She invites us into her plush Dubai Marina apartment with a warm hug and a simple yet delicious lunch. The minimalistic décor is in stark contrast to the glamorous views of the Marina shoreline and her own strikingly colour canvases that dot the house but it is, in many ways, reflective of the simplicity that defines artist Sujata Bajaj. Despite a zany, creative, globe-trotting lifestyle that sees her divide time between Jaipur, Dubai, Paris and Norway, Sujata is a home-bird. In that sense, she is a true global citizen who has showcased her works around the world, has won hosannas from venerated artists like SH Raza and is married to a Norwegian, Rune xxxx, yet has retained that Indianness that forms the core of her persona.
Perhaps it’s got to do with her Gandhian roots (her parents were closely associated with the freedom movement and moved around with greats like Mahatma Gandhi and Vinobha Bhave) that shaped her childhood. Her stints in Paris and other parts of Europe honed her abilities and gave her the international edge but the vibrant colours, bold strokes and layered structures are all very Indian.
Over the years, her works have fascinated the likes of French novelist, screen writer and Academy Award honoree Jean-Claude Carriere, who has written tributes to her passion but Sujata remains remarkably rooted, carefree and real. She describes, with childlike enthusiasm, the joy of finding that her paintings adorn the walls of people here in Dubai, of strangers walking upto her recognising her through her art and of things magically falling into place before she takes her pet project across the globe.
And what is that project? A voluminous tome on Ganesha, the Indian elephant god. The book titled Ganpati, is a display of her imagery she has painted and sculpted over the years of a subject she is fascinated by. It has already had its India promotions but in Dubai it will be launched by none other than Shabana Azmi and Ambassador of India to the UAE, Navdeep Suri in the presence of Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development HE Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahyan.
So what explains this passion? We try and explore…
How did Ganapati become such a recurring theme in your work?
Basically I am an abstract artist. But for as long as I can remember I have been sketching and painting Ganpati. About 30 years ago, I remember riding the scooter with my father on the pillion, going from Gopuri to Pavnar Ashram to meet Vinobaji. The road was rather bumpy and though I was a careful driver, the scooter turned over a pothole and we fell. A spoke pierced my foot which resulted in me being confined to bed for nearly a month. It was distressing. Then I said to myself I could either choose to sit and be depressed, or make the most of my confinement.
I asked my father’s secretary to bring me some paper and I started making drawings on the reverse (he had fetched a used bundle of sheets, being Gandhian, no wastage was permitted in our home!). It was unintentional but all these drawings would turn out to be Ganapati. I must have made a few hundred drawings at the time, yet I felt I had not exhausted all possibilities.
What does the image of Ganpati mean to you?
To me, Ganapati is endless. I feel a sense of complete freedom and liberty in abstracting his image. When I paint or sculpt him, I am experiencing my own artistic freedom, and the immense joy intrinsic to that freedom. I have always been drawn to his form…such a creative figure, endless in its possibilities, encompassing both form and formless, abstract and real! For me, the process does not end with the painting. It is like a song that does not end after it has been played, it lives on with and in others.
The book is lush, visually and textually. What was the biggest challenge of working on it?
It was extremely challenging and exhausting – the book became my life and it took me more than three years to complete. It’s divided into five sections based on a certain chronology but also reflects the different mediums I worked in. My designer, Vinay Jain and I have tried to retain the most representative works. But despite drastically, and somehow painfully, leaving out a lot of good works, this book still ended up weighing 4.5 kg! I must insist that without the help and dedication of Vinay and my husband, Rune, this book wouldn’t have happened. To achieve the highest quality of printing was a challenge and Archana press, Delhi handled it fantastically well.
What was your first reaction when you saw the final result?
Strangely enough, because of some issues, I did not get to see the final result before the book was unveiled in front of me at the Jaipur literature Festival by princess Diya Kumariji. This was a very special moment as I’m born and schooled in Jaipur. Seeing the book there, for the first time, I had to shed a tear of happiness.
How difficult is it for an artist to find patrons and connoisseurs who understand their creative expressions?
It is very difficult but I have been most fortunate. I have been working with several local galleries in different countries for more than 25 years and because of that I have had a broad exposure to art lovers. Today, half of my patrons are Indians, half are non-Indians. But there are a lot of people out there who would love your work, but will never come to know about it. But that’s life, I guess. What can potentially happen does not always happen!
How do cities influence your work? When Sujata Bajaj paints in Paris is she different when she works in Jaipur?
Not really, my working style is the same everywhere, which is to sit cross-legged in front of the canvas! The creative process is, for me, akin to meditation. I start when my mind becomes calm and free from the clutter, then at some point it does not matter where I am, in Paris, Jaipur or Dubai. I’m with my work. That’ it.
When you are in Dubai, what is a typical day in your life?
I spend a fair amount of time in my studio from where I have a splendid and inspiring view of the sea and iconic landmarks like the Palm and Burj Khalifa. When I go out, it’s usually to get close to the sea or the sand dunes. This is Dubai’s gift to me. The art scene is very vibrant here.
Jean-Claude Carriere talks richly about looking at India in a different light through your works. But how have his words and perception of art, influenced you? What have you learnt from him?
Jean Claude Carriere has immense knowledge and understanding of India. He was the very first person to buy my work in Paris and has followed me attentively for almost 30 years. His writings on my work have added to my own understanding and his contribution to the Ganapati book is crucial. I could not have a better friend in France.
You have had a rich and varied experience of travelling around the world, working and meeting some great minds. How do you think it has enriched you as a person and as an artist?
I would not be the artist and the person I am today without my travels and the people I’ve met. I use my eyes a lot when I’m in a new place, knowing that whatever I see, might end up as a part of a future art work. I have met many great minds throughout my life. Born in a family of prominent Gandhians, I met many of the leading figures of India of that time. They helped in instilling in me many of the values I try to uphold today. Later I became friends with some of the most important Indian painters like S.H. Raza who was my best friend and my marriage witness.
Away from the world of art, what are your other interests?
I love to cook, travel, meet people, and see new cultures. I have a deep passion for textiles, Indian traditional textiles in particular. I always find time for my passions. At the end of the day that is what keeps me going and inspires my art.