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Will the real Anupam Sud stand up?

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

For 63 winters now, Anupam Sud has hidden behind the printmaker's mantle, even though as a teacher she occupied centre stage for a few decades. In a home in Mandi, a suburban Delhi village that is home to the rich and famous, screened from the public by high walls that hide their farmhouses, Sud has retired to what she does best "" printmaking, and working with students of art.
None of this makes her in the least bit interesting "" there are, after all, teachers, and painters, printmakers galore. What is interesting is that Sud is rather more talked about than she is given to talking. This is, of course, surmise, like much else. If according to some she is famously reclusive, reticent, feminist, others speak of her as warm, friendly, feminine. Within these contrasts there is the real Anupam Sud "" that is presuming that you cannot be feminist and feminine, or reclusive but friendly, at the same time.
There is another yet more interesting side to Sud, and that is her work, for as a printmaker she may not get the press that painters do, but her choice of subject has long been the subject of debate (if not vicious backbiting) not only among students but also fellow artists, collectors and observers. Her oeuvre is peopled by nudes, itself an oddity for someone whose early works stretch back to the sixties, but also because it is, as art critic Roobina Karode would point out, "heavily muscled, virile men" who seem to be the subject of her (feminine? feminist?) gaze.
In all these years, I have not met Sud, though it is possible she might have happened by, for she describes herself as "very frail looking" "" though, nevertheless, "steely". This in a book, released but last week in Delhi, though some might say it is a catalogue pretending to be a book. What it certainly is, is a retrospective of four decades of work and a peep into her life, though that remains, for voyeur readers like me, somewhat limited.
What was her childhood like? What influenced her? There are little peeps, certainly, but short of evocative. Gayatri Sinha recalls Sud reminiscing about Shimla, where she lived with her grandfather after her birth in Hoshiarpur, the memory vivid about "rain soaked earth, mists and the palpable presence of light".
In a conversation later in the book with Shukla Sawant and Subba Ghosh, Sud recalls her father being "falsely implicated in the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case. He spent a year in jail surviving in the worst possible conditions." Somewhat austerely, like her work, she says, "Those were trying times."
He got a job in Delhi thereafter, and Sud's life stabilised somewhat, even though she says "we three sisters were often made aware of our 'inappropriate' gender" to the point of being "cross dressed as a boy ever so often as a child". A handsome uncle (he was part of Chetan Anand's theatre troupe) and her father's pursuit "to achieve physical perfection" such that "he took great care of his body" led her to the discovery of musculature "through tactile sensation rather than through the eye".
It also says something of her spirit that though she failed to get into the Delhi College of Art on the first attempt, she did not give up. Later, she studied printmaking at the Slade in London, but when she returned, hoping to teach at her alma mater, "the first three times I was not even shortlisted for the interview".
Rejections followed, friends advised her to establish her drawing skills before the director "but I was so miffed I added my own little twist to it". The feisty woman finally made it because ultimately "my obduracy had made some impact".
Sud's subjects, many claim, have been inspired by detective novels, something she refutes, admitting only to "reading good literature for its intellectual stimulus, for example D H Lawrence". There is certainly the observer/observed in her works in which the female subject is often vulnerable, the male assured, confident, cocky even.
"The male nude body perfected through physical exertion has been an important subject for me," she explains. Imagine her consternation though when, joining college, she found the course on "life study" not to be on various aspects of life but, confronted instead "by a full male nude figure".
These are insights in her voice. Editor Geeti Sen, and writers Gayatri Sinha and Roobina Karode contribute the bulk of their texts to an understanding of her work, both the technique (taught with enormous difficulty and material poverty), re-living Jagmohan Chopra's Group 8, explaining her rigid sparseness of "architectural forms: cubes, blocks, grids, bare modernist interiors" even as the subjects explore "partially explicit relationships".
That Sud explores intellectual dilemmas is obvious, but to devote herself to it so passionately irrespective of market forces is the more illuminating of her mental makeup. "My primary need was to remove distinctions between society," she tells Geeti Sen, "because I feel we are one race, with no distinctions in colour and caste. That is why you will see there is no colour in my etchings."
Reclusive, reticent, feminist? Warm, friendly, feminine? "I detest tags and labels of any kind," you can almost hear her snap. Her etchings are familiar even through sporadic viewings. The book has been read. It's time, I think, to meet the real Anupam Sud.
It's Pouring (Art) Books
Adaptations in 20th Century Indian Art
By Roobina Karode
Delhi Art Gallery
111 pages
An engaging look at seminal works of still-life "" "the wine bottle, the overturned glass on the table, the bowl or platter of fruits, flower vase, and the flickering candle" "" by artists K H Ara, Nandalal Bose, Amitava Das, M V Dhurandhar, H A Gade, Prokash Karmakar, Laxman Pai, Gogi Saroj Pal, F N Souza and a host of others. Eminently collectible.
The drawings of Adimoolam
By Krishen Khanna, Aditi De, Jehangir Sabavala
164 pages
Expensive books and catalogues proclaim all their protagonists great. "The ludicrous implication is that we are surrounded by greatness," writes Krishen Khanna. Deploring all talk of struggle and soul and "hardly any of the way in which a work came about... no mention of the journey of the idea to its formulation in paint", he says, "This is the background against which an old timer like Adimoolam is pitched." Readable because it is a discovery of an artist devoid of "flippant gestures", accompanied by drawings that remain "a testimony to his integrity".

First Published: Sun, December 09 2007. 00:00 IST