Khanjan Dalal: Today I have a great opportunity to interview Shri Amit Ambalal. Let’s begin with asking him about his childhood and was he always so mischievous and was he always inclined towards art in his life.
Amit Ambalal: Is that the question?
K.D: Yes, my question is…let’s start from your childhood.
A.A: I think I had missed or lost my childhood in one way because I was born after five daughters of my parents. My father being an industrialist was always keen to have a son to inherit his business. So in a way I was very precious. And he was too keen to groom me for business purposes. So right from childhood ‘I should do this, I should not do this’, so many controls of this kind. So I was sort of...: my exterior was like an obedient child, from inside I used to watch various things and kind of enjoy having fun from looking at things but that was something that was going on inside me.
Then the first school where I was put was Leena Sarabhai’s Shreyas School where whenever I was doodling, Leena Behn observed that I had a good sense of painting. So when the classes were going on maybe in arithmetic, of course it was 1st, 2nd standard, she gave me a blackboard and a chalk to do whatever I like. So I kept on doing drawings, and she would give good news to my parents that today he made a very beautiful painting of Radha-Krishna, and my parents were scared, especially my father, that this person is going to be a painter. So I was to leave that school. And they had heard that Xavier’s is very good because they teach English and there is so much of discipline and this and that. In between I was studying on my own. The teacher would come and he realized that I am not very much into arithmetic or studies, so he would dance and sing poetry, and so that teacher was also removed. But I mean those things had made a sort of impression on my mind. I had a feeling that I love painting.
Then my mother, she was from Bhavnagar, and at the school to which she went, there were painters like Somalal Shah whom she was admiring. Here also she did some painting. Then in later life, Chhaganlal Jadav, a very renowned senior painter, a Gandhian came to teach her painting. I would sit beside her, and it was a kind of a license to study painting because Chhaganbhai was coming, my mother was working. And that was a great thing because Chhaganlal Jadav was the sort of a person who would really, who was a real guru, who helped me but he would allow my things to come out in my own way, not what he was doing or what he was liking. He would take me to bookshops and even buy books by maybe at that time, those great artists like Matisse, Picasso. And gradually even local artists like Piraji Sagra and Balkrishna Patel, they would come and they would talk about the great artists of the west.
Chhaganbhai would also take me to various exhibitions and he would intentionally for my benefit talk to the artists, ask them some questions. So that is how I was getting more and more involved in painting.
And in my childhood my grandfather and grandmother were living in the old part of the city because they didn’t like this side, because they were born there. So that was a great thing. In the evening my grandfather would sit with a hookah and the neighbours would come and they would chitchat and talk about mythological stories, and I liked to hear about miracles and all types of stories.
My grandmother would read Ramayana or Mahabharata. Whenever there was a painting she would call me. There were Ravi Verma paintings. There was a painting of 'Sita Bhoomi Pravesh'. And that was very exciting. I liked that whole idea of Sita entering earth, the expressions of Ram and Lav and Kush. Even today I have preserved the Ramayana. So that had also…and somehow I liked that kind of a miracle, mythology, and that eventually would in one way or the other come into my painting. Not exactly mythology, in a different way. So I kept on studying because as soon as I would finish studies I was required to join my father’s business. So I did B.A, then B. Com, then L.L.B. Everybody was feeling that he is so studious. But it was an escape. Ultimately I had to join the business.
K.D: But then you also joined the business I believe you were not really happy with what you were doing there. So I think probably sometime in 1979 or something you decided, I don’t want to do this anymore.
A.A: Absolutely. But when I was in business, when certain people were coming for various business or this and that, I used to sit and keep on doing, I was just pretending to be talking to him but I would do the doodles, his face. And then at one point I realized that all the people who come to see me have a very similar face. All are like those kind of a standard faces and that also came in my paintings. There was a series of business people. So then in 1979, I was born in 1943, so I was 36 or something at that time, so then I said to my father that this is enough, I want to do painting. I was not running the business that badly. What I was doing was a little mechanical. There was no sixth sense for it, intuition to buy, aid, to help me work. And he had also by that time realized because he was also …and it was a good time for the textiles, so within two days we were able to do the whole transaction. Immediately I sat in my studio and started working. So in 1980 I had three exhibitions, in Ahmedabad, Baroda and Calcutta. So that was something that really came up.
