Padma Shri Anjolie Ela Menon is a solitary Indian who has achieved worldwide fame and critical acclaim. With a diverse body of work full of interesting experimentation, Anjolie Ela Menon is a torchbearer for generations to come. For Anjolie, painting is an act of self-expression, but it is rarely about her. Her art, charged with characteristic universality, makes it possible to identify with her and at the same time to convey the viewer's own expression. Anjolie Ela Menon's audacity to be a free spirit at the risk of being taken out of context is reflected in her art. As demonstrated throughout her journey, Anjolie's work has defied trends, movements, expectations and conformities.

Anjolie Ela Menon (Credit: Creative Services Support Group)

Early start

Born in 1940 to a Bengali army general and an American housewife, Anjolie Ela Menon is the child of two worlds that will eventually open up to many worlds when she discovers art. When 12-year-old Anjolie walked into the art department, filled with melodic music in a strict military school environment, she was wowed. While studying in Ooty, her art teacher Sushil Mukherjee let her pursue art without restriction in terms of medium, style, influences and technique. The young Anjolie embarked on a world art tour through the 6 precious art books in her teacher's collection, which depicted many great names such as Vincent van Gogh, Amedeo Modigliani and Amrita Sher-Gil to name a few. Seasoned with such powerful influences, her flair for art was acute at the age of 14 - when her painting was first purchased by then Indian Vice President Zakir Husain during the school exhibition.

Untitled (Portrait of Henry Daniel, Art Master, Lawrence School, Lovedale), oil on canvas, 1972 (Source: DAG/Artsy)

Radical teenagers

This early validation of her work gave Anjolie the confidence to pursue an artistic career. After a brief stint at Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Art, which she found creatively suffocating, she moved on to Delhi University to study literature. While in Delhi, Anjolie continued to paint alone and was mentored by radical figures of the time. His first exhibition at 18 was that of legendary Indian painter M.F. Husain, with 53 of his works he handpicked. He made the bamboo displays himself, which shows his deep enthusiasm for Anjolie's work. In the 1950s, Anjolie traveled to New York with Pupul Jayakar, a well-known cultural activist and writer. During the expedition, Anjolie Ela Menon was exposed to new territory as she witnessed the epicenter of international art. She visited the Museum of Modern Art, stayed in famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's famed Fallingwater House, and enjoyed jazz nights in Harlem. These socio-cultural experiences had a profound impact on his worldview and his art.

Paris in the 1960s

Shortly after her trip to New York, Anjolie Ela Menon received a scholarship from the French government to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. In France, she was exhibited to Picasso, Braque and other modernists. Rather than react, Anjolie goes back in time and becomes passionate about early Christian art. On weekends, she would hitchhike with her friends to Romanesque cathedrals laden with floor-to-ceiling Byzantine art. Pre-Renaissance influences blended beautifully with the fresco technique she had learned in Paris and which Michelangelo used in his murals. Anjolie was a young rebel who did not adapt to the modern trend of the time. Retaining pre-Renaissance influences, she continued to portray strong, figurative protagonists.

Untitled (Seated Lady), oil on cardboard (Source: Christie's)

marriage and motherhood

Back from Paris, Anjolie Ela Menon married a naval officer, Raja Menon, with whom she has two sons and four grandchildren. As her boys grew older, her scattered toys and trinkets found their way into her art. Loaded with park scenes, kites and crows on balconies, the paintings were an extension of the in-between moments she witnessed as a mother. As the world locked in around her as she navigated family life, everyday objects were translated into patterns and repeated into symbols in her art.

Boy, oil on canvas, 2020 (Source: White Hat Ranker)

Left - Landscape, oil on hardboard, 2020; Right - Divine Mothers Series - Madonna and Child, oil on hardboard, 2016 (Credit: Aicon Gallery/Artsy)

transitions and digressions

Anjolie Ela Menon wanted to get out of self-taught clichés and deliberately deviated from her typical style. What started as digressions ended as pioneers in the 1990s that defined multiple trends in Indian art. In the early 90s she found a refreshing beauty and craftsmanship in the art of the calendar - normally frowned upon as an unscholarly art. She cleverly used calendar kitsch in her contemporary paintings, suggesting that art transcends class. In 1997, when figurative art came back into fashion, she went non-figurative with an exhibition of Buddhist abstractions. At the turn of the century, Anjolie Ela Menon ventured into new territories by making glass sculptures, ceramics and recycled furniture.