Instead of putting the brakes on life, retirement accelerated Anjini Laitu’s zest for life and art. The 77-year-old artist went to art school, qualified himself as a painter and now participates in exhibitions, has gallery showings and is gearing up for World Art Dubai, where he will have his own stall. In his free time, this dog-lover stitches, cooks and plays billiards.
DESTINY DREW ME TO DUBAI
I was living in Chennai and contemplating retirement from the pulp and paper-making industry at the age of 55, wondering if I should build a house in Delhi or Chandigarh, which is my hometown. But destiny had different plans for me. I was asked by Mahdi Al Tajar, an entrepreneur and former UAE ambassador to the UK, to come down be a part of a glass factory he was setting up with my team from India. I worked in the UAE for five years before finally retiring in 2001. I was hesitant about relocating my family and life at that age but it felt like a wise investment. I was right.
Friday is special because it’s the only time of the week when my family is prepared to spend time outside or be with each other. During the week everyone is busy – my wife at the beauty salon she runs, my son and daughter-in-law are at work and my grandson is at school. I spend time at my painting table where I paint all day with my dog and cat as an audience and look forward to my family coming home in the evenings. On Fridays, we sometimes drive all the way up to Liwa, Abu Dhabi, and stay there overnight.
THEN AND NOW
I was brought up with a lot of discipline but I had time for leisure growing up – my mother would allow me to play football from 6-8pm every day. Today, my grandson leaves the house at 6.30am and he has a packed schedule until his bedtime at 9pm. He hardly has time to play and can’t think of anything except school and his studies the entire week. Life was much more relaxed in my time. There was no job tension back in those days; I see it on my son’s face daily now. In my time, once you secured a good job and you’re good at it, no one would get fired. I spent my entire life working at the same firm – that’s how it was.
FLED THE HEAT, PURSUED PAINTING
During the summer vacations, my mother, a schoolteacher, would ask me to stay home and paint instead of playing outside in the [brutal] summer of North India. She had arranged for a painting teacher who would guide me with painting and sketching. That was my first introduction to painting.
DIFFERENT TIMES, DIFFERENT LIVES
I was only seven years old when India received independence. I don’t remember much except that there was a flag-hoisting ceremony and it was a big deal. Life in the UAE is very different from what I led in India. Since I lived in small towns like Ballarpur or Yamunanagar, there were no street lights even on the roadsides in Ballarpur, which was a proper village. I’ve seen my share of hard times, but now after having lived in the UAE’s comforts I don’t think I can fit into that old life again.
MEETING MY IDOL
M.F. Hussain, one of India’s pioneer painters, is one of my greatest inspirations. As a child, I remember seeing his old Fiat car in Delhi that he had painted himself. There was a leg coming out of a door and figures all over it. He’d sit in a café in Connaught Place and have coffee and I went there and met him. I met for a second time when he was in Sharjah. He was an [eclectic] personality – he wouldn’t wear shoes, wore different types of clothes and there is an gallery in Connaught Place called Dhoomimal [India’s oldest art gallery] where he’d exhibit his paintings and I’d visit whenever I was in Delhi. I’m still a fan of his work – I have one of his paintings in my art room.
ART FOR HEART’S SAKE
I don’t create art for money. I create art because it allows me to meet people, show my work to them and be appreciated for my work. Money is secondary but I won’t say no when it comes. Thankfully, pursuing my passion after retirement means I’m in a position where I don’t need to depend on painting for an income and my passion isn’t a livelihood; it gives me a certain freedom. When I moved to Dubai, I decided to switch from figurative art to abstract because I like the music in abstract painting. Human psychology is such that if I paint something that’s familiar to you, you’ll like it because you relate it to yourself. I believe paintings should be independent; you should enjoy it like you enjoy a flower or a butterfly, simply because it exists and it is beautiful.
I go to play billiards in Karama and Bur Dubai. Sharjah City Centre had a pool place but they’ve closed it down. As a young man in India, I was very busy with my job and when I was working at Thapar Group’s pulp mill I had no time for any hobbies but the office had clubs for employees with facilities such as table tennis, billiards and a cards room. After work my evenings would be spent in the club playing billiards with my friends and it’s something I enjoy to date.