K.D: That must have made you really happy.
A.A: Yes. Something what I wanted to do.
K.D: Also I wanted to ask you about, because you do see a lot of images of Vidyanandji Maharaj. So could you share that phase? And you must have seen him in your childhood.
A.A: Yes that is again a very strong childhood memory. Our family was really religious. And such swamis and gurus were greatly patronized by our family, Grandfather also. So one of those gurus was Vidyanandji Maharaj and my great grandfather helped him immensely to build the temple Gita Mandir. And Vidyanandji Maharaj is sitting on a tiger skin. So when I was compelled to bow down to him on the floor, the face of the tiger was closest to me. So that was also something very strange because Vidyanandji Maharaj was more the tiger to me. Then he would also talk about miracles. He said that he was in search of Krishna and went to Himalayas to do tapasya, suddenly he felt a very smooth—like he was just crying, weeping, Krishna, Krishna, and then he felt a feel of a very silken skin and then he saw that it was Krishna. Then Krishna gave him the Gita and said that you spread the message of Gita to the whole world. And I would keep on asking Vidyanandji Maharaj, Maharajshri, 'I want to see that Gita which Krishna handed to you'. He said, 'I will show you little later'. Again I would ask him. Then he would say, ‘I will show you later’. But he never showed me that Gita because that question in the presence of all those men and women sitting around him was very embarrassing. Then he had a lion cub. So I realized that just while you enter that room, his room where he was giving a formal darshan, outside there was a painting of Bharat, Dushyant’s son asking that lion to ‘show me your teeth’. So I thought that he is trying to impress people that he is also that Bharat with a lion. And that was a very strange thing that he was trying, it was smart of him in trying to create such….
K.D: He never said that.
A.A: He never said that, but it is just implied. Outside there is Bharat with that lion and inside he is sitting with the lion on his lap. Then he would also talk about so much miracles, this and that. So when I started with painting full-time, three kinds of images kept on coming. One is children. That was trying to regain, release, revisit my childhood, the things that I couldn’t enjoy. And other thing those faceless faces of the business people. I mean these were all very compulsively coming. And the third thing was this Swamis. And I really felt so much, I enjoyed doing them because those things came by almost compulsion. I didn’t have to be very serious about creating a work of art. And another decision I took at that moment that the entire life upto that moment was business oriented, so result oriented, one has to have profits, results (in such and such time frame). So I decided at that point that I don’t want to do anything which is result oriented. And if, then you asked about the sarcasm for humour. So while working if I felt that this is coming out as a serious painting, I didn’t want to become a painter in that sense as a professional painter. And then some mischief come automatically within me. And that would change the whole.
K.D: Let us talk about Leela as what do you feel. You have also said that it is like a play. My painting is like a play. I wait for that moment when that play starts. So what is this Leela?
A.A: Let me tell you one thing. That I was also in search of a language that would suit my expressions, something that I wanted to express required a right language. At that time all the artists were searching for a language which was more rooted in our Indianness I would say. So some were taking things from tribal art like J. Swaminathan. Some were taking things from tantra and they found it parallel to the minimal art of the west. But I understood and I even tried also taking things but I felt that this is a futile exercise. One cannot consciously evolve a style, very much like a……Meanwhile I came across a bunch of Nathdwara paintings and I was quite fascinated by its simplicity of forms, very direct expression and pure bright colours. I mean that touched me. But then I would take these paintings to…because there were certain things which I couldn’t understand. Why this image of Shrinathji? Why is he wearing different kind of ornaments, different kind of clothes? Is there any reason? Why there are pichwais shown behind Shrinathji when there are so many cows and so many birds… So I would take these pichwais to the goswamis or the pontiffs of the sect and they would explain that this colour has this significance. This green, as green is the combination of blue and yellow, here blue symbolises Krishna and yellow symbolizes golden hue of Radha. So this green is a kind of meeting of Radha and Krishna. That is how that garish green appears so much lavishly in the Nathdwara paintings.
