense of yours and mine’. But now we were joined, not just with a common goal, but with thoughts and ideas running in unison. I look back on this experience as a marriage of true minds’ and I regard it as a huge privilege, perhaps a rare one.


If were asked to enumerate the factors – apart from art- that united me and Anil I would have to place a shared sense of humour high on my list. There are few who wouldn't agree that humour is the key to a lasting marriage and that a couple which laughs together is much more likely to get through life in unity than a couple which doesn't find the same things funny or has no humour of any kind.

Anil, in the main, was a serious character, much more serious than, I, who am sometimes given to frivolity, I often thought he was a bit too serious, too intense, for his own good; he tended to take off on issues, particularly the political, and while I had boundless admiration for his genuine commitment to left ideals, I sometimes felt he over–argued his case, thereby losing the thread of logic. He also liked to dominate discussions, frequently brushing aside the viewpoints of others. If he took a dislike to someone, he could be downright offensive, though I had to admit that in the majority of cases this was well deserved. Fortunately for him, his intensity was matched by a keen sense of the ridiculous and an ability to see the comic side of ghastly situations and of the contradictions inherent in human nature. As an artist, this is reflected in many of his overtly political works where distorted human figures converge on the eye, tyrannical and arrogant or angry and accusing, but always with a touch of the satirical. In life, his humour would often take me by surprise; he would suddenly come out with droll remarks about people that were so very apt as to make me chortle devilishly; he principally reacted to pretentiousness or chicanery, as also to stupidity when it was matched with self-importance.

For all his intensity and overbearing propensities, there was a very unassuming, quiet side to Anil. It wasn't in his nature to make fun of himself, and only occasionally did he take himself too seriously. I, on the other hand, made fun of myself a lot; when I let fly expletives and deprecating remarks, more often than not these were self-directed, and this was amusing to Anil providing I didn't disturb the rhythm of his work. Where he found me funny was in the way I used language; the odd turn of phrase or a particular expression which I spontaneously came out with would often make him chuckle; in my choice of words I sometimes echoed my Irish mother whose humour Anil prized. Both he and I had a fascination for language; this involved literally translating idioms or axioms from one language to another, mainly English to Hindi, the results of which were often hilarious;: for instance, ‘the country’s gone to the dogs became ‘desh kutte ke paas chala gaya’ while ‘the poor man kicked the bucket’ became ‘bechare ne balti ko lat mar diya; We relished this game of the absurd for its capacity to highlight the sublime illogic of language.


Anil  and I shared a great love of animals and they, like Neema, gave us plenty to smile about. But for a long time into our relationship we hadn’t considered keeping pets. If we discussed it at all, this was merely to underline that our lifestyle precluded this possibility just as it prevented us from raising a family. Moreover, in those days our animal preferences were at variance; while Anil liked cats, I was a dog person. But as true animal lovers know only too well, cats and dogs are prone to choosing their owners rather than the other way round, especially the case in a country like India where strays abound. Sooner rather than late both of us would be chosen.

The first pet we adopted was a kitten called Mao, so-named by Anil on account not only of his vociferous miaowing but also of his resolve to occupy in permanence the most important chair in the house. We next took on Jinnee, a pup called after the spirit of Arabian folklore, the genie of the lamp who could grant people’s wishes. A mongrel she might have been but rarely in any dog have I seen such a noble head. The only giveaway was the colour of her sleek coat: she was reddish brown with white marking, colouring typical of the Indian Pie-dog. Jinnee reached maturity at a mere nine months largely due to the copious quantities of animal protein fed to her by Anil. During her first heat, dogs from far and wide followed her trail yet she spurned the advances of all but a few, mongrels and pure-breeds alike; we were never able to fathom the logic of her selection of mates but the litter of five she gave birth to was a wondrous motley crew. Anil decided to keep at least one of them, a ball of white fluff who resembled a polar bear and whom he hence named Bhalu. For want of a good home, we also kept a female called Kuki, a laidback character with a sweet puckish face and ears that were positioned in opposing directions, one up, one down.

So there we were, without planning, a family of five: me, Anil and our three doughty hounds. We had Jinnie  sterilized before the onset of her next heat and Kuki later would be subjected to the same. Bhalu would turn out to be the hot boy in town, much sought after for his good looks, jauntiness and courtly charm. These qualities were reserved exclusively for females; despite being only half his mother’s height – we guessed he was part Spitz- he asserted his superiority over every male in the neighbourhood and in Lodhi Gardens, no matter what size.

Never from then on were Anil and I without less than three dogs; at times we had more, and a lot of the time we kept both dogs and cats. No longer did either of us prefer one species over the other. But together our love for animals had intensified to the point where we couldn't imagine life without them.


Neema had been living with us for close to two years when Anil and I travelled to Bombay, by then officially Mumbai, for an exhibition of his paintings at the Jehangir Gallery. We had planned for this event with great anticipation. This was the selfsame public gallery at which I had organized Anil’s retrospective fourteen years earlier, in 1978, when he and I had first become a couple, making the exhibition and anniversary celebration of sorts. But this was not the main reason for our eager preparations: the retrospective had been a success, not just in terms of sales and critical acclaim, but also of public appreciation; Anil was now excited about showing the work he had achieved in the intervening years, work he rightly felt to be much more mature, closer to his visionary goals. From the earlier experience, he knew that the hugely popular Jehangir attended by hundreds daily from all walks of life – would be a much better testing ground for him than the galleries of New Delhi, famed for their poor attendance by the general public. Moreover, the art world of India’s financial capital was less artificial than that of its political capital : among the moneybags of Bombay one could find a number of genuine collectors, and there was more professionalism among dealers and galleries than one could hope to find in New Delhi. Or so we thought.

