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Lalitha Lajmi: I practise art everyday, it’s like breathing

Veteran artist Lalitha Lajmi and curator Lina Vincent discuss life in art as the virtual exhibition Confluence opens for viewing

If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, veteran printmaker and artist Lalitha Lajmi would have visited Hyderabad for an exhibition of her artworks. The exhibition, conceptualised two years ago, intended to showcase Lajmi’s work and encourage viewers to meet and greet the artist.

Confluence, an exhibition that presents glimpses into her oeuvre from the 1960s to 2021, can now be viewed virtually (tinyurl.com/confluencegzh). A collaborative effort between gallery Art & Soul, Mumbai, and Goethe-Zentrum Hyderabad, Confluence has been curated by Lina Vincent.

Vincent terms Confluence as the “tip of the iceberg” that showcases Lajmi’s work over the decades, traversing etching and printmaking, pen and ink drawings, oil colour and watercolour paintings. The exhibition features artworks from Lajmi’s well known printmaking series ‘Masks’, ‘Performer’, her impressions on feminism, and her drawings on scrolls in 2020.

“What we have shared is only a glimpse from her 300 or more artworks,” says Vincent, who has been working on the exhibition with Tarana Khubchandani, director of Art & Soul.

Speaking over a phone call from Mumbai, 88-year-old Lajmi remembers visiting Hyderabad for a workshop with graphic artists and printmakers including Laxma Goud “in the year the tsunami struck” [2004]. She is aware that Confluence is available for online viewing, but hasn’t been able to navigate it yet.

Artist of spontaneity

‘The unemployed youth’, an etching on aqua-tint zinc sheet, dated 1981, by Lalitha Lajmi | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

She talks with excitement about continuing her art practice: “It’s a part of my life; it’s like breathing.” Age has made her shift to watercolour painting from etching and printmaking, but she finds joy in painting every day and is glad that she exercises remarkable control over fine lines: “I am an artist of spontaneity. Once I begin drawing or painting, it just flows.”

The pandemic has confined Lajmi indoors: “I would visit art galleries and meet people. All that has stopped. It was depressing to be home all the time,” she rues.

However, while being homebound, Lajmi chanced upon old Japanese scrolls on which she began to draw. A series of images stemmed from her early memories and observations of life through the decades. The scrolls are a part of Confluence, but they weren’t originally intended for public viewing: “It was like my diary. But Art & Soul asked me what I have been working on, and when I sent a few images, they were keen to showcase it,” says Lajmi.

Family in film and theatre

From Lalitha Lajmi’s ‘Performer’ series, dated 1984 | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Lajmi grew up in a family of filmmakers. She watched her brother Guru Dutt and cousin Shyam Benegal passionately discuss cinema. Later, her daughter Kalpana Lajmi too pursued theatre and filmmaking. Subconsciously, noticing the writers and filmmakers hone their craft and translate stories to the screen, Lajmi began working on ‘masks’ and ‘performer’ series in her printmaking, exploring multiple facets of personalities: “My etchings were mostly in a single colour. I felt the work was rich in itself.”

Birth, life and death find a representation in her work. Vincent recognises the emotional quality in Lajmi’s work that makes it stand out. In her early years as an artist, Lajmi worked with abstract imagery before moving to figurative art: “Her figurative work is distinct and can be recognised easily,” Vincent points out.

Lajmi remembers attending evening classes at the JJ School of Art in 1973 and being drawn to etching and printmaking. She was also teaching at a school and handling household responsibilities: “I practised printmaking at night, when everyone was asleep and I had no more household duties. I barely slept for two or three hours each night.”

Practice made it perfect

From Lalitha Lajmi’s ‘Performer’ series, dated 2000 | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Printmaking, explains Lajmi, called for diligent practice and control over hand movements: “Erasing what you have drawn as an etching isn’t simple. In the initial days a zinc plate or two would have gone waste when I wasn’t happy with what I drew.” That practice helped her gain control over her hand movements and held her in good stead for decades.

Confluence opens with candid photographs of Lajmi and her personal space so as to ease the viewer into the artist’s world. Lajmi’s first lino-cut of a mask dated 1975, Shiva Parvathi pen and watercolour work from 1961, and her impressions of unemployed youth in 1981 also form a part of the exhibition. The mask and performer series apart, still life as she observed images from her home in Colaba became subjects of her artworks.

“I believe that when one grows as an artist, the flow of thoughts results in a series rather than a standalone work. The more masks or performers I worked on, there was more to do,” she says.

Vincent observes how Lajmi’s narratives changed over the decades but brim with symbolism and are open to interpretations: “She was constantly relating to her experiences in life and these reflected in her artworks.”

(Confluence is on view till September 19)

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