The Master & His Landscapes: Laxman Shrestha

Features Issue 65 Jul, 2010

“In his recent suite of canvases and works on paper, Laxman Shreshtha has renounced the enchantments of color to pursue, systematically, a long-standing interest in the monochromatic that he has only occasionally articulated in the past... - Ranjit Hoskote

When we call from the lobby of the Yak & Yet Laxman Shreshtha picks up the phone and says, “Why don’t you come straight up!”  Someone had forewarned, “He is a very quiet person.” Another had added, “He doesn’t like interviews.” We were on our way up to meet for the first time, this artist who has gained international fame and whose works sell for crores of rupees. The fact that he took a room at the end of the corridor, on the fifth floor of the hotel, tells us he doesn’t want any disturbance. The door opens and there he stands, wearing a printed shirt and a black pair of trousers.  With well-groomed long black hair, the 67 year-old artist looks no more than 55. He smiles and ushers us in.

Shreshtha is soft-spoken, yet has complete authority.  When asked if he comes to Nepal often, he smiles warmly and says, “I need to come here. More than just to be with family, I need to feel the Nepali people and to live with them. I also need to feel the Himalayas. I have always painted the Himalayas and via this, I try to depict my search and my find.” He has been living in Mumbai and comes to Nepal once or sometimes, twice each year. One of the most sought after artists today, he had a very humble beginning. Laxman Shreshtha was born in a small village of Siraha, Saptari in 1939. Having lived in the Tarai, the artist was influenced by Indian elements. The Shreshtha family would speak Newari at home, but once they stepped outside they were exposed to a mixture of varied languages and cultures. He was “always into visuals” as a child. When he opened a history book, he would be more interested in the pictures than the text and would wind up drawing them. That would lead to punishment.  Initially, Laxman’s parents were “amused” by his artistic endeavors and had no inkling of how seriously their son would take up art. When one fine day the artist asked permission to study art, they were dumb founded. “Artists and painters were considered the lowest of the low then,” the artist recalls. “No father would want his son to become an artist.”

Shreshtha’s desire to become an artist led to much conflict in the family and he eventually decided to run away. Having lived most of his life in Siraha and Bihar, he had a difficult time adjusting to a new environment and when he arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) he went through a major shock. However, he went on to win a scholarship at Sir JJ School of Arts. The school demanded a lot of discipline initially, whether he liked it or not. It was only in the third year that the students got to create their own. But Laxman did very well.  He stood either first or second in class and so completed his five years with excellent marks. He was fortunate to win a scholarship to study art in Paris. He was twenty-two at the time and his early days in Paris were nothing but adventure. He joined the Ecole National Superieure des Beaux Arts, one of the most celebrated art schools in the world and later studied at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, also in Paris. He later moved to another college in Paris called the Atelier 17 of William Hayter and wound up his art studies in the Central School of Art in London.

Laxman idolized Van Gogh and tried to paint like him. “I am as intense as Van Gogh,” He opines, “And as honest and as determined.” When asked what three qualities are the most important for an artist, he replies, “Passion, honesty and determination.” These qualities, he believes, protect the artist and help him reach his goal. While in Paris, Shreshtha tried to emulate Van Gogh. He went to places where the great artist had spent time painting.  He also went to the cafes that Van Gogh frequented and  visited museums, which had the master’s works.  He knew he was lucky – he was in a place where art flourished. His education and stay in Paris changed his entire perspective of art and creativity. But he was also beginning to get restless and knew he had to find a style of his own.  “Today, I have my own style and nobody paints like me,” Laxman states with authority.

Talking about his painting style, Shreshtha says, “ I never think I am a master of what I am doing. Every time I face a new canvas, I feel like I am a beginner. I feel I am a perpetual beginner. I realize that I can’t paint, but this struggle leads to creation that is truly fresh. Later, I relize what I have done is a wonderful experience. I never create what I have known. I create to discard what I have already learnt and to move on to learn anew.”

Talking about the current big boom in the Indian art scene, the artist believes that nowhere else in the world is there so much happening as far as art is concerned, except maybe in China. “I once said in an interview about ten years ago, that today western art is perceived to be leading, but one day people will wake up to find that art was happening somewhere else all the while,” he says with a chuckle. “People quote me on that, but my prediction came true too soon.” He believes that Indian artists have been creating splendidly since the ’60s. In 1986, when Christie’s came to India, Laxman Shreshtha’s painting sold at an auction for a price two hundred times more than normal. After that, every six months, the prices started doubling. The two chief reasons for the Indian art boom, Shreshtha believes, are: The interest of the international auction houses and the love for Indian art by non-resident Indians, who are willing to acquire the works at exorbitant prices.

From 1963 until 2003, Laxman Shreshtha has held 17 solo exhibitions in India, Nepal, USA, Germany and Kenya.  From 1- 31 March, his latest works in monochrome were on display at the Pundole Art Gallery in Mumbai, of which Ranjit Hoskote writes: “In his recent suite of canvases and works on paper, Laxman Shreshtha has renounced the enchantments of color to pursue, systematically, a long-standing interest in the monochromatic that he has only occasionally articulated in the past. The monochromatic, as any viewer of sensitivity knows, is an opulent austerity: to return to the basic vocabulary of black and white is to embrace a range of tonal and textural possibilities. These polar opposites hide within themselves a wealth of illuminated darkness and eclipsed light, of dryness and smoothness, velvetiness and scratchiness. And in between them, they hold a vivid and intensely variable spectrum of greys.”

Laxman discloses that today he gets phone calls from different parts of the world demanding his art. But he paints for himself and nothing can change that. His first exhibition in Nepal was held at the Tribhuwan College in 1964, followed by another at the NAFA Gallery in 1969. His recent exhibition at the Siddhartha Art Gallery from 15- 22 March was a homecoming. The exhibit held a surprise for the artist himself as the curator, Sangeeta Thapa had taken  pains to acquire paintings he had sold in his previous exhibitions in the ’60s, which are now in private collections. His old paintings filled the upstairs room at the gallery, while the ground floor held digital images of his works in monochrome that were being displayed at the Pundole Art Gallery in Mumbai.

Laxman Shreshtha has taken the genre of landscape painting to new heights and dimensions. He has glorified the Himalayas in his own unique style. In his quest for new ideas and new dimensions, he has reached heights that only a few can dream of reaching. He is today, one of the most celebrated artists in India.