Hues of cobalt blue merge with bold strokes of amber and scarlet red to infuse infectious warmth on the canvas that Anjini Prasad Laitu is painting. With his palette knife he sweeps in a blob of forest green and then takes a dash of black to create cryptic patterns with a fork. Stepping back he gives his vivid creation one last look before signing his name with his wrinkled fingers. ‘There is no greater reward for me than signing my painting, it’s like a pat on the back, I feel a deep sense of accomplishment,’ says the 78-year-old artist.
Each wall of his spacious apartment in Sharjah is adorned with a series of several such vibrant abstract paintings that he has titled – ‘Colours’. It is clearly evident that Anjini sees the world in a riot of shades. ‘Colours mean everything to me. You will find them on my canvas, in my home, my clothes and even on my belt,’ he says and springs up from the comfy leather sofa in his living room to show off a multi-coloured belt cradling his frail waist. A playful smile spreads across his thin lips as he tells me that even his favourite dessert – the milk kheer – cannot be eaten plain white; he adds a bit of saffron for a tinge of yellow.
Looking back, Anjini recalls that his fascination with colours began in his childhood with the Indian festival of colours, Holi. Growing up in the pious city of Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna in northern India, also famous for its Holi celebrations, young Anjini waited the whole year to fill his fists with bright gulal (coloured powder). ‘I would be thrilled several days before the festival, in anticipation of smearing colours and spraying coloured water from my pichkaris (water guns), drenching my friends and family in festive joy.’
But Anjini’s childhood romance with colours took nearly 60 years to translate on to his canvas. In the late 1950s, as a young student, when he expressed a desire to study art at the prestigious Vishwa Bharati University in Santiniketan, Kolkata, his parents vetoed the idea. ‘In those days, being an artist was not considered a respectable profession. So I enrolled in a diploma in paper technology and ended up working with the Thapar Paper Mills as an apprentice,’ he says.
For the next 34 years Anjini worked for the same company in various roles and became the head of purchase for the company’s glass factory in Chennai, south India, by 1995. It was in that year that he got a chance to work in Dubai. ‘I was 55 and was almost contemplating retirement when I got an opportunity to work in an upcoming glass factory in Jebel Ali. For the next five years I established the new plant with a team. I retired in 2001 and by then had warmed up to living in the UAE. My son had also found a job here and it felt like a wise decision to continue living in the Emirates.’
Unlike his peers who might have preferred to lead a quiet retired life, Anjini felt this was the perfect time to rekindle his old passion for art. ‘The vacuum for not having pursued art remained deep in my heart. So, at the age of 60, I went back to school and enrolled myself in a course in painting at the Sharjah Art Foundation,’ he says. The three-year diploma course saw Anjini study with students less than half his age and learn from much younger teachers. Did it feel awkward to sit in a class again? ‘Not at all; in fact, I got a lot of love and respect from everyone. The teachers would insist on greeting me first,’ he says.
The course taught him painting basics along with pottery and sculpture techniques. After its completion he chose to paint on canvas, fabric and porcelain. But since 2013 he has switched completely to expressing his art only through canvas.
In his autumn years Anjini not only fulfilled his lifelong desire to paint, but also made a success of it. He has been part of several group and solo exhibitions in the UAE and in his native India. Some of the places he has exhibited his artworks have been at the Arab Cultural Club; Ministry of Culture, Sharjah; Emirates Fine Arts Society, Sharjah; India Habitat Center, Delhi; Bestech Square Mall in Mohali, Chandigarh; World Art Dubai 2018 and 2019; Art Hub, Dubai and at several local hotels including Ahmedia Heritage Guesthouse, Dubai, Flora Hotel Dubai, Radisson Blu, Deira and Fairmont Hotel, Ajman among others.
Through the multitude of shades on his canvas Anjini hopes to kindle joy and spread positivity to viewers. With his Pekingese dog James Bond at his feet the septuagenarian spends close to four hours every day painting at his home. ‘I never plan what I would paint on my canvas, my colours guide me,’ he says. Art is not a source of livelihood for Anjini; he says he paints for the sheer joy of spreading smiles. ‘By spending time with my colours and canvas I feel I have recovered the cost of my work. I believe in complete freedom when it comes to art, so I never name a painting. My only desire is that the colours of my canvas touch the heart of each and every art lover.’
His greatest art idol has been the late MF Hussain, one of India’s most prolific painters. Inspired by the black lines of Hussain’s paintings, Anjini also always completes his canvases with the colour black. A few decades ago, he met his idol in a café in Connaught Place, Delhi. ‘His painted Fiat was parked outside the café and he was painting inside. It was a fan boy moment for me. I got to spend some time in his presence, watching him create incredible art.’ He is also impressed by the work of three other Indian painters – KH Ara, B Prabha and VS Gaitonde.
Before unleashing his creativity on colourful canvases, Anjini had dabbled in textile and fabric painting. All throughout his working life he kept his passion for art alive by painting motifs inspired by nature on frocks, shirts and sarees. ‘It was a hobby that also became a small source of income for me. My textile work was much sought after and equally admired by friends and family. Even now my wife never wears a saree unless it’s painted by me,’ says Anjini. He walks to his bedroom and returns with a suitcase full of shirts and sarees hand-painted with colourful bunches of flowers, birds and butterflies.
The highlight of his tryst with textile art was his association with Lebanese Fashion designer Walid Atallah a few years ago, when he painted the fabric for his gowns and outfits. For now he has wrapped up his textile art as he feels people do not value a hand-painted fabric as a piece of art.
A gracious host, Anjini insisted on serving me piping hot aloo paranthas (potato-stuffed wheat pancakes) with tea. Seeing him tuck in a parantha with a blob of butter melting in the middle, I ask him the mantra of his health. ‘Nothing much except that I have led a contented life and not taken much stress. At my workplace I received a lot of respect from my co-workers and seniors. After retirement my family and friends have showered me with so much love. My passion for my art makes me look forward to each day,’ he says. He only walks every day for his fitness, and eats small meals. Financial security in old age is equally important, he adds.
At home, if not painting, Anjini spends time listening to ghazals, cooking his favourite dahi vadas (lentil fritters in curd sauce) and stitching curtains and cushions. A large group of local artist friends keep his social calendar ticking the whole year as he attends their exhibitions and events. On the work front Anjini is due to exhibit in Nepal and Mumbai. He has also booked a stall at World Art Dubai 2020. With over 1,000 paintings to his credit he is still awaiting a milestone career moment. ‘Most of all I want to keep painting and create history one day,’ he says.