As far as public appreciation was concerned, the exhibition went off even better than anticipated. The earlier retrospective had been visited by crowds which, much to our delight, had included barefoot fisherfolk and and factory workers, but while most people had looked with curiosity at the paintings, many had found them grotesque and frightening or had struggled to find meaning in them. Fourteen years later, the public reaction to Anil’s work was much more apt. The exhibition comprised mainly landscapes, some of them encompassing ruins fused with faces and figures, others subtly suggesting a human presence, still others devoted entirely to nature and its moods. The public seemed to view these more intently than the earlier ones, and when people commented on them either verbally or in the visitors’ book, or when they asked questions, they were much less concerned with meanings than with how the images appeared to them and how they made them feel: this was exactly the response that Anil had hoped for as it gave him the confidence that he was on the right track.

However, with respect to the response of the Bombay art world, the exhibition was not a success. It was poorly attended by art promoters and collectors, members of the smart set, established artists and representatives of the media, and those of them that came tended to slink in and look around furtively, barely focusing on the work. In financial terms, the exhibition was close to a disaster; Anil sold only two small paintings which didn’t even cover our travel and accommodation expenses. It seemed we had both underestimated the changes brought by the growth of the Indian contemporary art market and all the murkiness and artificiality that surrounded it. Earlier there had been a want of transparency in the promotion of artists, but now it seemed that the entire art establishment had closed ranks to protect and advance its interests. At times it was hard to believe that a conspiracy was not afoot to ensure Anil was ignored.

I was particularly appalled by the conduct of the critics. Several of them did turn up but with noses held high as though they were god’s gift to art, but most failed to give Anil coverage. It was an open secret that the foremost among them were now exclusively representing the interests of powerful artists cliques; further, rumour had it that the busiest critics , with regular columns, were on the payroll of galleries and dealers and hence danced to their tune. This rumour seemed to be validated by our dealings with one particular critic, a man we had known quite well since the days of the retrospective when we had written about the exhibition for various publications. This time round , the critic had attended Anil’s opening and had guaranteed him a substantial piece in the Sunday supplement of major daily newspaper. When this failed to materialize, I attempted to ascertain the reasons, but was brushed off with some implausible excuses.  The paper in question was part of a media group which was heavily involved in art promotion and was known to have formed nexus with the art world’s commercial powers. There was no other explanation for the non-appearance of the promised piece than that it has been vetoed.  Aware that the critic didn’t   come from a comfortable background and depended on his editors for his bread and butter, we decided it was best to ignore the matter.

Whatever his motives the critic did his best to make amends by writing an article on Anil and me in Bombay’s leading evening paper. It was a full-page spread on a prominent page and because the paper was seen, if not read, by half the population of the great metropolis, it gave us publication, we were recognized on the street on several occasions either while walking or taking taxies, and gallery visitors would look at us in clear recognition. Gratifying though this was, the article achieved nothing in furthering Anil’s cause as an artist. Indeed, throughout the length and breadth of the writing, there was barely any mention of his paintings. The whole piece was about us and our life and how the critic had met us, and while he‘d written it in a style that was not exactly gossipy, he had focused on details of a personal nature: he referred, for instance, to Anil’s disheveled look and “stringy hair” and he contrasted this with what he perceived as my groomed English appearance. He also hadn't bothered to check his facts, so that he made a few wildly inaccurate claims, such as  describing me as the daughter of UN diplomat: and stating that when I and Anil had had decided to get married we defied convention and threw caution to the winds”. The article was accompanied by a picture of the two of us standing in the gallery with a barely discriminable painting in the background: Anil stood behind my left shoulder looking browned off, and I was looming large in the foreground wearing a smile that was a little too complacent, But the icing on the cake was the title of the piece; jumping from the page, bold and brief. Were three simple words: The odd couple.

Although we were initially irritated by the silliness of the writing,  neither of us took umbrage at being labelled an odd couple; we were so concentrated in trying to out our losses and head back home that we soon forgot about it. Besides, the epithet odd’ was not at all invalid with respect to either of us; I’d often heard Anil call himself a misfit and he’d noted more than once that the area in which we resembled each other the most lay in my too being a misfit. Of course, being described as an odd couple’ had other connotations, for it implied a mismatch, while it was true in a way that we were at variance, we were hardly more so than the average couple. We certainly didn't clash like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the 1968 comedy whose title and plot had inspired our critic.

There was little about Anil that resembled Oscar. His persona was neither unkempt nor messy: when I’d met him first, he had a thick mane of Afro hair and this had thinned over time, but if it looked straggly it wasn't for want of brushing it, like most Indians, he liked to be well-bathed, and his clothes were casual but never scruffy; when he was painting he donned his
oldest garments but even these were not torn and tattered. His studio, on the other hand, did look messy and cluttered but his was mainly on account of inadequate space; there was, in any case, method in his untidiness as he could lay his hand on anything he needed without having to think twice.

As to me, I was certainly not Felix whose demand for neatness was so pronounced that he would nowadays be diagnosed as an advanced case of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Anil’s clutter did irritate me hugely from time to time, but this was mainly because it restricted our social life;we had no proper space to entertain our friends other than our terrace which wasn't suitable in all weathers. By nature I was untidy, even a bit of a shirker, but over the years our space constrictions had forced me to become fairly organized;this meant my belongings appeared tidier than Anil’s, but I was always losing essential objects like keys and glasses, so that he often had the last laugh.


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