Then the thing that struck me the most was the concept of leela. They said, first of all, Krishna upto the age of seven was considered as poorna avatar or the complete incarnation of Vishnu. After that his life became purposeful in the sense he got involved in the politics of Mahabharata though Gita was accepted as a great piece of literature or whatever you call it but up till seven he was just having, it was a leela of the cosmos in the sense where it was a joyous play of the divine. And in the leela or the cosmic play or the play, happy play, not only humans, the whole entire earth is not meant for humans alone. Birds, animals, trees, rivers, mountains, clouds, everything was part of that whole leela.
And suddenly I realized that in the paintings of Nathdwara why equal stress is given to animals, birds, clouds, and lotus. And then it explains everything. When people are talking about sin and this and that and results of the sin, in the sense that this philosophy says everything is leela, it is a play, don’t try to logically find out the cause of this thing or that thing. You are part of that cosmic play. Why don’t you just accept everything that is happening and see it as a creation.
So I liked that freedom also in my painting. And so there are monkeys all the while breaking the tiles of my studio roof. There are peacocks which eat away those vegetables or whatever. And it is real fun. The crow was, how beautiful the crows, how expressive they are. When I am sitting in my studio they come in the terrace and they show their acrobatics. Their whole exhibitionist nature is revealed and I did a whole series of crows.
Then peacocks. I have made one painting where women are sort of doing worship to the God. But then a peacock is passing by giving it a kind of a message. Of course it was not intended. I wanted to do a painting of women doing prayers which I saw a photograph and I liked in a press, in the paper and I thought it is nice, that whole composition, the rhythm. But then while doing so I realized that painting doesn’t come out, it is just a…... Meanwhile I saw a peacock passing by the studio from the window. And I thought that could provide a good diagonal to the painting.
K.D: So it was like a pure compositional….
A.A: Compositional device. But when people ask me, what this is. I said, here Krishna says, 'What are you searching, where are you searching, I am here, peacock.' And I feel this is a kind of a message I receive in painting. It is never intended. But when it comes then I try to find out a meaning. So it keeps on changing stories because basically it is a device, painterly device that I am seeking and so many things come out from within or some past incidences, something which I read in the newspapers, something that I have seen in the photographs appearing in the….So I have a big collection of clippings from the press and magazines and even photographs, family photographs.
K.D: So you have collected these pictures of yogic poses which also, that also plays a very important role in a lot of your work.
A.A: Many of my friends, I say what are you doing, they say we are going for yoga. And it is very strange. I mean what yoga means to them I don’t know. But then I always enjoy seeing people. I have done one painting. One guru is instructing his pupil to perform I think hansasan, the posture of a swan and that sort of gives you a better digestion, this or that and the hansas are flying in the sky. They are laughing, what is this, is this a hansa. Somehow I have great fun. I enjoy great fun in seeing those various asanas, sinhasan and hansasan and matsyasan and I enjoy. I have done a nice painting where one person is performing shirsasan and then there are cats, even mosquitoes wondering at what he is doing. They are feeling that, for cat I mean to be a cat is fine, for mosquito it is a mosquito, nothing to worry about, but why a human has to do so many things to become human. So that is a message that I receive while doing painting. So I enjoy deciphering these messages after the painting is over. And I have been inventing stories to be an entertainer, to give a little friendly…
K.D: But that is the fun part about it that you can keep on making….
A.A: Yes, I feel that painting has to be entertaining. I don’t want to put people into a very sad state of mind.
K.D: Sure. Also let’s talk about cows. Because the cow also is one form that is like recurring in your whether you do sculpture or you do painting, it has always…so that Nathdwara school or the pichwais. So sometimes I feel that does it come from your experiences as the real cow as you see it or does it come from the painting and then you kind of combine two things and then it starts speaking to you. Also there is one painting which I wanted to ask you about from your book which has, I think there is a cow which is licking a knee of a human being, I don’t remember the title.
A.A: Okay, first I tell you about that. Once I had a problem with the knee. Whenever I went to some, somebody has died and go for a besna, condolence meeting, we were supposed to sit on the floor. So when I would try to stand up, I felt that the way I stand taking the support of the hand, I felt that I look like a cow. When you see a cow on the road trying to stand up, absolutely that portion I was feeling for my own self. That is why I made a painting of cow standing and licking my knee. You cannot exactly relate things to that but that kind of a feeling. You were asking about cows or tigers…
K.D: Yes, from the pichwais, the reference is from the pichwais.
