About Amit Ambalal’s Paintings – Esther David

(written for a catalogue of Amit Ambalal’s work)

Life is Leela.

Leela is Ananda.

And Anand is Art.

Where life floats in an endless story of day-to-day incidents, transferred from the ordinary to the pictorial, sometimes satirical.

Like Krishna carrying mount Goverdhan on his little finger, in the painting “You carry the burden, I will play the flute” the mountain transforms into a cosmic Frisbee, which Krishna throws at Amit, expecting him to hold it for him while he plays the flute. The sequence of narration finds continuity as mount Goverdhanshifts from artist to crow, to langur and so on, backward forward and upside down.

For us humans, with feet of clay, Hercules-like it is not possible to carry mountains just to please the blue god.

But, Amit never swims against the flow. He allows it to take it’s own course, often turning it into pleasure. The same applies to his paintings, “If and when I feel my paintings are getting too serious,

I make an U-turn and transform the heaviness into Ananda through humour. Just like a child, I try to make everything around me light and weightless,” he says, fingers moving like the Krishna in his painting, playing the flute, “because I am always in search of my lost childhood.

I found the child within me through my paintings.

You must have noticed children do exactly the same when they face a serious situation. The forms in my paintings emerge from this feeling of Ananda.

Yes, if you want, you could call them caricatures of the people I paint. Like the scheming dhoti clad god-men or the bureaucrat types, neck-less suited-booted creatures, which were always around me during my earlier avatar of a rather reluctant businessman.

I would secretly sketch them and give their characters my own interpretation.

I discovered one could express the most complex thoughts through humour.

To take life as a caricature is easier than the real thing.

I could survive those bleak days through simple pleasures like sketching situations which amused me and leaving behind those which jarred the magic of Leela.”

In his home, Krishna is everywhere, on the walls, in his heart, in the family temple, weaving the web of Raas-Lila in Amit’s life and paintings.

Why Krishna?

There are many answers. He was born after five sisters. There must have been festivity at his birth, almost like Krishna-Janmashtami.

As a child in class two he remembers he made a beautiful drawing of Radha-Krishna and soon after he was sent to another school where art was not important. He suffocated in the role of the only male heir to the family business. Training in these matters started early.

But, his father understood, secretly he would have liked to be a musician, so he allowed Amit to take lessons in art from painter Chagnalal Jadav, himself an eccentric maverick of sorts.

Guru like in appearance with long white hair, dressed in dhoti-kurta.

At war with the Bengal school style then prevalent in Ahmedabad, he painted in the impressionistic style, sometimes veering into automation. He had heralded the modern art movement in Gujarat.

A liberal teacher, he taught only techniques allowing Amit the total freedom to discover him-self.

During one such session, late in the evening, Amit was painting and the bare chested cook Raghuram stood in the doorway discussing dinner matters, when Amit made a quick sketch and Jadav remarked, ”You are an artist!”

Later he wrote to Amit, “I taught you nothing but one thing, and that was to paint. I was always vigilant and asked you not to rub the brush, but a put a patch on the canvas.

I realize you have mastered the technique and succeeded.”

In Amit’s painting one can see layer upon layer of colours, transforming, forming, revealing, reinventing an unimagined story.

He starts painting with a certain colour scheme in mind, but ends up with a totally different composition. He does not analyse as to what happens at that moment, but it definitely leads him to the colours, which satisfy him.

Jadav also had fixed ideas of good and bad and made sure that Amit’s characters were humane, if he saw anything evil in the faces he painted, he would fume and fret, saying an evil face was non-art.

In a roundabout way, Amit still adheres to this ideology.

Even if tinged with pointed sarcasm or a spicy black humour, his forms are never wicked as seen in “Aarti.”

As a young man, in his plush office, prisoner in the inner confines of a three-piece suit, the painter within was looking for a release.

The child within was also bursting to break free.

Then one day Amit saw a Vaishnav temple hanging, the Pichwai of the family deity Shrinathji at the Calico museum. As he speaks about Krishna, the pained look disappears from his face, suddenly he smiles, “When I saw this Pichwai, Krishnalooked like a seven year old. I started wondering, if Krishna could paint, how would he paint?

The answer came to me in Nathdwara. As I stood watching the paintings, I told myself, Krishna would have painted exactly like this.”

From that point there was no looking backwards. He convinced his father to sell their textile mill and started the inward journey towards his own painting and the study of Nathdwara.

