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Sunita’s India strokes
Sunita Kumar at home. Pictures: Rashbehari Das

At home in her signature sari, hair perfectly coiffured, pearls in place, Sunita Kumar is a picture of perfection. As usual. t2 chatted with her at her Middleton Street residence on Saturday before a preview of ‘India’, her latest exhibition of paintings.

When did you start work on this exhibition?

I started about two years ago, though I have included a couple of my previous paintings on Mother (Teresa) in this exhibition.

Any exhibition of yours is incomplete without Mother...

(Smiles) Yes, of course. When I planned this show, I thought why not touch a variety of subjects. And nothing is as diverse as India. I have tried to do as much of India I have visited and I have seen a lot of this country, thanks to my husband’s (Naresh Kumar) tennis. I have done a few monuments across Amritsar, Delhi, Calcutta…. Then there is an avenue of trees from Kashmir… there are so many Kashmirs in India! As I said, some of the paintings are related to Mother — like the Home for Dying in Kalighat.

Looking back, is there anything that you have missed and would like to include?

Oh so many, I could never cover them all in one exhibition but if I have to name one, it would be Mumbai’s Marine Drive... it’s so romantic. Also, there’s Taj Mahal but I have done a couple on Taj before.

Did you paint as a kid?

Actually I took art as a subject in Senior Cambridge in Loreto and at that time I felt that I would like to continue it, unlike, say, history!

Were you good at it?

Well, I got an A! (Laughs)

Are you mostly self-taught?

Yes, completely. I decided to enrol at Government Art College to see if I could develop as an artist but I left in three months. We were told to do a line like this, or like that. (MF) Husainsaab used to say, Sunita you have to develop on your own, you can’t be taught how to draw a line, it has to come from you! So yes, I am self-taught. I enjoyed art and I am still enjoying it very much. It has a very calming effect on me.

So what were the conversations between co-painters MF Husain and you like?

I feel honoured you are calling me his co-painter! I love it! He has always been my mentor, and he and Mother are really responsible for me blossoming in my career as an artist, though I don’t really consider it a career as such!

How did the first exhibition come around?

I got married after school and started painting as a hobby. I had collected quite a few and had my first exhibition in 1968 at Chemould.

When do you find time to paint?

When I don’t have to go out in the evening, I paint. I just put on some music and start. I like to put in a few hours, so I start in the day, carry on till the evening and continue the next day.

And what kind of music do you listen to?

Mostly old Hindi songs, romantic songs by Mohd Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar... and now there’s also Kailash Kher.

Do you paint in your pretty pastels and pearls?

(Laughs) No! None of my Hermes saris! I paint in mostly pants or salwar kameezes.

And do you wear an apron?

No. I have ruined quite a few shirts but it doesn’t matter.

Which is Mr Kumar’s favourite painting of yours?

In every lot, he approves of a few. Currently, he really likes the painting of Mother that is on our wall. Recently, one of our overseas guests asked if it was for sale! It isn’t unless there’s big money involved (laughs). In the past, I have sold a few from the walls! Money isn’t the question and it doesn’t matter if I sell two or three or 10 paintings, I get very excited when I do.

Do you think your work is different when money isn’t the only criterion?

Yes. You can be more fearless in your work if money is not the only criterion. Also, if someone tells me to paint three dogs, I can’t!

Has your style become even more fearless over the years?

I haven’t given it serious thought but yes, my new work is different from the previous.

Is it because of practice or a state of mind?

It just happens. It’s not intentional. My colours are different and my movement is also different. If I have to draw a table, it’s not going to be a regular table… it’s not planned. I think there’s been a big difference in my work over the years. Painting is an expression of your temperament. When you are young, it’s different. As you grow older, you realise things much more and in perspective. You are much more considerate, more in control...

A few of her favourite canvases

I like elephants, especially because of Ganeshji. I believe it wards off evil. I have been wearing a bangle of elephant hair for the last 40 years! I never take it off and it never breaks.
This painting, titled Indian Laburnum, is how I visualise Mother on an outing. She’s not reading a love story book — she’s praying!
Called Swings, this painting heralds the coming of saawan. It’s basically when you get on the swing and sing a happy song.

Favourite colours: Pink and blue. But pastel shades.

Colour tube that you buy most often for the canvas: White. I mix it with almost everything.

Favourite colour brand: Any good company like Winsor & Newton.

Favourite brushes: I pick mine up from G.C. Laha but they are imported.

l-time favourite artist: Pablo Picasso. I love his style. Even if he drew a car, I am sure I would love it!

Favourite contemporary artists: Lakshma Goud, Ganesh Pyne, Manjit Bawa and Jamini Roy.

How many pearl necklaces do you have? (Softly counts to six) And the seventh is on its way!