A.A: Actually if you move around the temple town of Nathdwara, many houses and especially the temples, either two cows on either side of the entrance or tigers and the way they have made cows because they call ‘Gau mata’.
K.D: Yes, I remember because when we went together you exactly knew where what is and how and you explained so well. So why don’t you share some of those.
A.A: In many places in Nathdwara you see cows painted and real also around. But somehow I like the expression of like they say ‘Gaay mata’ mother cow and you can really feel that whole posture of the cow and eyes and the way it is reflected in the paintings. And even the tigers, the tigers are very beautifully drawn. They are not kind of like any kind of a realism in that. So for me these tigers or cows are kind of a mainly artistic devices because I have never been involved with tigers but I like the stripes, the yellow but then gradually I felt that these cows or tigers I am using to express certain human situations. Instead of humans there are cows or tigers or maybe peacocks but they are expressing certain situations, humour situations, maybe little abstract. And they allow, see if I do a human, it has to wear a certain kind of clothes. It has to sit in a particular way or stand in a particular way. We were just making fun with the artist Bhupen Khakhar. He would always tell us, 'Let us go for sketching'. I said, ;Why should you do sketching? You make stiff figures with just stiff hands and stiff legs, why do you need sketching?' So for me this provided ample freedom to twist them, to colour them in whatever way I need for artistic device for composition. So it has both the purpose. It provides solution to my aesthetic needs. Also it provides a kind of a solution to express certain human situations.
K.D: Speaking of Bhupen, you two share a great friendship and why don’t you share some of your memories with him. You used to go for sketching. Then you used to have lot of fun together.
A.A: We also quite often went to Nathdwara and actually because he also got involved in Nathdwara painting and Nathdwara, he would also buy paintings and he would notice that it has appeared in his painting also, Nathdwara experience, that photographic type of situation. He was a workaholic in a sense. Whatever he saw, he would make a drawing, sketching. And there were maybe hundreds of sketch books, unfinished sketches, just notes. So when he would sit for painting, he would open his sketchbooks and start with something, any sketch and then things would come. But he had a great sense of observation. Even suppose you have come and you talk about our common friend, then that would come in his short stories like he had a friend who was a scientist from a very noble family of Ahmedabad and whenever we meet, he would say that I am working on this research. Next time after a month he would say I am not anymore in that but I am doing this. And so Bhupen wrote a story ‘Maganbhai no Gundar’ ('The Glue of Maganbhai'), where he created a character which was very much like that person, always changing his research project and doing this and that. So his sense of humour I admired, even the way he would take things from various things like Bruegel’s work, he said that I like this person coming out from the field. So he would use this in his painting—the goldsmith. So kind of a very openness, taking things. He took so many, in his early works he took from Rousseau, a little from Clemente or various persons.
K.D: I also observe the kind of playfulness that you have in your work, he also had a lot of playfulness in his work.
A.A: And even in life also his observation, his sense of humour, it would all come. So I think painting has to come from the life. If you just do a borrowed experience, it doesn’t stay. So that is the problem today. I feel that many painters adopt things from the west and the west feels that this is 30 years' old work that we are doing.
K.D: How did you two become friends...?
A.A: That was a very strange thing that actually he had come to Ahmedabad. He knew a little. For one press I had gone to interview him, something I had to write in the Times of India about the art scene of this decade or something. That is how we came to know each other. Sagra, Piraji Sagra took me to his place. So when he would come here he would just say hello to me. Once I was going to a junk shop to buy some Nathdwara painting, he also accompanied me. And then that Nathdwara painting became a kind of a common interface connecting. Then gradually he would stay with us and we would go to him. It became very frequent.
K.D: There was one more thing which I was very curious about is that in your own words you have a sort of a very autobiographical work that you see, and you see your work now, there is a very gradual shift from those subject matters. So I think if you could share these two aspects of your work.
A.A: See possibly it was in the '80s that the Baroda people started talking about narratives, almost they established narratives. And those people were very closely connected with them. And I felt that this is the period, this is the age of narrative, I must also do. But I could not relate to odd narratives. It would become like an illustration. That really happened in my…
K.D: Yes, it had a danger of becoming that.