Sitting against his favourite Pichwai of Krishna, he says, “This is an ethereal world, my sort of world. The cows appear to be flying. Krishna is a blue cloud. The Gopis seem to swim around him with the pink lotus buds. Clouds look like faces and the trees resemble clouds. Everything seems to be floating. Nothing seems to be rooted, yet strangely everything is rooted to me,” he says in a matter of fact way.

It is easier to understand how the book, Krishna as Shrinathji happened.

Often his love for Nathdwara becomes visible in his paintings.

The painted walls appear as a background with lions, tigers, cows, deer and the peafowl, adding that special element of humour in his rather topsy-turvy world like “Holi in Haveli.” And if for some reason he does not use these familiar forms, they creep into his paintings stealthily through the pelt of a tiger or the Nathdwara colours, ultramarine blue, crimson pink and emerald greens.

As for the cows, they are not from Vrindavan, but Ahmedabad.

How can the artist in Amit live in the city of cows and remain untouched. Amit’s cows are shot at the viewer through a double-barrelled gun named Nathdwara via Ahmedabad.

Unlike the Krishna cows, these are not washed in milk, nor decorated with marigold and palm prints, they live in slush, eating garbage and stand at the traffic lights ruling the road and doing their own thing, like their daily ablutions. With a certain element of mischief the artist makes the cow pass holy water, gleefully showing off the private parts in “Do that alone that gives you joy.”

In this play of human life and the intricacies of the cosmic Leela, the tongue suddenly appears in Amit’s paintings with an identity of it’s own. Almost becoming a connecting-point between the creatures frolicking in Amit’s circus. He seems to say, everybody likes a good lick. This tactile feeling is at it’s best in “Tiger and Tulips,” “Crossing the Vaitarani” and “Prayer heard.”

In Amit’s house, you can see Krishna toys arranged everywhere, peacocks, cows, langurs, tigers and crows.

These are allowed to romp on Amit’s canvas with subtle humour and a touch of sour sweet sarcasm, like his toothache “God of small pains” or his pet dog Dusty’s“ Underworld” stomach ailments. It was actually the medical reports of his own frozen arm, which attracted Amit to anatomical charts. What followed was a series of X-ray paintings like “Birth of a lotus,” “Jai Gange” and “Flowers in the mind.”

You can recognize an Amit painting anywhere. Through the years, his faces have become more refined yet they retain a characteristic sameness. Although his human figures have changed from atypical stylised forms with ant-hands into detailed anatomical studies as seen in “The holy dip.” He keeps going back and forth between detail and simplification, and if you ask him why his human figures look the way they do, he has a simple answer, “because I cannot draw in any other way.”

It appears that Amit likes to discuss small day-to-day events or humorous stories with intimate friends and family. As the painting progresses, everything changes from story, colour, form, technique to humour, perhaps leading towards satire, like “The fate of the mask, man and the goat.” The entire series reads like a story as the mask plays games with man and animal. Amit tries to expose the complexity and duality of urban life with humour, which is often as fatal as a mosquito bite.

Flowers are very much part of Amit’s household.

Religiously, every morning the mali collects the flowers of his choice and makes a floral installation around the antique coffee table – creating the experience of Ananda at its most colourful!

Flowers, pattern, design and layers of colours add to the strangely poetic satire in Amit’s work. Sometimes form and pattern contradict each other like his crisp appearance and his work.

Flowers play an important part in his workmanship; it could be the bright red hibiscus or the profuse use of the flute like yellow karan, which abound both in his painting and garden.

Having just returned from Italy, he shows you the work done there, gardens and interiors of the Civitella castle at Umbria, the butcher shop, the swallows, the hounds and the caricatures of the paintings of Dukes and Duchesses, haughtily looking down with a sarcastic sideways glance.

Amit smiles, “people in power always look down upon us in this manner, be it a from a gilded frame or chair.”

Amit paints in his open-air studio in the garden, a little away from the house, built with his collection of old woodcarvings. It is here that the artist escapes and follows a strict work discipline taking a short break at mid-day.

And, if once in a while he suffers the painter’s block, he could be sketching crows, langurs, a peacock flying towards the roof or reading, writing, and pasting paper clippings for reference. If not, he could be just arranging his large collection of old photographs an even larger collection of books, letters, Pichwais, miniatures, contemporary art, artefacts or he may be just having a hilarious time with family and friends.

The Ambalal house is hospitable and often has artists staying there.

If not, he is always in his studio known as The Cottage or Haveli, dressed in a spotless white kurta pyjama, sitting cross-legged on his gaadi, the canvas resting on a short-legged easel, specs resting on nose, totally engrossed in his work.

It has been a long journey to Vrindavan via Nathdwara?


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