Mohinder K. Puri is a rare artist who turns Hindustani classical music and the medieval Indian dance form Kathak into textured surfaces and fluid human figures on the canvas.
“I have loved music since childhood. When I lived at Karachi in Pakistan as a child, I would stand on the balcony of my home and sing. Passers-by would look up to find a sweet boy humming. My brush with music continued even when I came to Delhi in 1960 to learn classical music from Pandit Amarnath. But I decided at the last moment to pursue art,” recalls the 72-year-old Delhi-based artist, who is exhibiting his work at the Visual Arts Gallery.
“But my creative interactions with musicians like sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, tabla exponent (late) Chaturlal and Kathak guru Birju Maharaj gave a new aesthetic dimension to my art. Every new raga and instrument that I heard imbued my art with a new movement and colours,” the artist said.
Bandishain: The Compositions, the artist’s 21st solo show, features 50 works on music, dance and the traditional art of storytelling in acrylic colours, ink and pencil. The compositions capture human figures in fluid rounded shapes.
The compact forms roll out of each other in titles like Bird Story, Horse Story, The Story Teller, The Flute Player, Devotees, Morning Melody and Geometry of Relationship, which are delicately textured with multi-coloured surfaces in which the thick acrylic colours melt and merge with the ease of water colours and gouache.
“I use acrylic like water colour to texture the surface of the paintings. I had to struggle with the medium to get a washed-out look. Acrylic is a difficult medium because it is opaque and I had to reject several drafts before getting the right texture,” Puri said.
Puri is also one of the pioneers who sculpted with ceramics and burnt clay in the mid-1960s when the medium was not yet in fashion in India.
The artist, who was born in Quetta in Pakistan in 1938, moved to Dehradun in 1953 to study art at Chitra Kutir under Shri Devi Singh and later to Triveni Kala Sangam, where he was taught by K.S. Kulkarni.
“When I joined the Triveni Kala Sangam, my teacher thought that my drawings were not good. I was inspired by K.S. Kulkarni,” Puri said.
Kulkarni was a semi-abstract artist, who de-constructed human figures. He gave Puri a copy of the Concise History of Modern Art by Herbert Reed.
“The book opened my eyes. Till then, painting to me was all about making a picture and nothing more than that. There were styles, schools, ‘isms’ and histories of art I did not know about,” Puri said.
“Picasso was my favourite artist and I was influenced by the Spanish master’s style. During that period in the 1960s-70s, critics would compare me to Picasso in every exhibition. During a visit to Paris, the man at the immigration counter looked at me and said, ‘another Picasso has come’,” Puri said.
“I felt that I was not M.K. Puri any more. I started with the Delhi Blue Art Pottery and devoted myself to ceramics and murals. In the late 70s, I returned to painting again, but discovered ink in course of my work. My art also changed — the figures became distorted with multiple heads and limbs — to portray extension of expressions, and the surfaces became transparent.”
The artist gave up ink after he discovered that the ink in one of his works “gifted to a friend in Baltimore” had faded. “I took to acrylics,” he said.
Puri, who exhibited at the Beijing Olympics Exhibition in 2008, has a busy schedule for 2010.
“I will exhibit in Louvre in France and in Sarajevo in Bosnia this year. Next month, Bandishain will open at Chandigarh and then go to Pune,” Puri said.