Samir Mondal’s most amazing contribution to Indian art of modern times is a continual revival of watercolour. Born in 1952 in India. He has endowed watercolour with the status of oils, projecting a facet of watercolour that was never visualized before. The artist keenly observed the characteristics of oil painting, noted the inherent quality, their richness and substance. In his endeavour to include these elements in watercolour, he developed textures and structural features as if they are oils. Samir Mondal has stood the test of this fantastic versatility. His watercolours have never lost their originality, their innovativeness and their classic elegance, yet they are truly modern paintings(www.samirmondal.com).
What are the main tendencies of the art of watercolor in India?
Indian art today has changed a lot, and is surprisingly not much related to the Indian culture now, but very much influenced from western art movements. Like other countries India too is obsessed with modern and quicker mediums like acrylic and freer with mixed media. In India the use of watercolour was a tradition. Be it Frescoes, scroll paintings, miniature paintings and manuscripts. Sad as to why we are losing our root, or is it a step in evolving towards the global community? Watercolour is not a very popular medium amongst the Indian artists. It is thought of a medium that students would use only for outdoor study of landscapes.
When did you realize that the classic approach is not sufficient for you?
I thought of moving away from the traditional application of watercolour after finishing art school. Government Art College, Calcutta, being a very British institute, exposed me to orthodox watercolour techniques of the British masters. The transparency and the magical three-dimensional aspects of watercolour enthralled me as I began my student life, but now with the advent of camera, which can truly capture perspective and dimensions flawlessly. Chinese watercolour with bold brush strokes, Egyptian hieroglyphics with simplified motifs, prehistoric cave paintings, frescoes from Ajanta Caves in India gave me some light. It made me think that contemporary use of watercolour was still very much unexplored, not only in India but everywhere else. I tried to experiment by incorporating bolder brush strokes, inspired by the Chinese watercolour and by placing simplified motifs like hieroglyphs, in a two dimensional plain. I tried my best to break the traditionalism by incorporating definite structure and bolder colour to my style.
What did you have as inspiring sources to find your own voice in art?
My works are a juxtaposition of objects and visuals that cannot be related with when viewed individually, but together they represent the complexity of our modern society. I am always inspired by my surroundings and the circumstances. I painted a series called ‘The shelter’ when I was going through a tough time to accumulate money for my room rent in Kolkata. In a painting from it, I chose to use a ‘turtle shell’ as a symbol to represent minimal shelter for existence in a metropolis. At the same time I was heavily involved with Dramatics and Pantomime. For sure these influenced my themes then with much figurative inputs. During the gulf war, I painted a series – ‘The War, The Butterflies’. With the satellite television coming in or rather exposure to western music videos, I started incorporating many pop, jazzy and punk themes into my works. A more contemporary series that I have done is titled ‘Let’s Rock’ which involves a lot of punk and pop motifs, strong graphic visuals, dynamic colours and definite structures. All these inspired by a complex modern social lifestyle in Mumbai. Some of the other popular series are ‘Alisha’, ‘Torso’, ‘Kitchen’, ‘Reminiscences’, ‘Performer’ and ‘Drama framed’.
Did you work in other mediums than watercolor?
No. I am determinedly dedicated to this medium. Watercolour is my tool or weapon to express.
Why did you choose watercolor as your major medium?
Not major. It’s my medium. I have never experimented with any other medium. I was born near a river, a riverbank in a rural village in West Bengal. Water was an integral part of my life, and they say if you are born near a river you should sing or paint. In early childhood in rural Bengal we played and experimented with natural colours which were readily available like ash, red clay, flower petals, leaves etc. All these materials were water-soluble. May be watercolour is something which I grew up with and comfortable with this, but also this medium is something which offers me immense satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment. Even today I feel there is much more to be explored in this medium and the possibilities of what can be achieved are limitless.
When I was in India I was amazed that all brightest colors possible were not competing with each other, whether it was textile, clothes of people or just colors in the street. I can see that effect in your painting too. Is that harmony natural in India or all credits go to the work of artists and designers?
Yes you are right. India has a variety in land patterns, climatic conditions, coloured clothing, and of course the traditional folk art. This harmony always works at the back of my head, but in modern times, in urban city life, we see colours in a newer way. Billboards sprung up all over, with so much of colour and light at night, these had to be incorporated into my works. Later when I was involved with fashion magazines my themes and works became more colourful, vibrant with urban symbols. Frankly, my colours are from the search for creating a contemporary visual language. I am a great fan of Fauvist- Henri Matisse, who proved that it doesn’t matter what colour is used where; it may be absurd yet poetic at the same time.
Do you have sort of “must” colors?
Not really, but if I scan through my past, I get that there are some phases where I was obsessed with some particular colour. Red was mostly there to get the warmth. To be precise, Alizaine Crimson was mostly used in a majority of paintings.
Which paints do you run out of first of all?
Do you consider black as a color?
Academically we were taught never to touch the black and white tubes of watercolour while practicing in this medium. The impression then was that black makes the transparent medium dirty. In my quest to diverge from the traditional school of watercolour and experimentation, I discovered that application of Black in my works gave it weight and strength. The little opacity created, helps in enhancing the transparency of its surroundings. Use of black as black enhances the contrasts or rather brings out a different dimension with other darker shades like crimson, ultramarine, viridian green etc. Black is really great if it is placed properly. One has to be very careful.
Do you have a particular type of paper that you use?
No. It depends on the effect I want. I was using Indian handmade papers, then Whatman and Saunders, now Arches cold press and rough.
Which size of painting helps you better to realize yourself?
I like large format. At least a full imperial is good enough to feel free. Bigger the area, biggest the fun.
How do you work on a painting? Is it a planned or a spontaneous process?
I always plan my theme, sure about composition but play with colour spontaneously.
Can watercolor painting be corrected?
Yes. There are many ways you can correct you painting. It is just a fear or excuse.
What are your “do” and “don`t” in watercolor?
Do whatever you like. Don’t be afraid.
What was your experience of work on Taare Zameen Par? Did you have other experience of working for big cinema production? Was it useful for your artist experience?
One must recall that in the film Taare zameen Par, art was used symbolically as an emancipator, giving a challenged child his deserved freedom. The art was the protagonist. Apart from coaching Aamir Khan, as he was acting for the role of an art teacher, I had to paint for his character and the most interesting and scary was the child’s artwork that I had to paint. The paintings were used at the climax of the film in a very meaningful manner. The film was short listed and selected for Oscar nomination that year and with it I became ‘Taare Zameen Par man’ overnight from my usual title – the watercolour man. This response is possible only with cinema. One can reach out to a bigger audience. After that I have not worked with any other production.
I am practicing sahaja yoga with all my family for over 20 years. India is famous as a country with rich spiritual traditions. As an Indian artist can you say what part do these traditions take in Art life? In your Art?
Working with watercolour almost gives like a meditative mood. Watercolour is a very powerful and interactive medium. When I work I feel at peace in a sort of meditative trance. I enjoy the melody that the medium plays out; arrays of tones, the mixing and merging; all this have a sort of magical and spiritual feel to it. Spirituality may creep into my themes in the near future.
What are the criteria to evaluate the art piece?
Consistency and the previous works of an artist and quality are important. One should check whether common idea or different thought process is the main criteria for the artist. Are the technical elements contributing to the mood, meaning, or aesthetics? The painter should have faith on his culture and sincerity to the work for sustainable period.
What make the watercolor so special for you?
Watercolour is a naughty and at the same time friendly medium. When I paint, I feel the medium is playing with me, I try to achieve something but the medium gives me something else. This unpredictability is what makes this medium so special to me.