Rita: When you left Calcutta for Paris in 1956, did you really go around in a tie?
Sakti: (Laughs) Yes! Before leaving for Paris, I thought people over there would be prim and proper in suits. So I went around Paris in a tie! Then I saw many of them weren’t wearing any of that. But I didn’t have too many clothes so I made do with whatever I had.
Rita: Is it true that you played the sitar for custom officers when you sailed from Madras to Europe?
Sakti: It’s a fact! It was the first time I was going out of Calcutta, leave alone the country. When I reached the port, the gentleman from customs forced me, you see! So I said, “Why are you insisting?” If he had said it timidly, I would have said, ‘Shut up’ but he didn’t so I had to! In Paris, the sitar helped me to make some money from time to time. But I slowly gave it up. I had some problem with my fingers because of some colours and I was frightened that in case something happened to my hands, my painting would suffer. I remember Ravi Shankar had started playing then and we came to our university for a function. But more than him, people knew Uday Shankar. People would ask me, “Have you seen Uday Shankar?” and those words used to give me a very happy feeling that they knew Uday Shankar.
Rita: What if you had never left India?
Sakti: I would never have painted! Because we had a small family business. Plus, I am sure if I had stayed, I would not have gone through the struggle of getting a job here. I did not have so much patience. Neither would I have become a sitarist because the professional ones had far more talent.
Rita: India was not so much represented in your early paintings…
Sakti: In my early days, I was more concerned with Paris. India was there with me but not in my thinking. India happened when I returned with Maite after our marriage. I wanted to show her Ajanta, Ellora, Sanchi, Orissa… all those places… the paintings on the walls. After living in France for seven-eight years, I looked at these wonders from a different eye. That, I think, remained with me unconsciously, and India started coming back into my work.
Rita: How did Durga happen?
Sakti: I had a request from Rakhi Sarkar (of CIMA Gallery) who wanted a cover painting for Desh. She asked me to make a Durga. That was the first time I made one. I said, “I cannot make a Durga just like that. I can make one but you won’t spot it immediately in the painting. It will take time to get it.” Once I started Durga, it did well commercially. I don’t have to wait to sell it though I am not a Durga painter!
Rita: What about the technique so characteristic of a Sakti Burman, almost like a fresco, that people can recognise it right away?
Sakti: For that, I’ll have to go back to Italy where I was inspired by Etruscan frescoes. At that time, abstract paintings were the style of the moment. Naturally, we were all influenced. And I too was searching how I could get the ‘feeling’ of abstract paintings. In Pisa I saw a half-broken wall that gave me the idea. I thought, ‘What if I try to get that texture of the wall in my painting?’ So I started mixing water and oil together. Also in Paris, I do the dishes while my wife cooks, so when I was rinsing the plates I saw that the oil and water didn’t mix and yet it formed some kind of pattern on the plate. So I started water and oil on the canvas.
Rita: How long does it take for you to do a painting?
Sakti: It takes a long time. This is why I am not rich (laughs)!
Rita: Let me remind you of the last painting where you beat your own record and it sold for $1.1 million!
Sakti: (Laughs) To give you some assurance, that money didn’t come to my pocket! (The audience joins in with laughter and someone speaks up, ‘That is what all the artists say!’) No, no, the money went to the owner of the painter, not to me! Last year, Jehangir Art Gallery requested me, (S.H.) Raza and Anjolie Ela Menon to gather funds. So, at an auction, Anjali and my painting sold for 12 lakh each and I think Raza’s was a little bit more. For that painting I got half, which is not bad either!
Rita: Finally, what kind of commitment does an artist need to have?
Sakti: You need to work. Picasso used to work like a mad man. His house was horrible, papers lying everywhere, one could not walk through it. Of course, mine is very clean (looks at his wife and the audience laughs out loud).
In this painting, Sakti has fused Durga and Noah’s Ark just like a world of fantasy! How does it happen? “It happens. Like life is uncertain, when you start a work it is also uncertain. You have an idea and that idea leads you to other places which has nothing to do with the initial idea,” explains the artist. Look closely and you will also spot Maite sitting and taking notes in the foreground of the painting. And Sakti has been his own subject in several paintings! “I thought it adds a certain note of humour,” he says.
Initially, human figures dominated his works. Later, animals, trees, boats, clowns and children began to crowd his canvas. In After the Show, there is a monkey, a man riding a bird and a rat. “We can make our own world here (points to his head). I am lucky that I can paint so I can put that world into colour and form,” says the artist, whose work is influenced by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse and Bonnard.
How Sakti met Maite
|Sakti with daughter Maya, also an artist, and granddaughter Leela at The Conclave. (Below) Maite
Atthe Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Sakti saw two paintings that he liked. “On enquiring, I found out they were painted by someone called Maite.” On yet another day, he was looking for a canvas to paint on. One of the senior students pointed at one painted canvas and told him to paint over it as such was the style of the school. “Little knowing that it was hers, I painted over it,” says Sakti. Much later Maite went looking for that painting for a competition and identified it by finding her name behind the canvas. “She started shouting at me in French. I couldn’t speak her language so I kept silent! But I guess love needs no language!” laughs the good-humoured artist.
The two got married in 1963. “We lived together for several years before that, so we’ve been together for 55 years,” adds Maite, 80, daughter Maya, 41, also an artist, by her side. The couple also have a son Matthieu, 47. While Sakti’s family did not have any problem with the wedding, there was some opposition from her side. They were strict Catholics and her father was a fundamentalist “although he did open his bar” to Sakti! And things soon fell into place.
What is a typical day in their life in Paris? All work and some play. “We live in the same house but have separate studios so we only talk in the mornings. We work all day, from 10am to 8.30pm and we meet for lunch to exchange our views. At 8.30pm, I have a little whisky for a boost!” says Sakti. Given that it’s quite unusual to find an artistic couple, both equally gifted, they must surely help each other grow? “Yes. My first reviewer is my wife and my daughter who when she sees my work says, ‘Vous avez fait des progrès’ (you have made some progress)!
Karo Christine Kumar of t2 sat in on the chat
Pictures by Rashbehari Das