A.A: But during that period I did quite a few autobiographical paintings, about my childhood spent at my grandfather’s place or my visit to ‘mama’ maternal uncle’s place in Bhavnagar.
K.D: Also you visited some Collector’s office for….
A.A: Yes, because at that time land ceiling act was there and I had to visit the Collector’s office. Photographs of Rajiv Gandhi and Gandhiji on the ceiling and stacks and stacks of files and people were moving around. So those things I did and I was quite surprised that our memory can go back to what period, right. Elders say that this is exactly what grandfather’s house was like, these tiles, this chandelier and I really enjoyed it. Today also I have preserved these paintings for me. But then I realized that this narrative is not for me. But this narrative for my personal experience was fine.
K.D: And now what kicks Amit Ambalal every day? Like what makes you, obviously you have spent now 30 years and you still continue every day. What keeps you going? What is it that drives you?
A.A: I am feeling a very, very free person, I don’t want to be sort of branded as an artist, this or that. But then it is kind of my habit, or a discipline, to go into the studio at 8.30 or so, after having tea and breakfast, and stay till 1.00. And I allow things, whatever comes in my mind to do. There is no intention of creating a great work of art or anything. But then suppose I am reminded of my pet dog’s face, I would do that. No inhibitions.
K.D: That is one thing which I wanted to ask you also which I had forgotten about this. Dusky has appeared in many of your works and he almost became your playmate. You can see him around in many of the…so how does it feel to involve, I mean was it easy, was it… or it just came like everyday activity when he started getting involved in your…
A.A: First of all Dusky was my great companion. It was only with him that I could express myself. He was the only patient listener. So right from the morning he would just be around with me. Even in the morning if I sit for meditation, he would sit on the side in the studio. And after he passed away I miss him. So quite often he appears in my paintings. But then he had a very nice body geometry. His expression, it also helps me in my painting to renew that geometry. Even the way he would run after the monkeys and when the whole play would take place, still it appears in my painting, the monkey, the rhythm.
So at this moment I would like to narrate, I mean you asked me about Bhupen but then I can talk to you about Husain. I mean he knew me a little, I knew him greatly because he was a great….. So once my show was going on in Bombay, Chemould, and he visited, for the first time he saw my paintings and he greatly admired and he said, he is a great painter. So Shirin Gandhi immediately rang me up and said that Husain had come to the gallery and he really gave a great tribute to your work and this and that. Then next there was a show at Anil Relia’s gallery and at that time also Husain had come. And he advised Anil Relia that buy all the paintings, these are great works of art. Then he became quite friendly. Whenever he would come….
K.D: So before that he did not buy. He wanted Husain to say…
A.A: I don’t know whether he bought more paintings or not. But then whenever he was in the town or my show was in Delhi or Bombay he would, if he was there, he would come. So once he had come to a show and he didn’t speak anything. I said, 'Husain saab, how is it?' He said, 'You think too much. Better allow things to come.' And that was a great hint. When you consciously do….And another thing, K.G.Subramanyan whom I call Mani Saab (or Sir), everybody calls him Mani Sir. So he also is quite friendly with me or whatever. I greatly admire and respect him. So once I asked him, 'Mani saab (or Sir), when you start your work, you are in front of the canvas and take the brush, what is in your mind at that moment?' He said, 'I loosen my screw (Main screw loose kar deta hoon).' That also was a great hint to me. So allow things to come. And then only you get. Even with Bhupen we had a lot of chitchat about this, that moment of magic. Whatever you do, the work doesn’t come and then suddenly the creator wants us to really perspire a lot. And suddenly there is a moment of magic. Something comes in and then you say Ah! Painting ban gaya ('Ah! A painting is done'). So this moment of magic is something for which I strive, for which I do painting. It is the search to find your own self in something. So this is what, even today I am always looking for that moment of magic. It comes, it is fine, and otherwise you keep on destroying painting…..
K.D: I think Robert Rauschenberg also had a similar process where he also would do this kind of ….went through it and keep on doing….
A.A: Yes, something which you had not imagined, something that you had not planned, if that thing comes, and then you are surprised, how this came. So that magic, that is very important for me.
K.D: Thank you Amit Bhai.
A.A: It was my pleasure.