BETTER THINGS TO DO THAN TV AND TRAVEL
I’m retired, yes, but that doesn’t mean I have time to watch television. My day is packed with painting, preparing for upcoming exhibitions or I spend time in the kitchen cooking and stitching. Mutton kheema is one of my specialities and I enjoy stitching – I stitch my pyjamas, tablecloths and even curtains. I love listening to ghazals and classical music or attending tabla and sitar concerts and also find time for photography. I don’t enjoy travelling much. I’ve done it before for work, travelling to Oman and Egypt, but now I even find the three-hour plane journey from Dubai to India to be too much and I don’t enjoy the five-star culture either; I’m most comfortable in my house over any hotel.
CUT FROM PAINTED CLOTH
Before canvas painting I was into textile and fabric painting. In the late 1950s in India, acrylic colours Camlin and Fevicril suddenly became popular and their advertisements would show how you could use the paints both on canvas and on cloth. That inspired me and I started textile painting. Later, I went to Delhi and found people who could teach me how to paint using fabric dyes because I didn’t enjoy acrylic’s plastic-like finish. Textile art excited me because once it was done, someone could use your art immediately – my wife would only wear saris painted by me. She wouldn’t wear anything that wasn’t painted.
MY RUNWAY MOMENT
When I was living in Deira, I’d go door-to-door introducing myself to the local designers and small shops near my house and they’d give me orders to paint on their outfits. I became popular in that area and when one of those designers went to work with Lebanese fashion designer Walid Altallah I got an opportunity to work on some of his runway creations. I collaborated with him for two and a half years because eventually running to and fro from Sharjah to Dubai to collect the material and submit painted fabric got tiring. And there’s always the fear that if I ruin an item, the losses to Walid Altallah would be tremendous. It was a pleasure but those gowns and outfits I created was way more than my status and for a clientele that was of a different standard.
ON TIME AND IN STYLE
My father’s lifestyle influenced my sense of style and dressing. My dad had strict rules about attire and was a sharp dresser – brown shoes in the daytime and black shoes only for evenings, full sleeves only in the evenings and half-sleeved shirts in the daytime. He was disciplined about what tie went with what style of shirt and shoes and coat. Another habit I picked up from him is punctuality. People would tell the time by my arrival and departure because that’s how punctual I am. I’ve never been late anywhere.
I have spent a very good life. I have no regrets or urges to revisit a particular happier time because I’ve enjoyed all of it. Even today, I’m very happy and content. The only thing I need now is a proud career moment as an artist. I don’t think I’ve achieved that yet and I’m still waiting for it. I would like to be remembered for my good deeds.
GOING BACK TO SCHOOL
I didn’t need the help or guidance of an art instructor but I wanted that stamp on me, of being a qualified artist. Which is why decided to study and train myself at the Sharjah Art Institute after I retired. It was such a great experience. The teachers would never treat me like a student, but a colleague. They gave me a lot of esteem. I’m now associated with the Sharjah Art Foundation, the Emirates Fine Arts Society of Sharjah and I have had a few exhibitions at the Arab Cultural Club and Ministry of Culture, Sharjah, between 2015 and 2017 – they were all very well-received. I’m now looking forward to participating in World Art Dubai, where I will have my own stall.
I’ve had pets since I was a kid. My mother was very fond of rearing dogs at home as was my father. Fortunately, my wife loves dogs too, so we were able to continue our love of animals. My son recently rescued a cat that fell off a roof and became lame. I had two other dogs besides Bond, our Chinese Pekingese, a Rottweiler and a pug who sadly died one after the other in the last six months. Animals are so much better than human beings – they’re loving and they wait for you. My pug wouldn’t eat when I’d be out of the country visiting India. I really miss them.
At this age I give advice, I don’t usually receive it! But I remember what my first general manager, who was a parental figure, told me about taking financial decisions. He said, ‘put one foot ahead and see whether you’re gaining or losing a penny before jumping in with both feet and committing to it’. It has helped me always make good financial decisions in life.
I don’t care about celebrities or politicians; whoever has love for me in their hearts is welcome to come have dinner with me at home. Why pick only three?
STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM
I graduated in science in 1960 and in 1961 I got to work at Thapar Paper Mills as an apprentice; in those days there was no technical education, you learnt the trade on the job and I learnt how to be a pulp maker. I then got promoted from the technical section to the management where I eventually became the head of purchase for the company’s South Indian division including their glass factory in Pondicherry. That experience paved the way for me to come to the UAE.
WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD
We now live in such a great time full of technology! When I received my first job and had to let my mother know, it took seven days for my letter to reach her and then another seven days for me to receive her reply. Today, I can send my loved ones photographs and videos within seconds. Cars have ACs now and the internet has tremendously transformed how we communicate.